The founding director of Wayne State’s Journalism Institute for Media Diversity (JIM), retired Detroit News editor Luther Keith, used to use a fictional example to highlight the real-life impact of diversity in U.S. newsrooms.
Imagine, posited Keith, a newsroom comprised of only minorities from big cities like Detroit — African American writers and reporters, Arab American editors, an LGBTQ production team, Hispanic American news anchors and so on. Now imagine this fictional newsroom provides the daily news for Grosse Pointe — a quiet, affluent suburb where the non-white population is about 6.8 percent — and that, for all the various demographics represented in this newsroom, no white men or women work there. What would this mean for how that suburb is covered? How understanding, empathetic and familiar should readers expect the coverage to be? How reflective of that community would that newsroom really be?
Thirty-five years ago, Keith noted, the inverse of this made-up scenario was very much a reality in newsrooms in Detroit and throughout the country, where blacks, Asians, Latinos and others were sparsely represented, if at all.
But then Keith, late Detroit News editor Benjamin J. Burns and others decided to help change that.
“I had always been critical of how there weren’t enough black folks hired, or black reporters, or editors,” said Keith, who was an assistant city editor back then. “Ben Burns came to me one day and said ‘We’re starting this program at Wayne State, to give the minority kids an opportunity, and we need somebody to go over there and kind of get it set up.’
“My first reaction was ‘I don’t want to run a remedial program for colored kids’ — and I told him that.”
Thirty-five years later, the Institute can proudly boast of fulfilling Keith’s dreams of excellence. JIM grads have made an impact not only locally, but nationwide. The Institute can brag about the accomplishments of various notable graduates including James Hill, senior news director for the Detroit Free Press; Ken Cockrel Jr., former mayor of Detroit; and Kim Trent, a chair on Wayne State University’s Board of Governors.
“My time in JIM provided positive competition for success,” said Trent. “I didn’t know anyone (in the program) who didn’t graduate in at least five years.”
In the decades since, the Institute has seen multiple directors, including current Institute head Alicia Nails, but the standards on which Keith sought to build the program remain.
“It’s my goal that freshman or transfers into the Institute are clear about the demands of journalism,” said Nails. “I think some people think about journalism as a glamour career or ‘How hard can it be?’ It's very difficult. I think the earlier a person knows that, the better.”
Moreover, the Institute has, more often than not, mined that excellence right from the metro Detroit area.
From its origins to present day, the Institute has always sought to attract some of the area’s most talented students. To make the program more of a draw, Keith and Burns helped establish a college-to-career pipeline. They petitioned local companies and news organizations to invest in scholarship funds and internship opportunities with the idea that experience and resources will provide opportunity not previously seen. The first JIM class was about 16 students, equipped with not only internships at local media outlets, but some with full-ride scholarships.
“You’re making an investment with the idea that diversity makes you a better news organization,” said Keith. “You’re going to have something that reflects the world. And at the end of the day, the mission of the Journalism Institute, then and now, is about making America the nation that we claim we want to be.”
And that has meant JIM churning out top-notch journalists, many who have gone on to successful careers outside of newsrooms.
Trent, for one, said the high academic standard and consistent graduation rate during her time in the Institute helped motivate her to run for the board of governors. When Trent ran for the board governors – after years spent working for Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm – she recalls that the black student graduation rate was only 10 percent. Trent said her personal experience with black achievement at Wayne State had made her eager to take a more active role in turning things around.
Of course, the Institute’s first charge remains stocking newsrooms with prodigious and diverse talent. To that end, the program continues to fill internship pipelines nationwide with gifted journalism students.
In fact, current JIM student Aleanna Siacon said that the Institute requires members to have a competitive internship every semester. The internship requirement not only boosts students’ experience but provides connections and exposure to high-level job opportunities. Siacon, for one, has interned for Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration, Hour Detroit, Metro Parent and Inc. magazines, and the Detroit Free Press. She was also named a Chips Quinn Scholar, granting her a week-long opportunity to train with veteran journalists at Vanderbilt University.
“My first internship was social media for Detroit City Councilperson James Tate,” said Siacon. “I got that internship because of former JIM member Tim Carroll, who had been an intern with Tate previously. Because of the great experience they had with Tim, I was able to connect.”
Siacon said the biggest benefit of the Journalism Institute is the reputation that precedes it. JIM grads are esteemed in their fields and want to help next generation of Institute graduates succeed.
Nails said the commitment displayed by Institute members and graduates generates the strength and prestige of the organization. Every fall, before classes begin, the new and continuing members attend a retreat aimed at bonding and skill assessment. JIM graduates also attend a session of the retreat, to conduct an open forum panel stressing the importance of media diversity and their experiences thus far. Throughout the academic year, JIM grads attend brown bag sessions and panels for Institute members to offer advice, resources and career pathways.
These moments, together with internship opportunities, revolving deadlines and academic advising, characterize the seriousness that infuses the Institute. The media landscape certainly still thirsts for increased diversity, but the Institute has been instrumental in opening up major newsrooms to a broad range of reporters, editors, PR execs and more. Thirty-five years have made a considerable difference.
“The legacy that so many others have laid down is going to continue,” said Keith. “That is the greatest thing.”