Ohio’s Whitest Home Newspaper - Columbia Journalism Review

Sign for the Columbus Dispatch in 2012. Photo via GmanViz/Flickr

The giant, light-up sign visible from The Columbus Dispatch’s newsroom proclaims it to be “Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper.” A more honest description might be “Ohio’s Whitest Home Newspaper.” In its almost 150 years of existence, the paper has consistently failed to reflect, and therefore serve, Columbus’s residents of color. 

In 1989, an Ohio University study of local press coverage of minorities condemned The Dispatch’s lack of progress over a twenty-year period. “There is little indication from these results that the Dispatch did any better in 1987 than in 1965,” the author concluded. “Minorities seem to have made little progress since 1965 in terms of having their voices and concerns heard, their problems discussed, their triumphs and sorrows reported and their opinions considered. At least, those things aren’t happening at the Columbus Dispatch.”

The same argument can still be made in 2020. In May, The Dispatch came under fire for an editorial that warned municipal efforts to promote city contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses during the pandemic should ensure that “anyone whose work is funded by taxpayers is first and foremost capable of doing the job.” After the editorial’s publication, a group of more than thirty people signed a letter to the editor authored by Michael B. Coleman, the first Black mayor of Columbus and its longest-serving leader, accusing the Dispatch of promoting stereotypes that Black and female business owners warrant extra scrutiny. “I thought it was a serious slap in the face of every African American,” Coleman told me. His letter also directly pointed to what he sees as the root problem: “an organization that is without sufficient diversity among its reporters, editors and opinion writers.”

The sentiment in Columbus’s Black community had long been that their hometown newspaper was not for them.

The editor of the Dispatch, Alan Miller, quickly scrubbed the editorial from the paper’s website and ran a front-page apology admitting it was “offensive” and “painfully insensitive,” and that he was “embarrassed that we didn’t see the harm in that language before it was printed.”

But the oversight was not out of character for the Dispatch. The sentiment in Columbus’s Black community had long been that their hometown newspaper was not for them. “I don’t read the Dispatch and I never have. I don’t see myself in it,” says Mark Lomax II, a composer and recording artist who co-signed the letter. Lomax has been featured in the paper, but told me he’s never subscribed. “It’s never been a newspaper for the whole city.”

In Columbus, 44 percent of residents are nonwhite, while the staff of the Dispatch is 95 percent white, according to the paper’s own tally in August. The census shows about 5 percent of the Dispatch’s full-time newsroom employees are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or two or more races.

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The city’s nonwhite residents haven’t needed to see a staff photo to know that the Dispatch’s newsroom doesn’t look like them. I spoke to more than twenty-five current and former Columbus residents of color, including Coleman, city council members, community organizers, artists, journalists, doctors, and business leaders to understand how that reality shapes their relationship with the paper. Many told me they’d long lost faith many years ago in the Dispatch’s ability to fairly cover issues of race and viewed its coverage as being framed by a white staff for a white audience.

The day after Miller publicly apologized on A1 for the editorial, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, launching the country into a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism—including its deep roots in newsrooms large and small. Miller has since promised to do more and do better. “We’re not as diverse as we should be,” he told me. “Our staff should better reflect Columbus.” In June, the Dispatch’s previously all-white editorial board brought on two Black members. In late August, the paper hired a full-time general assignment reporter who is Black. This month, employees completed diversity and inclusion training, and Miller says he plans to keep diversifying candidate pools for staff openings. Its parent company, Gannett, has pledged newsroom gender, racial, and ethnic parity by 2025. “There’s a lot of skepticism about who and what to believe. I want people to know that we’re a trusted source of news and information for them, amid all the noise and worse,” he said. “In the end, what we have is our credibility.”

But it will take years to prove the resolve of Miller’s commitment, says Mary Howard, a co-signer of the letter. “It’s not going to be, ‘We hired this many people and did this many stories and we can wash our hands of it.’ It will take time to build trust,” she says. “When it’s been so long, people won’t hold their breath for change.”

