KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The flashpoints are familiar, even worn out: Was race a factor in the prosecution of the black teenagers dubbed the Jena 6 and charged with beating a white teen? Should The New Yorker magazine have satirized stereotypes of race on its cover?
Aside from the flashpoints, however, Janice Ellis mostly hears silence.
“We’re not having a sustained conversation about race and ethnicity,” said Ellis, a Kansas City mayoral candidate in 1999 and 2007.
Ellis, who owns a marketing company, is trying to get that dialogue going with RiseUp, a weekly publication she funded and launched June 20. It brings stories to more than 4 million newspaper subscribers each weekend that they probably wouldn’t see otherwise, stories on ethnic wedding traditions, how different cultures cook okra, what makes minority-owned businesses successful. A piece on the cover June 27 examined how some DNA science challenges the existence of race.
Some newspapers have tried hard to improve their coverage of minority communities and issues facing people of color. But more papers relegate the coverage to a limited team of reporters or just ignore it, said Arlene Notoro Morgan, an associate dean at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
“Many are so programmed to talk to experts and authority figures that they don’t get out there and really feel the community,” said Notoro Morgan, who leads newspaper workshops on race and ethnicity.
RiseUp answers frank reader questions: Can black people be racist? Why does it seem Asian students are better at math? What happens when people of different races toss around slang?
Even as newspaper circulations continue to drop, advertising revenues decline and newsroom staffs shrink, Ellis is confident a core readership among Baby Boomers will remain interested in such coverage. She quickly points out that RiseUp appears online too, though her strategy doesn’t appear focused on the Internet.
But many news organizations have found dialogues about race hard to sustain. A fear of sparking an explosion among readers, critics and other media can perpetuate the silence Ellis is trying to fight, said Keith M. Woods, dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Coverage is spotty and incidental, and that causes us at the very least to perpetuate the societal trends,” said Woods, a co-author of “The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity” and a frequent collaborator with Notoro Morgan.
Woods said even more journalists may hesitate to tackle race after the uproar over The New Yorker’s July 21 cover, which depicts presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, as flag-burning, fist-bumping radicals in an attempt to satirize such caricatures.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t make efforts like The New Yorker, but we need to do what The New Yorker did better,” Woods said.
More often, news media focus on cultural celebrations and differences and give scant attention to larger issues such as racism and its roots, said Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, a consulting firm on diversity based in New York.
“For example, so often black history is reduced to trivial factoids,” she said. “These don’t add up to give people a real history.”
With a Kansas City-based team of a half-dozen editors and staffers and scores of freelancers nationwide, Ellis hopes to double RiseUp’s circulation by fall. It’s now inserted in the New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among other papers.
Notoro Morgan worries that newspaper managers may see it as a valid replacement for efforts to address race and ethnicity locally. Local coverage has also suffered when top editors just don’t recognize the importance of covering these stories, she said.
It wasn’t easy at first to get newspapers to embrace RiseUp, Ellis said. But since it launched, she said, some have called to ask for it, saying they have struggled to cover race and ethnicity consistently.
For the McComb Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Miss., RiseUp offered a way to add content when pages and staff are being cut back, said editor Jack Ryan. McComb, where Ellis grew up, is now about half white and half black.
“Given the subject matter, when running a newspaper, you kind of take a little bit of a deep breath and dive in,” Ryan said. “It’s very easy for a number of people to get offended by it if RiseUp decides to swing a sledgehammer.”
Ellis sent a prototype of the publication to top editors in major markets and signed distribution deals similar to those many papers have with Parade and USA Weekend. While national inserts have seen their circulations plummet, Ellis said RiseUp’s “niche” subject will sustain it.
Ellis might be right as the country’s population continues to become more diverse and ethnic media find bigger audiences, said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, based in San Francisco. African-Americans are creating multi-race publications and being “gate openers” for other groups, for example, she said.
Other attempts to report ethnic stories to a mainstream audience have found some success. Pacific Time, a National Public Radio show based in San Francisco, reported on Asia and Asian Americans for seven years ending about a year ago when funding fell short.
“People really liked hearing these stories, and they learned something,” said Raul Ramirez, executive producer of the program, which was picked up mostly in college towns and on the coasts. “People are not as insular as we in the media sometimes tend to imply.”
More than a month in, Ellis has received many positive reviews. But she also has received hate mail.
“We’re not approaching this with rose-colored glasses,” Ellis said. “To move the bar, we need to be honest and openly talk about it.”