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Lack of diversity in journalism field steers career for sports editor

By Eric Bertrand
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Larry Graham

Larry Graham is the executive sports editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In an interview for a sports reporting job, Larry Graham was asked many questions. But most were geared toward, ‘could Graham relate to the town’s white coaches?’

“I didn’t get that job,”  Graham said in a phone interview. “In retrospect, I’m probably glad I didn’t get that job.”

Graham had the uncomfortable interview years ago. Now as the executive sports editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, he is one of the few African-American sports editors in the country.

Graham, who earned a bachelor’s degree in classical violin from Loyola University in New Orleans, didn’t plan on being a sports editor or even having a career in journalism.

His college roommate was the sports editor of The Maroon, Loyola’s student newspaper.

“He needed help one day,” Graham said. “He needed help really bad. I got tired of him pacing in front of the TV so I said, ‘Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll help out. What do you need me to do?’”

After that, he was hooked.

He minored in journalism and became an education reporter for the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi after graduation. That didn’t last long, though. He just wasn’t suited for the job.

For four months, he worked at a tuxedo shop and as a substitute teacher.  Then, The Kansas City Star had an opening for a prep sports reporter, a better fit for him.

After that job, Graham landed a variety of reporting jobs, before becoming an assistant sports editor in Oshkosh, Wis.

At one point, he had read that there were just four African-American sports editors in the country.

“That just seems messed up,” Graham said. “I kind of figured, there were only four, I could be five. I like those odds. I like those numbers. The math just seemed right.”

Since 1978, The American Society of News Editors has conducted a yearly newsroom census that tracks the number of newsroom employees and people of color working in newsrooms.

In 1997, the ASNE’s census indicated the newsroom employment was at 54,000, and 6,100 of the employed were members of a minority group. By the most recent
census for 2013, there were just 38,000 people working for newspapers. Of those, only 4,700, or 12.37 percent,  were minority group members.

Graham said the lack of diversity in the newsroom is improving, despite what the numbers might indicate.

“It’s just not an easy fix,” Graham said. “Acknowledging that there’s a problem is the first step.”

The diversity goal, according to the ASNE 2013 census, states: “ASNE’s goal is to have the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms nationwide to reflect the percentage of minorities in the nation’s population by 2025. Currently, minorities make up 37.02 percent of the U.S. population; that number will increase to 42.39 percent by 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

Ruben Luna, associate sports editor of The Detroit News and lifetime member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists,  said he doesn’t think that goal will be accomplished.

“If they want to reflect the color of the nation, I just don’t believe that’s going to happen,” Luna said. “In my heart, would I love to see that happen? Yeah, I would.”

Graham said he wanted to do something about this problem, and he got his first chance as a sports editor at the Lima (Ohio) News.

Good journalists will be noticed, Graham said. And ESPN, the lord of sports journalism, eventually noticed Graham.

“It was pretty cool. I can’t lie,” Graham said. “I don’t know, it’s ESPN. Just saying those four letters, it’s like wow.”

He worked as a general NFL editor for ESPN. When he started, he was told it would be the hardest he’d ever work. That was true, Graham said.

Super Bowls proved stressful situations. So much content at one time made things crazy.

Still working at ESPN is an offer that most young, minority journalists can’t really turn down. It’s the pinnacle for a sports journalist.

Not a lot of minority students are coming out of journalism schools, and when they do, they often look for routes that offer more money — like ESPN, Graham said, contributing to the low number of minority sports editors at newspapers. Another factor keeping the number of minority sports editors low is the appeal of writing.

After his stint in 2011 and 2012 at ESPN, Graham then made the most difficult decision of his life. He left to take over the executive sports editor job at the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012.

According to Associated Press Sports Editors, when Graham took the executive sports editors job at the San Diego Union-Tribune, he was the one of four African-American sports editors, along with Lisa Wilson (Buffalo News), Jason Murray (Syracuse Post-Standard) and Greg Lee (South Florida Sun-Sentinel).

“Being amongst this group of sports editors, the likes of which I can easily call my friends, and knowing their efforts and the things they’re trying to do, it’s obvious that everyone is trying to get better. It’s a conscious effort,” Graham said.

Graham is also member of the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization that helps young African-American journalists find jobs and win scholarships.

“I think it’s important that I be more involved. That I be more visible,” Graham said. “That I’m speaking out for our need of a diverse newsroom.”

At the U-T, Graham has hired many people of different racial backgrounds.

“I think a diverse staff definitely helps,” Graham said. “It adds so much more variety and perspective to all the things that you do to provide your readers with, which are also full of very diverse backgrounds.”

Graham’s hires have paid off.

In 2013, the U-T’s sports section received six awards for print and online coverage from the APSE. This also marked the first time the U-T cracked the top 10 in Sunday sports section over 175,000 category.

But both Graham and Luna said they don’t look for only minority journalists when they hire new people. They both just want the right person for the job.

Luna said, “I do go look for people of color, when I’ve been in the position to hire somebody. But, I didn’t specifically say, ‘I gotta hire a … minority just because I’m going to hire a … minority.’ I’m going to hire the best person possible.”



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