 

“People become numb to Black death in part because of cold coverage,” says Mia Santiago, an organizer with Community Freedom Coalition.

 

Columbus has a Rorschach quality of reflecting whatever you’re looking for. The city is the 14th largest in the US, bigger than San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Nashville, and Washington D.C. It’s also one of its fastest growing, home to transplants from small Ohio towns and new immigrants from around the world. The criticism Columbus often faces—a lack of any distinct cultural identity—also serves as its greatest asset: Since it’s an even mix of everywhere else, it’s a pretty good microcosm for just about anywhere.

“It can be as fast as you want it to be and it can be as slow as you want it to be,” says LaShaun Carter, a lifelong resident. “It’s the smallest big city in America.”

The Dispatch, like the city it covers, also serves as a representative case study of the myriad problems plaguing local news. In 2015, after a century of local family ownership, the paper was sold to GateHouse Media, and is now a part of Gannett’s network. Within a few years of the sale, the Dispatch’s workforce dropped from 1,100 to 800 employees, down to little more than one hundred today. Along the way, staff morale has taken hits from steady layoffs, a failed unionization attempt, a relocation from its historic offices, and the voluntary exodus of staff members, myself included, for opportunities elsewhere.

Ohio, like the nation at large, has a deep and ongoing legacy of racism, and so the Dispatch has frequent opportunities to report on issues of race and inequality. The founder of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, hails from Ohio, as does the driver who killed Heather Heyer, and the individuals described by The New York Times as the Nazi next door and the most ignorant man in America. Ohio has one of the country’s highest Black infant and maternal mortality rates, and the poverty rate for Black Ohioans is more than double that of their white counterparts. Columbus police disproportionally use force against the city’s Black residents.

ICYMI: The Story Has Gotten Away from Us

Residents of color told me that they’d long lost faith in the Dispatch’s ability and commitment to meaningfully cover these subjects. They don’t pick up the paper unless events like high-profile police killings and BLM protests force their attention. At those crucial moments, they’re often disappointed by what they see.

In 2016, several residents told me, the Dispatch’s coverage of the deaths of twenty-three-year-old Henry Green and thirteen-year-old Tyre King was dehumanizing for the city’s Black community. “I just remember the stories being told in this sympathetic way toward the officers,” Carter said, and used language that signaled that Green and King were “dangerous or deserved harm.” Initial stories about Green’s case, for example, referenced his involvement in a misdemeanor vandalism incident years earlier and the presence of THC and alcohol in his blood at the time of death. A Dispatch piece about a candlelight vigil for King, who was a five-foot-tall, less than 100-pound eighth grader when he was shot by a Columbus police officer, described him in criminal terms as a “13-year-old robbery suspect.” One of the first descriptions of his death—“King, who had no criminal history, was pronounced dead at Nationwide Children’s Hospital at 8:22 p.m.”—makes my stomach turn every time I read it.

Meanwhile, the Dispatch expressed sympathy for law enforcement, with headlines like “Officer who fatally shot teen: ‘I was in fear for my life” and “Officers rally in support of colleague accused of stomping on a suspect.” One editorial explained, “They face community hostility when they are perceived as failing to vigorously attack crime. And they face hostility when they do.” A light-hearted story about police-community relations quoted—but did not identify—the officer who shot Green fifteen times on the night of his death extolling the benefits of neighborhood get-togethers in correcting “a distorted picture of bad relations.” When protests against police brutality interrupted a city council meeting a few months later, the Dispatch detailed the evacuation of city staff “as protesters screamed and read from a list of demands.”

In both the Green and King cases, Franklin County grand juries decided not to bring criminal charges against the officers involved, who were later cleared by the police division of any wrongdoing. “I think the news coverage of his death is a big reason why his killer was not held accountable,” says TauVaughn Toney, a local youth minister, of Tyre King.

