Of the 73 editors-in-chief at award-winning college newsrooms in the Spring 2021 semester, less than 6 percent were Black, and approximately 10 percent were Latinx — significantly less than their share of the college population.
Published August 2, 2021
Creative Commons images of student newsrooms and logos. Art by Janice Kai Chen.
In 2012, Marissa Evans wanted to make history when she applied to be editor-in-chief at Marquette University’s student newspaper, the Marquette Tribune.
If she got the job, she would become the second Black person — and first Black woman — to lead the Tribune since the paper was founded in 1916. Black students comprise less than 5 percent of the student body at the private university in Milwaukee, where Black residents make up 38 percent of the city’s population.
Besides having worked two years at the Marquette Tribune, Evans had already completed four internships and was an alumna of the prestigious New York Times Student Journalism Institute. By the time she applied for the editor position at the end of her junior year, she had already been selected for an internship at the Washington Post for that upcoming summer.
Despite these credentials, Evans didn’t get the job. A journalism professor who had knowledge of the hiring discussions later told her that there were concerns of how well she “would work with other people.” Instead, the hiring committee selected a younger white man.
Evans, now a health reporter at the Los Angeles Times, did not return to the paper for her last year at Marquette.
“I didn’t feel wanted by student media,” Evans said. Left unfulfilled were her aspirations of recruiting more journalists of color and leading the paper to focus on issues important to Black communities in Wisconsin’s most populous city.
Since Evans left, none of the editors who have led the Tribune have been Black. The one, and only, Black editor of the Tribune held the job a generation ago — in 1988 — a decade before many of today’s college students were born.
Our reporting shows that many college newsrooms across the country share a similarly bleak record for Black and Latinx representation in their highest ranks.
To gain a snapshot of how well editors-in-chief at student newspapers reflect the demographics of their schools, we identified 75 newsrooms that were honored for their work in 2020 from one of two organizations: the Associated Collegiate Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. We chose news organizations that won or were finalists for ACP’s Newspaper Pacemaker award or SPJ’s regional Best All-Around Student Newspaper award.
During spring 2021, those newsrooms were led by 81 editors-in-chief, some of whom shared leadership duties as co-editors-in-chief. Of the 73 editors who responded from 66 newspapers, we found that Black and Latinx students were roughly half as likely to become editors-in-chief relative to their share in the total racial and ethnic makeup of those colleges.
Less than 6 percent of editors-in-chief were Black, even though Black students comprise nearly 10 percent of the corresponding colleges’ total population. And 11 percent of top editors were Latinx, despite Latinx students making up almost 22 percent of that total population.
The data underscores the deep-seated lack of representation in American journalism amid a national reckoning with racial issues.
College newsrooms are a pipeline to professional ones, with staff and leaders who largely do not reflect the diverse localities they cover. Student journalists — both white and nonwhite — told us that the overall lack of diversity in newsrooms resulted in failures to adequately report on underrepresented communities.
The Marquette Tribune is not alone in how rare it is for a Black student to ascend to the highest leadership position, and serves as just one example of the barriers Black and Latinx students face in college newsrooms. At the University of Alabama, the last Black editor-in-chief at the student newspaper, Victor Luckerson, held the position nearly a decade ago.
Elsewhere, Black and Latinx students are taking new leadership roles. Last year, the Daily Northwestern, one of the most prestigious student newspapers in the country, was led by its first Black woman editor-in-chief, Marissa Martinez, where she pursued ambitious efforts to diversify sourcing at the Daily Northwestern and cover issues critical to underrepresented communities.
We interviewed dozens of student journalists this summer, many of whom said that the lack of diversity in their newsrooms troubled them. Some said that low or zero pay may pose a barrier to student journalists of color.
Evans and others said that too often, student editors-in-chief — or the people who hire them — fall short on welcoming underrepresented students in historically white-dominated newsrooms. And that includes recruiting and retaining nonwhite students into leadership positions.
The highest-ranking student editor overseeing the Marquette Tribune and other student news outlets, Aimee Galaszewski, said it was unfortunate that the history of student media at Marquette University has not been more diverse.
“It is so sad,” Galaszewski said, adding she was optimistic that an incoming class of more diverse journalists could become newsroom leaders in the coming years. “All I can focus on now is the future.”
When Evans was a student journalist at the Marquette Tribune, she was one of only a handful of Black students in the newsroom, reflecting broader trends at the university. The largely white newsroom resulted in gaps in coverage, she said.
