We speak with Richard "Dick" Prince about his origins as a reporter, going up against the Washington Post in the 1970s, and why newsrooms need to become more diverse. Prince’s column is at journal-isms.com. He also writes for theroot.com.
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Gabriel Greschler: So were you interested in journalism early on? Was it something that you were like, "I really love this." Or did it take time to develop?
Richard Prince: Yes, even as a little kid I had a mock up newspaper that I used to call the Belltown News because there was a toy bus called Belltown. I think Belltown was the destination. So I called it the Belltown News and then I remember when I was about in 8th grade the teacher let me put little news notes on the board. So I guess I was sort of hooked early without even realizing it.
GG: What was your first experience writing a story? Did you join your high school newspaper? Did you join your college newspaper?
RP: Yes, I was on the high school newspaper and I was on the college newspaper. And then I went out into the quote unquote real world where it was right after the riots of the 60s. I was at The Star-Ledger in Newark. And Newark had a riot in 1967 which was one of the earlier ones. I was working at The Star-Ledger on the weekends and over the summer. And sure enough I got sent out there to go to the hospital. And as we were bringing in people, it was a little frightening driving down the streets when you didn't know what was going to happen. There was throwing [of] bombs or Molotov cocktails down at the cars. It was dangerous to have the word "press" or the newspaper's name or the television station's name on the side of the car. So [The Star-Ledger] didn't do that. And the mainstream media were not very well liked or respected in the black community at that time. And there were a lot of similarities [to] now. Because you hear some of the same sort of comments. So that was how it started.
GG: At what point did you go to the Washington Post and the Metro Seven? It was originally nine, correct? Tell me about the evolution of that story.
RP: I joined the Washington Post in 1968, which was the same year I graduated. It was right after they had a riot here in Washington D.C. which was after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The Washington Post was more of the more progressive newspapers in terms of hiring people of color at that time. But by 1972, they had a critical mass of black reporters, who said, "Well, you know, they're not doing enough. And we're not getting the assignments we should be getting and not enough people are being hired [at] the key positions." And one person would say this and "I noticed that, too. And I noticed that, too." And so a group of us, I think nine of us, who are on the Metro staff, got together and we asked the management a group of questions. "Why is this the case?" And that began a back and forth between us. Now, the difference between just a bunch of reporters griping or whatever and this was that we had a lawyer. And the lawyer was Clifford Alexander who had been Secretary of the Army and also [the] Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So he knew about affirmative action and setting goals and timetables and all that.
RP: I think the [Washington Post] management wanted us to just vent. Now, we weren't there just to vent. We were there for specific reasons. And that was to get answers to these questions and to get some commitments that there would be some changes made. That went on for about a month or so until we didn't get any commitment for goals and timetables. And so we said, "Alright well, we'll just leave it at that." And then we filed our complaint with the EEOC. And they found that we had grounds to proceed. But we would have had to [go] to court and that would have been more expensive than we could afford at the time. So we just left there. Meanwhile, management did make some changes and they made some hires. People who had been on a waiting list all of a sudden were hired, for example. And it prompted other people at other newspapers and other media organizations, not just newspapers, to go ahead and challenge their own managements. You found actions taking place at The New York Times, the Associated Press.
GG: Sort of a domino effect?
RP: Yeah, people saw that. And it wasn't just the people of color, because we have to include some Hispanics in this too. But then women noticed, and then they started getting together. And they got together at the Washington Post and Newsweek. And that movement actually is still [on]going, as is ours. But particularly with women with the whole MeToo movement, that's going on in media. So, it had that effect of inspiring other people as well as creating some changes at the Washington Post.
GG: Something I was thinking about when I heard this story was that usually with student censorship it's students going up against their administration. But in your case, you were going up against your own workplace. And I'm wondering what it felt like to be critiquing the hiring practice of your own newsroom? And you're working there at the same time.
RP: Well, that still goes on. People are still doing that. It was a matter of convictions. And I think that the Washington Post being a quote unquote "liberal newspaper" subscribed to our convictions. They just thought that we were too demanding. And they agreed that there should be equity and all that. And there was a feeling on our part—you know, we're all young and single—that we could lose our jobs. But because we didn't have family obligations and all that to tie us down, we [had] a little more freedom to pursue what we thought needed to be done.
GG: The American Society of News Editors created a series of benchmarks in 1978 saying by 2000, they wanted newsrooms to accurately reflect the population of people of color. This didn't happen, and the number stands at 16 percent today. So why have we not made more progress?