“People become numb to Black death in part because of cold coverage,” says Mia Santiago, an organizer with Community Freedom Coalition. The group formed partly out of a dissatisfaction with local news coverage of the December 2018 death of sixteen-year-old Julius Tate Jr., who was shot five times by Columbus police during an undercover SWAT sting. Under a controversial Ohio rule allowing murder charges for anyone who “caused the death of another” in the course of committing, or intending to commit, a felony, Tate Jr.’s girlfriend, Masonique Saunders, also sixteen, was eventually charged with his murder and sentenced to three years in a juvenile prison. “It felt like the coverage was swift and one-size-fits-all,” Santiago says of local news outlets. “People of color can sense when whoever’s covering our story doesn’t look like us. News outlets shape so much of our reality and what we know as a society, it’s incredibly important for them to be representative.”

The Dispatch, critics say, demonstrates that even an all-white staff with best intentions will miss opportunities to humanize the depth and breadth of people of color across any number of beats. 

On the business beat, that looks like a write-up of an apartment complex going up in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood that details the Pelotonia boutique, coffeeshop, coworking space, and brewery it will house without mentioning any community pushback to the project. On the health beat, it’s neglected chances to debunk the science of “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis supplied by authorities, and disputed by family members, in the 2017 death of 36-year-old Jaron Thomas while in police custody. On the neighborhood beat, it’s a feature on “up and coming” areas that fails to delve into the details of residents being pushed by surging home prices. On the justice beat, it’s the sprinkling of Riah Milton’s name into Pride Month coverage instead of investigating her murder in southwestern Ohio that very same month. In my own coverage of science and the environment while I was at the Dispatch, twenty-one years old and fresh out of J-school, I failed to bring to light issues of environmental justice and the disproportionate impact climate change will have on the city’s and state’s communities of color.

The opposite is true, too. Carter told me he wishes there would be more coverage devoted to positive news about Columbus’s nonwhite communities: the city’s boom in Black entrepreneurship, a resurgence of its art scene and its growing Somali, Ghanian, Nigerian, Eritrean, Syrian, Nepali, and Latinx communities. “Those voices are rarely in the paper,” Carter said. “It’s a blind spot, and a missed opportunity for us to get a more well-rounded understanding of how the people of Columbus live day-to-day.”

Critiques that coverage isn’t always broad enough or deep enough are fair, Mark Ferenchik, a twenty-two-year veteran Dispatch reporter who focuses on urban issues including income inequality and housing issues, told me. At the same time, he emphasized the paper is produced by an ever-thinning staff trying to serve an ever-growing city. “One of the biggest hurdles is Columbus is getting bigger and we have less than a hundred people now trying to cover it,” Ferenchik said. “We’ve taken a lot of punches. And it hurts.”

Under those circumstances, the desire to deeply examine issues of race, policing, and justice might not be enough. “Our paper wanted to be a paper of record when it came to crime news,” Beth Burger, a Dispatch environment reporter who used to cover crime, told me. “I’m hoping that changes. Even with limited resources, I think we should shift away from covering individual crimes but instead focus on policing policies and their effects.”

Community members I spoke to were divided as to whether the Dispatch rose to the challenge of covering George Floyd’s death and the consequent national movement for Black Lives. It took five days for the paper to run its first piece of local coverage on the protests and police violence. But in the month that followed, every Dispatch front page featured at least one story, and the paper published more than 130 original stories overall, with pieces on protesters young and old, kneeling Ohio State athletes and medical workers, downed Christopher Columbus statues, rural BLM protests, local police reform, and Juneteenth celebrations. Over that time, the Dispatch has also published dozens of guest columns and editorials advocating peaceful protests, meaningful systemic change, and racial equality—including a June letter from the editor in which Miller unequivocally told his readers, “‘Black lives matter’ is a statement of human rights.” “It’s like a different newspaper,” Coleman told me. “I have to give them credit. I went from pounding on the table to patting them on the back.”