“The only time that these underrepresented populations were being spoken to is when a crisis had happened, or when they needed to find one person of color who fits this very specific story they’re trying to write,” Evans said. “To me, it was pretty rare to see a student of color on the cover.”
Evans had big aspirations for the Marquette Tribune. She planned to heavily recruit journalists of color. She had ambitious plans to expand coverage into issues impacting Milwaukee’s Black communities. Black residents comprise the city’s largest racial or ethnic group.
“There were a lot of students who were coming from outside of Milwaukee who had never had to interact with Black people, or touch on underrepresented populations,” Evans said. "A lot of students… never really confronted homelessness, hunger, all these major social justice issues that student journalists nowadays are tackling head on in their work.”
Mark Zoromski, faculty adviser for student media at Marquette since 2016, said he does not see the Tribune currently playing a direct role in covering Milwaukee communities. Instead, when the newspaper does cover city issues, he encourages students to find the Marquette angle.
“We can't beat the big professional news outlets in Milwaukee on a daily basis,” Zoromski said. Instead, he advises students to focus on stories “in our own backyard.”
Had she been selected as editor-in-chief, Evans said, one of the ways she would have tried to increase newsroom diversity is by recruiting and retaining commuter students, many of whom are students of color who couldn’t stay late at the paper because they’d miss the last bus.
Andrew Phillips, who ultimately served as editor-in-chief that year, agreed that diversity was lacking at the Marquette Tribune.
“Diversity was something that was not as much of a strength on our staff as I would have liked it to be,” Phillips said. “Both before my time as editor-in-chief, and during and after.”
Phillips, who recently founded a nonprofit online news website that looks at issues impacting working-class residents of Door County, Wis., said that during his tenure, he focused on long-form features and investigative reporting at the paper.
"I know what it would have meant for me to have seen a Black woman, somewhere among the sea of white faces."
Marissa Evans, the Los Angeles Times
During her time at Marquette, Evans founded the first on-campus chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, and hoped that as editor, she could use her professional connections to help other students at the newspaper to apply for internships. Evans was later named Student Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.
“I was really excited to bring those contacts to campus, and bring in mentors from around the country,” Evans said. “I was so excited for all of that.”
In one of Marquette’s oldest campus buildings, Johnston Hall, a wall on the third floor celebrates the Tribune’s history with a display of all but the most recent editors-in-chief. The photos were of almost all white editors, Evans recalled.
Evans said she was aware of how inspiring her selection would have been to other budding journalists who are Black.
“I know what it would have meant for me to have seen a Black woman, somewhere among the sea of white faces,” Evans said.
In becoming the first Black woman to be named editor-in-chief of the Daily Northwestern in its 140-year history, Marissa Martinez was the third consecutive top editor of color in recent years, and showed the potential for what can happen when people of color assume top roles more routinely.
Martinez’s work “was really fundamental" to establishing that the paper valued diversity and inclusion, said Isabelle Sarraf, who identifies as Middle Eastern. “She definitely made a huge impact.”
Sarraf is the fifth consecutive editor-in-chief of color at the Daily Northwestern, a streak that began in 2019.
“That’s pretty unprecedented,” said Martinez, who graduated this spring and is now a fellow at Politico. This sea change in leadership allowed for a reappraisal of what good reporting looked like in the newsroom, she said.
“Once there was a shift in leadership, it was more about the narratives we are putting out,” Martinez said. “How are we making sure marginalized communities on campus, and underrepresented communities on this campus and in the city are getting heard?”
During her time at the paper, Martinez advocated for the creation of a diversity and inclusion editor. As the first person to hold that position, she led an effort to have reporters and editors track their sources for each story, so that viewpoints that had been long underrepresented in the Daily Northwestern’s coverage would gain more attention.
"The only reason I feel like I could be on this staff was because the previous opinions editor was a Filipino woman... And I thought, ‘Well, if she can do it in this predominantly white institution, you know, I could probably do it.’"
Hannah Thacker, managing director of the GW Hatchet, 2021
The cultural shift led reporters to move past the kind of reporting where journalists would simply “get both sides,” to better, more in-depth journalism that brings attention to voices that have long been ignored, Martinez said.
Her personal grappling with her identity has also informed her leadership approach. Martinez, who is also Mexican and Korean, said she is “always operating under being Black, because I'm most visibly Black. But I also do have family and experiences and belong to different communities that include Latinx and Asian American people.”
“I really do value intersections and finding the layers and depth to things that are not always represented in mainstream narratives,” Martinez said, “where you kind of have to fight for one point of view to be included.”