RP: There have been a number of reasons. Number one, I don't think that the will has been there to do that. And then number two, there have been some interruptions. For example, when the Internet came into being, it sort of monopolized everybody's attention because it took away the advertising revenue. And they had to worry about the bottom line much more than they did previously.
GG: Ok so [news organizations] didn't prioritize it?
RP: They didn't prioritize it. But realizing that if you're going to think about the future, you have to think about who's going to be in your audience. And at the same time that was going [on], the demographics of the country were changing. So if they wanted to reach their new audiences, they really did need to have some more diversity there. But [news organizations] weren't thinking that way. But I think it's really a lack of will. I use, as an example, the Gannett Company, which owns USA Today and 91 other newspapers around the country, [as] a leader [in the 1980s] in diversity. Knight Ridder was also, which went out of business. They owned the Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Detroit Free Press and some others. The Gannett Company was led by a guy named Allen Neuharth, who was kind of an extravagant guy. But he believed strongly in diversity because he was raised by his mom and watched her be discriminated against as a woman and vowed that [it] shouldn't happen to other people. So at the Gannett Company there was a full-throated effort on diversity. And one of the components of that was when you had your evaluation, if you [were] a manager, your progress on diversity was part of it. So it was tied to your salary. So, that's a powerful incentive. Whereas other [news organizations] didn't do that.
RP: But Gannett was very serious about that. And when USA Today was founded—I wrote about this on their anniversary—the editor who just died, John Quinn, explained that they had a higher percentage of journalists of color at USA Today than any other newspaper. And also than the percentage in the general population. Which is a stark contrast to what the industry was doing. And they laid down some guidelines such as when USA Today was founded. The front page, above the fold, had to have a photograph of a person of color or a woman every day. And some people said, "Wow, is that political correctness? Blah blah blah." There was some grumbling about in places. [But USA Today] said, hey, this is the way it's going to be.
GG: I. A writer named Ed Yong wrote in February, this month, about trying to include more women in his writing. And he looked back and saw that [in] less than 20 percent of his writing he source[ed] women. He talks about people that criticize him for trying to include more women. And he says quote, "Skeptics might argue that I needn't bother as my work was just reflecting the present state of science. But I don't buy that journalism should act simply as society's mirror. Yes, it tells us about the world as it is but it also pushes us toward a world that could be." End quote. What role should journalism have when it comes to discussing a world that should be? And how should this mentality be applied to seeking more people of color when it comes to article sourcing?
RP: There are editorial pages and there are news pages in newspapers. They have that distinction. Editorial pages are also where probably more of a clear field to portray the world and advocate for the world as they think it should be [is]. And I like to follow what the editorial pages are saying about some of these issues. The bold ones get recognized, right? For example, the ones in the South who were for integration, while segregation was going on. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, for example, was known as being bold and courageous and fighting for that. Today, the editorial pages are advocating for some of the right things, but they also are closer to [having] their ear to the ground [in] that they won't go that much farther than the rest of the readers are. But some of them are doing some interesting things. For example, one of the issues that I was following was all the Confederate monuments around the South and the efforts to take them down. And The Dallas Morning News suggested that they wanted their readers to contribute examples of local people who are not recognized. Women and people of color who should have statues and have contributed to the Dallas area. So that was something that was different. In Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy, they have these huge statues on Monument Avenue of all these Confederate generals. It's a tourist attraction. When Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker died—he was an aide to Martin Luther King— the [Richmond] Times Dispatch suggested that a statue of him be placed on that Avenue. I don't know whether the idea would go anywhere, but it would certainly break up that whole homage to the Confederacy on that street.
GG: Going to right now. Obviously in Parkland, Florida [a] really sad, terrible incident that happened there. But at the same time, there are some students who actually are journalists as well. Some of them are fighting back against the NRA, against certain politicians within the state. Taking the lessons that you learned being one of the members of the Metro Seven, what advice would you give these kids? I know it's two different situations, but you both were trying, are trying still, to solve a really difficult issue. What sort of advice would you give to these students considering also that they are journalists and they could use that power?
RP: Be good journalists. And that is, marshal all the facts that people need to know. Of course, people will make their own decisions. But they need facts to help them make it. And that's your job. Your job really isn't to be advocating for this, that, or the other but to report on what's going on and to provide people with the information they need so that they can make the decision that's right for them. So try to be the best journalist you can be. That's my advice.
GG: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Student Press Law Center's podcast. Also thank you to Richard "Dick" Prince for the interview. Be sure to visit Richard's website journal-isms.com and theroot.com to view more of his writing. News clips by ABC News, C-SPAN, CBSN, and the National Press Foundation. Music by Freesounds.org. We'll see you next time!