Other readers are less satisfied. The paper has featured photos of protesters arm-in-arm with police and ran cringeworthy headlines like “Protests have cost city $3.3M” and “Heritage, not hate” (about Confederate flags). Last month, it ran a column unironically debating the offensiveness of the term “Karen.” “It doesn’t reflect the values of the city; it reflects the values of the city trying to get past the protests,” says Scott Woods, a columnist for Columbus Alive

Even from within the newspaper’s ranks there was discontent. One intern, who is Black, described in a Dispatch podcast feeling satisfied with the breaking news coverage during the first days of protests—and less so with the surrounding context: “I just felt like we weren’t capturing the people, specifically Black voices… why they were angry, why they were out there.” 

Several people I spoke to, including Howard and Toney, called the recent coverage “superficial.” Instead, they wanted to see more hard-hitting reporting on the inequities and systemic racism that fueled weeks, now months, of protests in Columbus and around the state. “It’s not just about statue pulling and it’s not just about police pepper spray reform,” said Dorian Wingard, who has served as reader advisor to the Dispatch, both officially and unofficially, for years. For Wingard, the BLM coverage seemed aimed at quelling unrest instead of exposing underbellies.

“This shit is ugly,” said Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, a founding member and executive director of the People’s Justice Project. “They serve it up nice and sweet.” Fournier-Alsaada, who has appeared in dozens of Dispatch stories over the years, says if the paper’s staff were more diverse, she could spend less of her time trying to unpack the reality of Black Americans to reporters. “I have to explain my lived experience to a naive white person before they can even start reporting. I’m constantly doing their homework for them.” During recent protests, Fournier-Alsaada, who is 59, has been hit by rubber bullets and tear gas. She appreciates seeing Dispatch reporters covering those altercations on the frontlines but knows—from experience—that they don’t fully understand the events unfolding before them. “It’s amazing to see reporters stand in that fire, in that war downtown, and not be affected by it,” Fournier-Alsaada said. “That’s why I have zero patience for news right now. Don’t do a story if you don’t have a stake in it.”

 

I spoke with former interns of color—a half dozen, all eager to share what it was like to work in a “white as heck” newsroom

 

This summer, Stepha Poulin couldn’t stop thinking about her time as a metro intern at the Dispatch.

Poulin, who is mixed race, shared with me her deep discomfort with being both a junior employee and one of few reporters of color. When she talked to colleagues about police brutality or mass incarceration, Poulin told me, she encountered victim-blaming attitudes and the language of criminality. Over time, she said she became paranoid that she wasn’t getting as much feedback on her stories as white interns were, and that her pitches were received differently by editors. “There was this building feeling that I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t understand me on a personal level,” she said. Poulin left the internship early. “I got out. I couldn’t stand it. I understood why there’s not a lot of reporters of color. Why would they want to be there?”

Harry E. Walker, a Dispatch photographer from 1988 to 1992, told me he was also acutely aware of his position as one of few Black staffers at the paper. Even before arriving, he said, “I was a bit apprehensive applying. I knew I would have to hold myself to slightly higher standards.” Walker always wore his best—a photographer’s vest stuffed with gear, and a tie—and drove the company car, emblazoned on its side with the newspaper’s logo, to and from assignments (though, he told me, that didn’t prevent him from being stopped by police on several occasions). He often suggested article ideas and profile subjects from the city’s Black community, and often weighed in to flag potentially offensive or insensitive headlines and story art. “I was able to change the outlook of the paper, personally,” Walker told me. “I didn’t expect things to change overnight, but I did see a noticeable change. People started to think, ‘How will this be perceived in tomorrow’s paper?’”

His years at the Dispatch and other local outlets taught Walker firsthand how much non-white journalists are burdened with beating back the “blatant but not intentional” racism permeating newsrooms. “You need those different perspectives on which photos to use, which stories to cover, what terminology to use. You can only get that from someone who has that experience first-hand,” Walker told me. “If you have no one in that newsroom with those contacts or feelings or intuitions, it doesn’t change. Those mistakes continue to happen.”