Other papers across the country have also begun to hire diversity and inclusion editors, including the Marquette Tribune. That paper has hired its first diversity and inclusion editor in its history this semester, and student journalists will also begin tracking the demographics of the people they quote in stories.
Martinez said the pandemic underscored just how important it was to broaden the scope of the Daily Northwestern’s coverage. In the first few months of the pandemic last year, she wrote a story about how the pandemic hit Black and Latino communities in Evanston, Ill., disproportionately hard.
“There’s not really time or room for us to have so much discomfort about covering communities we don’t belong to or about broaching topics that we’re not familiar with — because there are people’s lives at risk,” Martinez said.
In interviews, multiple newsroom leaders pointed to the same possible root cause for lack of diversity at their papers: poor pay.
According to 2019 and 2020 College Board reports on student aid, Black recipients of bachelor’s degrees graduated with more cumulative debt than any other racial group, and median incomes for Black and Latinx families were around 60% of the median for white families. For students facing severe financial burdens, jobs like newsroom gigs with low wages — or no pay at all — are often infeasible.
“It’s difficult for students who come from lower income and/or minority communities to work unpaid, because they can’t afford to put in those hours when those hours could be going to a paid on-campus job,” said Ananya Panchal, the diversity and inclusion chair of the nonprofit arm governing the Daily Free Press, the independent student newspaper of Boston University.
In our survey, we asked the newsrooms for hourly wage information to determine whether better pay for student journalists could increase the chance of having more diverse top editors.
But since there were so few editors-in-chief of color representing the surveyed newsrooms, it is difficult to definitively conclude whether low pay poses a barrier.
We found that, in aggregate, student newsroom leaders often worked long hours for very little pay despite their positions. Nearly half of surveyed editors-in-chief reported working at least 30 hours a week. Despite the long hours, only a minority of editors-in-chief were paid above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
The Daily Californian, the independent student newspaper at UC Berkeley, is a prime example of the prohibitive financial reality of student journalism. Only editors and managers get paid, earning anywhere between $12.50 and $100 per week.
"I know people who have had to leave [the paper] because they have had to work multiple jobs,” said Sarah Harris, editor-in-chief of the Daily Californian during the spring 2021 semester.
Harris’ newsroom is not unique in not paying its reporters. At the Daily Orange, Syracuse University’s independent student newsroom, writers are not paid at all, and editors are paid poorly, said Casey Darnell, the 2020-21 editor-in-chief.
According to Darnell, lack of pay not only excludes some people from working in newsrooms, but also sets implicit filters on which students get opportunities for leadership positions, like editor-in-chief.
“The people who are able to work their way up to these higher positions are people who don't need to work those other jobs,” Darnell said. Positions like editor-in-chief are so demanding that “we know that they don't have time for anything else.”
It’s a problem of which newsroom alumni, like media consultant John Reetz, are all too aware. Reetz, president of Friends of the Daily Texan, an alumni group that financially supports University of Texas at Austin’s student paper, said his organization has tried to alleviate this dynamic by establishing several need-based scholarships for student reporters.
Each year, the alumni toast scholarship awardees at a celebratory annual dinner. But two years ago, a winning reporter couldn’t make the date.
“[She] was working her third part-time job at Whataburger in Austin and couldn’t come to the dinner,” Reetz said. “That, to me, is the perfect illustration of why we should help, when we can, financially.”
The consequences of prohibitive pay for student paper jobs reverberate far beyond the walls of the college newsroom. Joe Grimm, a former longtime recruiter at the Detroit Free Press, said college newsrooms feed into professional ones, and often reflect their same problems.
A 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the demographics of professional newsrooms were skewed heavily white and male. According to the study, newsroom employees are less diverse than all U.S. workers, overall.
“... Our staff was usually one of the few staffs of color that could afford to be in places like [national conferences]... People would stare at us."
Julia Woock, editor-in-chief of the Southwestern College Sun, 2021
Eliza Noe, the 2020-21 editor-in-chief of the Daily Mississippian, said a historical and ongoing lack of representation in the publication’s staff has harmed its relationship with communities of color. She mentioned a story idea that could have illustrated racism in the community surrounding the University of Mississippi: local businesses were either refusing to rent space to Black fraternities or were charging them more.
Noe, who is white, said the story was never published. Not only were the white businesses owners reluctant to talk — but so were Black students on campus, who felt they had been historically mistreated by the publication.
Underrepresented students may feel uncertain in pursuing leadership roles at the paper if they don’t see people who look like them in higher roles.
