With '50 Percent Initiative,' NBC leads charge to diversify news

NBC is one of the latest organizations to acknowledge a need for greater diversity among staff. NBC Universal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde announced a goal of having a 50% minority staff, saying "it's the right thing for any business that wants to grow."

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Joy Reid attends the Tribeca TV screening of "Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story" in New York on April 20, 2018. As NBC news leader, Cesar Conde committed to achieving greater minority representation, Ms. Reid was appointed to host the 7 p.m. show on MSNBC.

NBC News leader Cesar Conde, in one of his first public acts in the job, has committed to building a workforce at the news organizations he supervises where at least half of the employees are minorities.

The staff is currently nearly 27% minority, including 8% each of Black, Latino, and Asian workers. Mr. Conde set no deadline for achieving his “50 Percent Initiative.”

He also wants women to comprise half the employees at NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC, and he’s already nearly there.

The plan, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, makes Mr. Conde a leader in the current movement to diversify the news business. That conversation has spread throughout the industry since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

For example, the top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after Black reporters objected to a racially insensitive headline. Black reporters at The New York Times said an opinion piece on protests by Sen. Tom Cotton made them feel unsafe; the Times later said the column should not have run without changes and the opinion editor stepped down.

“It’s not just the right thing to do,” Mr. Conde said in an interview Thursday. “It’s the right thing for any business that wants to grow in the United States.”

Mr. Conde, a former Telemundo executive, was appointed in May as NBC Universal News Group chairman, filling Andrew Lack’s role.

The networks’ on-air record is mixed. Lester Holt, who is Black, has the most prominent anchor role at NBC News. But until Thursday’s appointment of Joy Reid to host the 7 p.m. show on MSNBC, the liberal-leaning network’s evening cast featured five white men and one white woman.

A more diverse workforce will be able to spot stories that might otherwise be missed, Mr. Conde said.

“We are a news organization that I think has a unique responsibility to reflect and represent the various communities we serve,” he said. “In order to do that, we wanted to make sure that we attract the best and the brightest from all walks of life.”

Ms. Reid says she wants to bring some different perspectives to MSNBC’s evening lineup – lots of them.

“We are going to try to fire out of the gate with whatever is the most important thing that’s happening that night, and try to frame it and contextualize it,” Ms. Reid said in an interview. “Hopefully, I have a very unique frame.”

As a Black woman, Ms. Reid addresses a somewhat embarrassing lack of diversity at a news and talk network aimed at a mostly liberal audience.

“She’s earned this, spot on,” said Mr. Conde. “I happen to think she’s the right person for the right moment in time.”

A news junkie growing up, “It almost didn’t even sink in until I was older that I was watching a parade of white men tell me what’s happening in the world, explaining the world to me,” said Ms. Reid.

She naturally brings a different perspective to stories, particularly with the current debate over policing.

Ms. Reid has also sought, like MSNBC predecessors Melissa Harris-Perry and Ed Schultz, a greater variety of sources for stories. Instead of bringing in a frequently-seen Harvard professor for a story on the economy, why not find an expert from Morehouse College, for instance?

“It’s kind of like a family dinner table in a really interesting family, a crowded dinner table in a family that adopted multiracial children from all around the world,” she said.

Minority hiring will be one factor in how managers at the news organization are judged, along with finances and ratings at the shows they supervise, Mr. Conde said.

That’s important, since it will force managers to focus on the issue both in hiring and in retaining minority employees, said Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. Ms. Truong said NBC News should also set goals for minority representation in leadership.

Mr. Conde and Ms. Truong have both suggested paid internships to attract young people of different economic backgrounds.

Given where NBC currently stands, particularly with Black employees, Ms. Truong said she understands why the initiative has no deadline and is glad that progress will be checked regularly. But she said Mr. Conde needs to ensure his initiative outlasts him.

“What I would like to hear is whether other people at NBC are committed to this moving forward,” she said.

Mr. Conde told his staff that NBC plans to seize the moment of awakening in the United States.

“This is the right moment for NBC Universal to not just wait for change to happen but to take the lead in it,” he told the AP.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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