Back when I was at the Dispatch, at staff meetings, I sometimes pressed Miller, the editor, to tell us how the paper was going to diversify its newsroom. He often replied that larger, more prestigious newspapers regularly scooped up reporters of color before we could hire them. When I asked him the same question in June about why newsroom openings in recent years (including my old job) hadn’t been leveraged to diversify the staff, he told me much the same. Financial realities have slowed the Dispatch’s ability to hire full-time reporters, Miller said, and so recruiting diverse intern classes has become all the more important. “What we’ve seen over and over again is their experience at the Dispatch makes them valuable and sought-after employees at larger papers,” Miller said. “Our challenge once they’re here is to hold on to them.”

But when I spoke with former interns of color—a half dozen, all eager to share what it was like to work in a “white as heck” newsroom, as one put it to me—many described the experience as deeply discouraging. What should’ve been an opportunity to grow in confidence became an exercise in staving off demoralization. “It was exhausting,” former intern Kayla Beard told me. “There were times I did feel like, ‘Am I here so they can have someone to write about Black people?’ Not having a diverse newsroom opens up the door for people to have those doubts.”

Eli Hiller, who interned at the Dispatch in 2015, said he was made uncomfortable from day one, when a photo editor told him she was surprised by what he looked like. “You’re more like a Juan,” he recalls her saying. “I was taken aback,” Hiller said. “That was my first experience in the field of professional journalism, my first big opportunity. The first thing I heard was, ‘Oh, you’re brown.’” Hiller never brought it up with any staffers, but said the incident changed his expectations for the rest of the summer. He had hoped his background would help him pitch and land assignments documenting neighborhoods and communities the Dispatch would otherwise not cover. “I wanted to challenge the narrative of whiteness that Columbus, and even its name, represents,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m probably not going to be doing the stories I want to do.’ That was a concern from the get-go.”

Embracing diversity means more than pursuing the way it looks, Dean said, or integrating journalists of color into a preexisting newsroom structure.

The next year, in 2016, the Dispatch recruited its first Reader Advisory Board, inviting community consultants to critique the paper. “I initially did not want to do it,” said inaugural board member Dorian Wingard. “I didn’t want to be a window dressing.” Over the course of the year, Wingard said he voiced his grievances about the newspaper’s all-white editorial board, its mostly white newsroom, and negative portrayals of Columbus’ Black and brown communities. “It fell on deaf ears. It was a waste of time,” said Wingard, who remains skeptical of any promise of cultural overhaul at the Dispatch. “To this day, we’re getting the same old bullshit.”

In June, the Dispatch took a first, small step toward its May promise of meaningful cultural change by adding two new members, both Black, to its editorial board. “I want to make sure all voices are heard, especially the ones that have been left out of the discussion,” said Terrance Dean, one of the new members and a writer and Black studies assistant professor at Denison University. But embracing diversity means more than pursuing the way it looks, Dean said, or integrating journalists of color into a preexisting newsroom structure. The Dispatch has to actually transform and embrace new perspectives. “If the culture of the institution is not ready to change, then that’s not progress,” Dean told me. “That’s where the work begins and finishes, and that’s the most challenging part.” 

Earl Hopkins, hired as a general assignment reporter in August, agrees. Born and raised in Columbus, Hopkins grew up driving by the Dispatch’s giant downtown sign and aspired to someday join its ranks. Now, in the first years of his journalism career, he told me he’s up for the challenge of helping transform the newsroom into one that looks like his hometown and one that regularly relays the experience of being Black in Columbus. “My intention is to encompass the heart of the city,” Hopkins said. “These people are in our communities, why wouldn’t they be in our newsrooms? It’s easier to say it than to do it.”

If newspapers—in Columbus, yes, but also across the country—fail to meet that challenge, their future becomes harder to imagine. Their currency is trust. How can they survive without it? “When something’s out-of-touch and no longer needed, it goes away. I want the paper to stay relevant and I want it to stay alive,” said Columbus councilmember Shayla Favor. “It’s up to the Dispatch to really have that conversation with itself. Its livelihood depends on it.”

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Marion Renault is a science journalist and former newspaper reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Popular Science, and numerous other publications.

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