New York-based newspaper was criticized for not being diverse enough — now it provides inclusive blueprint for other Gannett operations


By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

Independent market research showed the Democrat and Chronicle wasn’t effectively serving all of Greater Rochester, especially people of color. So the Gannett-owned daily news publication decided to diversify its editorial staff and content in an effort to change the newsroom culture.

So far, those moves appear to be paying off. Change hasn’t happened overnight, but the results are encouraging enough to scale best practices to other Gannett publications. The efforts also earned the Democrat and Chronicle first-place recognition among large publishers for “Best Service to Diverse Audiences,” a Local Media Digital Innovation Contest award sponsored by Google News Initiative.

Here are efforts made so far to address constructive criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of communities of color:

The realization

The New York-based newspaper didn’t actually commission the local study, which included feedback from 550 respondents who felt local media was unfair to Rochester residents of color. But when Executive Editor Michael Kilian took over in 2019, his predecessor, Karen Magnuson, charged him with addressing the report’s negative feedback.

On the other side of the newsroom, Cynthia Benjamin was working nights and weekends with the print retention team. She noticed a discouraging content trend in which fewer Black people were featured favorably — or at all — in the Democrat and Chronicle pages, despite Black people representing almost 40% of Rochester’s population, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.

“Some editors thought we were doing better than what local people thought we were doing,” Benjamin said. “My own bottled-up frustration over story coverage caused me to ask, ‘Why are we not doing stories on this side of town?’ But, there would be no responses from journalists when I reached out.”

That is when Benjamin addressed her concerns with Kilian, who responded in May 2019 by enacting newsroom training programs and performance-driven challenges. He promoted her to a new position — emerging audiences editor — to help lead change.

However, despite some progress, the broader racial divide in the D&C’s overall content remained.

The breakthrough

New York became the second state nationally to protect Black workers from discrimination for their natural hairstyles in July 2019. The initial coverage included no Black voices, and despite a request from Benjamin for improved reporting, follow-up storytelling was met with hesitation and reluctance from a newsroom uncomfortable with going to a hair salon in the neighborhoods most impacted by the new state law.

“We used that as a springboard and jumping-off point to propel us to change,” Benjamin said. “This was our own doing by focusing on driving page views vs. building relationships that lead to subscription growth.”

At the time in September 2019, only 3% of all Democrat and Chronicle stories featured communities of color. The newspaper now averages about 15% headlines about diverse communities, reaching as high as 24% some months.

“That could not have happened without the entire staff,” Benjamin said. “It required the conversation being taken to the staff so they could come up with what solutions we should have.”

Kilian acknowledges several changes in mentality and focus were also required. Those included less emphasis on page views and suburban upper-middle class neighborhoods in favor of a more holistic approach.

“Nobody said, ‘We’re not going to cover the city,’ but that is in effect what happened,” Kilian said. “If you’re going to be a general interest newspaper, you need those audiences, and we were really exclusionary about how we went about doing it.”

While the opinion team had sought to connect Rochester’s diverse residents through outreach and events, city-level coverage mostly focused on negative quality-of-life issues such as child poverty, failed social services and crime. Frontline journalists simply didn’t have the necessary community connections to present a more three-dimensional picture of life in Rochester’s diverse neighborhoods. Kilian takes personal responsibility despite being relatively new to the publication.

“I’m not criticizing anybody,” he said. “I was in other towns before this, making the same mistakes.”

Those decisions proved costly, and not just in terms of community reputation.

“Our narrow coverage lens is one reason the financial fortune of news has fallen so hard,” Kilian said, predicting local news might’ve fared better as a business had it been more inclusive the past two decades.

The improvements

In addition to creating staff groups assigned to various topics, the Democrat & Chronicle also created a digital advisory group in a private Facebook group featuring residents who were provided a free digital subscription for 1 year in exchange for feedback.

The group featured mostly younger readers from nine target ZIP codes the publication wanted to cover better. These participants weren’t active Democrat & Chronicle readers before, so Benjamin and Kilian worked with writers to set a goal of 50 stories in four months from these previously neglected ZIP codes. The publication benefited from a $25,000 Facebook Journalism Project grant to create a “mobile newsroom” in which every Rochester journalist participated.

“What the newsroom has done has become a model of best practices for other Gannett newsrooms,” Benjamin said.

Kilian acknowledges that ZIP codes might not be the best measure of need, especially in gentrifying areas where data could be deceptive. That is why Gannett is also doing more brand equity research, including a study in the Rochester market this spring. Early returns show the trust levels among Black residents increasing, according to Kilian, who considers the numbers a step in the right direction from the independent study done three years earlier.

Ultimately, the Democrat and Chronicle is taking a three-pronged approach to making news coverage more equitable:

  • Improved story development
  • Increased community engagement
  • More diverse newsroom hires

The Democrat and Chronicle is about to start another round of group diversity discussions.

That includes hiring a new videographer/reporter who is Black as well as two diverse Report For America journalists who bring specific perspectives sorely needed to cover Rochester.

“Every hire is a chance to change our own story and create new paths,” Kilian said.

Diversity and inclusion has also been cooked into the job description of Benjamin’s successor Maryann Batlle, now that Benjamin is working at the Gannett corporate level as director of audience engagement and trust. The Democrat and Chronicle is about to start another round of group diversity discussions to solidify the new culture.

“Any newsroom change hits plateaus, including ours, so we had to pivot and look at what’s coming,” Kilian said.

Benjamin is scaling her successful efforts to other Gannett-owned publications, reimagining public safety coverage by focusing more on issues instead of cases. In addition to that training, Gannett is also expanding the diverse hiring practices, the digital advisory groups and trial subscriptions to other markets, she said.

The target year is 2025 to achieve new standards in hiring, retention and coverage reflective of America, according to Benjamin.

“We’re not there yet, this is just the beginning,” she said, “but I’m so proud of Gannett.”