Hannah Thacker, who identifies as Filipino and Jewish, said she was initially unsure about joining the predominantly white staff at the GW Hatchet, the student newspaper at George Washington University. But seeing an editor who was also a Filipino woman encouraged her to apply for opinions editor during the 2019-20 school year. After serving as opinion editor for a year, Thacker is now the managing director of the Hatchet and a copy aide at The Washington Post.
“The only reason I feel like I could be on this staff was because the previous opinions editor was a Filipino woman,” Thacker said. “And I thought, ‘Well, if she can do it in this predominantly white institution, you know, I could probably do it.’”
At some college newspapers, role models for journalists of color are not as hard to come by.
Southwestern College, a two-year college in Chula Vista, Calif., is 48 percent Latinx. Students can see Mexico from their campus, and some make a daily commute from Tijuana — 11 miles away — to attend their classes.
The campus newspaper, the Southwestern College Sun, reflects these demographics and is staffed predominantly by people of color — a sharp contrast to most other newsrooms we surveyed.
“When we were able to attend national conferences like ACP, our staff was usually one of the few staffs of color that could afford to be in places like that,” said Julia Woock, the Sun’s editor-in-chief. “People would stare at us.”
The fact that the Sun’s staff has many Latinx journalists and is representative of its border community helps make it a better newspaper, Woock said.
Woock, of Indigenous Mexican heritage, said that she has written about Indigenous issues that have not been covered widely by the mainstream media, like the border wall’s construction on Indigenous burial grounds and the high rate of unsolved murders of Indigenous women.
Diversity in the news media starts with student newsrooms, where college journalists can learn about both the industry and other cultures alongside students of different backgrounds, Woock said.
“Everyone in the news media is working towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. We still have a long road ahead of us,” Woock said. “But I think it really starts in our student newsrooms because we're training the next generation of journalists.”
In one predominantly white community, students at Humboldt State University in California advocated for creating their own bilingual English and Spanish newspaper to serve a growing Latinx community. El Leñador launched in 2013.
El Leñador is separate from the Lumberjack, the 92-year-old weekly student newspaper at Humboldt State University. Sergio Berrueta, one of three co-editors-in-chief at El Leñador during the spring 2021 semester, said that the publication was started not only as a resource for bilingual students and faculty, but for Humboldt County.
"I don't want to say [El Leñador] gives a voice to the voiceless, because we have a voice. We just haven't gotten the right stage for it,” Berrueta said. “I think El Leñador emphasizes that — by focusing on the stories that are relevant, that matter, that wouldn't be covered otherwise.”
Some student newsrooms are changing hiring practices, fundraising, or even setting aside funds for reimbursing meals or transportation as ways to promote diversity among their ranks.
"I know people who have had to leave [the paper] because they have had to work multiple jobs."
Sarah Harris, editor-in-chief of the Daily Californian, spring 2021
Emily Steinberger, the current editor-in-chief at Syracuse’s Daily Orange, said the publication is trying to expand staff diversity beyond predominantly hiring student journalists from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The paper, which does not receive any funding from Syracuse University, also brought on a fundraising coordinator dedicated to finding financial support for the paper, and increased wages to encourage more socioeconomic diversity on staff.
“Students should not have to worry about creating news 24/7 and making money, and finding ways to make the newsroom money,” Steinberger said.
At the University of Alabama, the Crimson White’s former editors-in-chief Victor Luckerson and Rebecca Griesbach created an independent nonprofit to increase diversity in student journalism after George Floyd was murdered last year. Luckerson, who graduated in 2012, said he was the second — and most recent — Black person in the 127-year-old newspaper’s history to be editor-in-chief. The nonprofit donated $1,440 last year to help the Crimson White launch a team focused on covering race and identity, with two paid reporters.
While formal initiatives to increase diversity can help, it’s also essential that leaders and those making hiring decisions interact with people outside their racial and ethnic groups.
It’s important for student newsroom leaders “to really sit back and think—who are your friends on campus? Bluntly, do you talk to Black people? Are you friends with Black people? Friends with Hispanic people, friends with Asian people?” said Evans, who didn’t get the Marquette Tribune post.
Similarly, recruiting and retaining new journalists, and choosing whom to promote, shouldn’t just be about looking at a resume, said Martinez, the first Black woman editor at the Daily Northwestern. “It’s about their passion, it’s about their ability to teach other people. It’s about the perspectives that they bring to the table or the people that they surround themselves with.”
