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Working on the Race Beat

The future of racial coverage at The New York Times and elsewhere

In November 2013, Tanzina Vega, a young reporter for The New York Times, pitched Jill Abramson, the paper’s then-executive editor, the idea of devoting a reporting beat on the national desk to coverage of race and ethnicity. Abramson liked the idea, and Vega became the beat’s sole reporter, publishing over the course of the next year an array of stories that directly engaged with the interests of people of color.

Vega’s stories demonstrated her ability and interest as well as the broad opportunity that race reporting provides. She published a widely discussed article on “microaggressions,” in which she assessed the “subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.” She hosted the Times“Off Color” video series on racial humor, investigated the inequities in school discipline outcomes for African American girls, and documented the crossover appeal of a black doll from Disney’s “Doc McStuffins” cartoon. She looked into issues confronted by the growing population of Latino farmers in the United States and the problems the Census Bureau has had accurately counting an increasingly nonwhite population. Vega also investigated the subculture of black gun enthusiasts at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention. Last August, she was in Ferguson, Missouri, to cover the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown. Her stories, giving historical context to the protest movement and chronicling the shortcomings of local white leadership, set a new standard for nuance and complexity in American race reporting.

Then, on January 26, the Times abruptly discontinued Vega’s beat and reassigned her to the metropolitan section. Her new beat has her covering a criminal courthouse in the Bronx.

An internal Times staff memo, acquired by several media organizations, offered a sunny justification for shuttering the paper’s sole race-focused reporting operation. “Tanzina Vega showed how varied and powerful a national beat focusing on race could be. ... But as we’ve told many a Foreign correspondent, you don’t need to travel abroad to find adventure: The Metro desk can accommodate you right here in New York.” Vega, who has not spoken publicly on the matter, declined comment for this article.

I learned about the Times’ decision when I noticed several fellow journalists of color discussing it on Twitter. NPR blogger and former Times reporter Gene Demby began the conversation: “So the @nytimes has scuttled its race beat, helmed by @tanzinavega. Okay, gang.” Justin Ellis, a reporter with the Nieman Journalism Lab, replied, with more than a little sarcasm, “Listen, man, 2014 showed race is clearly not an important issue in America any more.” Associated Press video producer Claritza Jimenez wrote directly to Vega: “I’m hoping you still find a way to incorporate race/ethnicity reporting.” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wondered how many national-level race and ethnicity reporters were left at traditional media outlets.

Through a spokesperson, Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor (and the first African American to hold the post), issued a statement downplaying the significance of Vega’s reassignment: “Suffice it to say we believe race is a big story and we will cover it aggressively.” He declined to discuss the reasons for the decision. Margaret Sullivan, the Times public editor, acknowledged in a column that the move was “not well received by some readers” and that it seemed “counterintuitive to increase and improve race coverage by discontinuing the race-and-ethnicity beat.” When I spoke to Alison Mitchell, the Times’ national editor, she echoed Baquet. “I think after Ferguson, it became pretty clear that everyone has to be writing about race,” she said. I asked her how she would respond to skeptics who question the paper’s commitment to keeping reporters conscious of writing about race without coverage dedicated to it. “I think people will have to wait and see and judge us on what we do,” she replied.

Race beats began appearing in American newspapers in the 1950s as a necessity born of racial ignorance. White editors in white newsrooms felt they needed black reporters to tell black stories, particularly ones related to the civil rights movement. A July article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) explained that race beats became more common in the late ’60s and early ’70s, although generally they weren’t called that. Papers tended to refer to them euphemistically as “urban affairs” or “metropolitan” coverage.

In 1969, New York’s Newsday assigned Les Payne, a black reporter who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, to be its “minority affairs specialist.” Payne told CJR that along with reporting “black stories,” his job was to “flag other stories for reporters on other beats—sports, for example. At the time there were so few reporters that we needed a dedicated beat, otherwise stories wouldn’t be written about. We needed a stop-gap measure to ensure black news would flow into the normal flow of news.” Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Chuck Stone, John Blake, Earl Caldwell, and other notable black journalists worked race beats during this period.

As the number of black journalists in newsrooms inched up in the 1990s, the number of formal race beats declined. Racial coverage began to migrate to media organizations and websites that covered it full time. Colorlines, a racial justice magazine, launched in 1998. Racialicious, a blog that examines the intersection of race and pop culture, started in 2006. The next year, PostBourgie began publishing, and served as a launching pad for celebrated black journalists, like Jamelle Bouie of Slate and Shani O. Hilton, executive editor of BuzzFeed News. In 2008, comedian Elon James White debuted This Week in Blackness, which features podcasts, video series, and a news blog. These sites don’t bring in corporate dollars like Vox or FiveThirtyEight, but they have survived and even thrived by concentrating their coverage on issues affecting people of color, and by providing opportunities for writers to write on these subjects with a frankness rarely seen in mainstream publications.

A couple of years ago, Portland’s Oregonian newspaper assigned a white reporter named Casey Parks to cover the race beat. I asked Parks how much criticism she receives for her skin color in this particular job. “I think I gave myself way more crap than anyone else has,” she said. She also points out that Portland, which according to Census figures is just 6.3 percent black, is “a different kind of beat than The New York Times. My job is figuring out how you get a bunch of middle-class white people to read these stories when they may not know what white privilege is.” Parks considers herself a “translator,” someone trying to “figure out how to move white people a little bit.”

“More black and brown voices are participating in important conversations in a very public way,” said Akoto Ofori-Atta, a journalist doing a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. “I think it’s very slowly starting to influence editorial strategy at some publications.”

For some, the best strategy is to end race beats altogether. Last summer, Cord Jefferson published “The Racism Beat,” for Matter, which described his exhaustion as a black journalist writing stories of black politics and struggle in America. Publications, he said, shouldn’t “assign [minorities] to specific stories that go along with their minority group. Give them jobs in your company.”

As African Americans, and as a country, we can’t wait for diversity to permeate media via hiring. Collectively, we have not yet reached the point where we can “wait and see” how race coverage plays out without a race beat. And efforts to diversify newsrooms require time to yield inclusive journalism about race.

The race beat does not ghettoize race coverage. It embeds it in the body of the publication and makes it an essential part of its mission. Those who report on race can also instruct their colleagues on how to integrate a nuanced and educated understanding of race into every narrative. Someday, perhaps, racial coverage in this country will reach a point where it is autonomously intersectional, and these kinds of checks and balances can fade away. But we aren’t there yet.