The Philadelphia Inquirer should be commended for the lengthy self-examination of its hiring practices and its coverage of the black community. However, I barely recognized the institution portrayed in Wesley Lowery’s story.
I should know. I spent nearly a decade at the paper, first as vice president of operations for The Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com. I was named editor of the Daily News and later became associate editor of The Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com before retiring in 2016. I remain the highest ranked African American to work at The Inquirer. In this role, I have first-hand knowledge of efforts to diversify the workforce and ensure our news coverage reflects the broader community.
During my tenure, The Inquirer was not a racist organization. I was recruited in 2006 from a Gannett-owned newspaper by Brian Tierney, who set out to change the culture and make sure it was inclusive. We brought in a human resources manager who tracked hiring across all departments and pushed for more diversity. However, we often hit a snag when it came to retaining journalists of color in the newsroom, as union seniority rules meant that any layoffs would result in the last hired being the first fired. .
READ MORE: Inquirer’s look at itself ignores newspaper’s history exposing racial injustice | Opinion
I continued to work for the newspaper after it was taken over by Gerry Lenfest. I cannot speak for other periods, but during my tenure, I am proud of how often newspaper coverage has improved the lives of communities of color. For example, when I was editor of the Daily News, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for its investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department’s narcotics squad preying on vulnerable people of color.
In 2012, The Inquirer won a Pulitzer for a series of stories that detailed violence in the city’s public schools. Countless other stories benefited communities of color, while newspapers endorsed the election of many African-American officials, including Mayor Michael Nutter, who presided over a sharp drop in the number of murders in the city. .
While there is always room for improvement, Lowery glossed over the many people of color who have held leadership positions at both newspapers. For example, Michael Days became editor of the Daily News in 2005, was later named editor of The Inquirer, and then promoted to vice president for diversity and inclusion. Sandra Long was named editor of The Inquirer in 2007, the same year Pulitzer Prize winner Harold Jackson was promoted to editorial page editor. Anthony F. Cuffie becomes vice president in charge of regional advertising. Sandra Clark and Gabriel Escobar were both promoted to editor positions at The Inquirer in 2014.
READ MORE: From The Editor of The Inquirer: An Apology to Black Philadelphians and Journalists
The recent self-flagellation began following the murder of George Floyd, which sparked Black Lives Matter protests that resulted in some buildings being vandalized. The newspaper published an article on A12 on property damage under the title: “Buildings matter too”. Even if the title was wrong, it should not have led to the resignation of the newspaper’s editor.
The blowback then led to hiring Temple University to audit The Inquirer’s content. The thrust of the audit is based on a faulty analysis that the newsroom was nearly 75% white in a city with a white population of only 31%. The clear deduction is spelled out in the title of Lowery’s story: “Black City, White Paper.”
However, the Temple audit did not take into account that The Inquirer does not only cover the city. Until the recent merger of the two newspapers, the Daily News covered the city extensively, while The Inquirer had a more regional focus. As the state’s largest media company, The Inquirer’s readership spans three Delaware Valley states.
In fact, 75% of The Inquirer readers live in suburban Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Covering these areas is key to maintaining and growing readership and advertising, which of course provides the revenue needed to sustain the business and fund a strong newsroom. As such, the population figures used to support Temple’s audit are, at best, misleading.
Again, while there’s always room for improvement, The Inquirer should focus on what it does best: holding those in power accountable, giving voice to the voiceless, and covering the city, the region and the state without fear or favour.
Mark J. Frisby is a former associate editor of The Inquirer. He was also publisher of the Philadelphia Daily News.