As Black woman journalists, both Evans and Martinez said they faced deep skepticism from some people about their future potential as leaders, even as they received warm support elsewhere.
“I am sure some people thought I was a harsh Black woman,” Evans said. ”You know? It's inevitable.”
“I've definitely had people behind my back, say ‘oh, she's not qualified,’ or ‘she doesn’t deserve certain things she’s gotten,’” Martinez said.
Evans said that even now, she reflects often on the opportunities she could have had to recruit that next generation. Perhaps more students of color would have seen that journalism could serve their communities, Evans said.
“How many Black and brown students would have maybe joined the paper, had they seen that I was running it?” Evans said. “How many would have perked up to the idea, warmed up to the idea, thought a little bit harder about it?”
To understand the state of student newsroom leadership diversity and which racial groups are over- or under-represented as student newsroom leaders, we built a demographic database of college newsrooms’ editors-in-chief (EICs). We surveyed the spring 2021 EICs of 75 student newsrooms across North America for key demographic information, including: racial and/or ethnic backgrounds, estimates of the number of hours worked per week, and estimated hourly wage. These newspapers were chosen because they were recognized in 2020 by the Associated Collegiate Press’s Newspaper Pacemaker Awards and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Regional Mark of Excellence Awards for Best All-Around Student Newspapers as winners and finalists.
Seventy-three EICs representing 66 of the surveyed newsrooms responded to AAJA Voices’ survey. We aggregated racial demographic data of their schools’ undergraduate student population from the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) most recent survey of American colleges. Where 2020 data was not available, 2019 data was used. Residents who are not U.S. citizens nor U.S. nationals and students of unknown racial background were excluded from aggregation. Only the schools of the 66 newsrooms that responded to our survey were included in the aggregated data.
We standardized reported hourly compensation from survey responses by assuming a 30-week academic year, 15-week academic semester, and a 4-week month. When working hours and wages were reported in ranges by the EICs, we took the averages of the ranges.
To compare racial group representation against school demographics, we cleaned the racial identities of the surveyed EICs to conform to the NCES’ seven racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Two or more races, and White. EICs who identified as having multiple racial identities were classified as two or more races. In our survey, we offered Hispanic/Latinx as a racial/ethnic category, and mapped it to the NCES category “Hispanic.”
We note that predefined racial categories can be inadequate, and/or may not capture an individual’s full identity. Multiple surveyed EICs reported having families and experiences that belong to different communities. Our method of combining the different and varied racial identities of mixed-race EICs into the two or more races umbrella category — while necessary for statistical comparison — is an erasure of racial nuance.
Our primary finding — that Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in student leadership — remained robust even when applying different methods of classifying mixed-race survey respondents. A classification method that accounts for all racial identities claimed by an individual would be ideal. However, because this story’s findings are best contextualized within NCES data, we reported the analysis results based on aggregating multiracial identities into the single two or more races category.
We acknowledge that relying on a catch-all racial category may perpetuate a simplistic racial narrative. As such, and out of respect for the intersectional identities of survey respondents, the data table below discloses all reported racial identities.
We published the calculations and data for this analysis on Github.
Janice Kai Chen, Ilena Peng, Jasen Lo, Trisha Ahmed, Simon J. Levien and Devan Karp are 2021 Voices students. Irena Hwang, Romy Varghese and Rong-Gong Lin II edited the investigative team.
Janice Kai Chen will begin pursuing a master’s degree in geography at the University of Oregon this fall and recently graduated from Dartmouth College, where she developed cartographic multimedia projects.
Ilena Peng is pursuing a master’s in data journalism at Columbia Journalism School. She is a research assistant for the University of San Francisco’s Visualization and Graphics Lab and a recent graduate of the George Washington University, where she worked at the GW Hatchet student newspaper.
Jasen Lo is an incoming data journalism intern at the Associated Press Chicago bureau. He recently graduated from Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, where he wrote data-driven stories for the student-produced news website for his college, the Minerva Quest.
Trisha Ahmed is pursuing a master’s in journalism at the University of Maryland and works as an investigative reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.
Simon J. Levien is pursuing a bachelor’s in history at Harvard University. He writes for the Harvard Crimson, where he serves as his news board’s diversity & inclusivity liaison.
Devan Karp is pursuing a bachelor’s in communications at Trinity University, where he is the lead news anchor and news executive producer for the campus television station Tiger TV.
Irena Hwang is a data reporter at ProPublica. Romy Varghese is a reporter at Bloomberg News. Rong-Gong Lin II is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and previously served as editor in chief of the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley.
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