Nisa Islam Muhammad and Jesse Muhammad, Staff Writers
When Mark Luckie was laid off from Entertainment Weekly in 2008 he was shocked.
“I was dumbfounded. I didn’t expect it. I was unemployed for nine months. My blog, 10,000 words, was initially my personal outlet but I ramped it up after I was laid off to become my professional outlet. I redesigned it, wrote more posts and had the free time to complete my book, Digital Journalists Handbook,” he told The Final Call.
That is the story of more and more Black journalists who are finding themselves having to reinvent themselves to stay in the industry. Newsrooms continued to cut Black journalists and supervisors at a higher rate than ever before in 2009 while the minority communities they cover grow larger.
As more Black journalists lose their jobs, diversity in newsrooms has taken a back seat, according to a study released April 11, by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).
“It is a travesty that minority journalists are being disproportionately cut in newsrooms across the country,” said National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) President Kathy Y. Times.
Newsroom jobs held by Black journalists were slashed by an unprecedented 19.2 percent in 2009, nearly six percentage points higher than the previous year. Since 2001, Blacks have a net loss of more than 30 percent of the positions they occupied in American newsrooms.
What may have seemed like a tragedy at the time has allowed Mr. Luckie to triumph with a new job, a widely popular blog and a successful book.
He applied for 50-60 jobs before a job found him.
“When I went for the interview everyone was familiar with my work. I was selected out of 600 other applicants. This is not uncommon. I’m now the Multi Media Producer for California Watch, Center for Investigative Reporting. I can now do the things I’d been blogging about.”
His advice for laid off journalists, “There are so many journalists with new media skills, push yourself to blog, interact on Twitter and Facebook. You’ll meet other professionals and potential employers. Market yourself.”
NABJ has an action plan in the works for improving newsroom hiring and the retention of Black journalists in print, broadcast, and online media.
“This is a key goal in NABJ’s mission, and we will continue to search for new ways to highlight this gap until it is closed,” said Vice President-Print Deirdre M. Childress. “As the diversity of the American population increases, it is equally important for us to see that change reflected in American newsrooms so that stories can be told from all perspectives.”
The number of newspapers with no minorities on their staff rose to 465 last year, an increase of seven over 2008. Another disturbing finding in this year’s study is the continued decline in Black journalists in leadership positions.
Black journalists in supervisory roles dropped by 20.3 percent, to just 428 individuals helping decide what is considered news in print and online newspapers across the country.
“It’s about accuracy,” ASNE Diversity Director Bobbi Bowman said of the objective of the census. “Can you accurately cover your community if you have a newsroom that doesn’t look like your community?”
Solution: Do For Self
In Houston, Paul Wilson, a devoted husband, father and college graduate had been unemployed for nearly a year. His bills were stacking up as his family faced possible foreclosure. What did he do? He decided to become self-employed, which is a trend on the rise among Blacks according to another recently released report.
“I got comfortable with going to my corporate job and never had in the back of my mind that I would be one of those who would get laid off. Boy was I wrong,” Mr. Wilson told The Final Call.
Mr. Wilson was laid off in June 2009 from his position as an information systems analyst at a Dallas-based technology firm. He was among fifty workers slashed from its workforce.
“The little bit of savings I did have has almost ran dry. I have to be honest, I did not prepare my family long-term for something like this so I am suffering the consequences,” said Mr. Wilson, who has been married for ten years.
According to a report on SmallBusinessTrends.com, from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the fourth quarter of 2009, the number of self-employed Blacks increased 5.7 percent while the number of self-employed Whites decreased 3.4 percent. Self-employment among Asians decreased 10.5 percent, and self-employment among Latinos remained flat. Nationally, the total number of non-agricultural self-employed people fell.
“If one just sits around reading unemployment statistics all day, you can get depressed. It seems like there is no hope for Blacks in the job market. But instead of sitting around waiting to be hired, I decided to become self-employed,” said Mr. Wilson.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate has hovered around 9.7 percent the last several months. Black unemployment rose to 16.5 percent in March. That’s an increase from 15.8 percent in February.
While in college and on his previous job, Mr. Wilson acquired several technological skills and decided to start his own consulting company in April. Working out of his home, he has been reaching out to his network of friends and associates to offer services in information systems, computer repair, Web development, marketing and more. He has started to see some extra income coming in and his wife is confident things will get better.
“He was down because he couldn’t find another job immediately. So it was stressing him out and me too. But I am happy he chose to become self-employed and I am going to support him,” said Catherine Wilson, who took on a part-time job as a store clerk to help out her husband.
“I am blessed to have a supportive wife. It has been rough on her and the children because we’ve had to tighten up the budget and make a lot of sacrifices. But we’re going to get through it,” said Mr. Wilson, who has also started doing landscaping with a few friends.
Isaiah Muhammad of Houston knows first-hand how difficult self-employment can be, yet he has managed to successfully support his wife and eight children since leaving his last job six years ago.
“My mind is never stuck on doing one particular thing. Business is about mistakes and relationships. Like anything in life, you’re going to make mistakes,” Mr. Muhammad told The Final Call.
Mr. Muhammad has been focusing on erasing personal debt and keeping a minimum of ten streams of income. “We must do for self or we will be forced to do for self soon. We have to weather the storms of business. There’s always down cycles in business but I’m going to keep on striving,” said Mr. Muhammad.
Mr. Muhammad attributes his success to seeking guidance from those who know, partnering with others and his supportive wife, Melva Muhammad.
“My husband knows that I am always 100 percent supportive. I married a very intelligent man. Since our first child I have not had to work for anyone,” said Mrs. Muhammad, who is the co-founder of The Elevated Places School.
Her advice to other women is “if your spouse desires to do for self, make sure he has a plan. Don’t be afraid to make sacrifices. We sacrificed a lot to get where we are today but I never stopped supporting him,” said Mrs. Muhammad.
“It’s a blessing to have a wife like her. I could not do this without a supportive wife and family,” said Mr. Muhammad, who has ventured now into international trade.
“Be smart enough to seek guidance from those who know what you don’t know. Also, I am a big advocate of partnerships because where I am weak in a certain trait my partner can compliment me,” advised Mr. Muhammad.