Newspapers cut opinion columns; African Americans take disproportionate hit

By Tracie Powell

This week the city of Memphis, TN, lost its only female, African American metro columnist. The editor in chief of The Commercial Appeal reassigned Wendi C. Thomas to lead the newspaper’s cops and courts beat, a job she first had back in 1998. The move is part of the newspaper’s efforts to reorganize for the digital era, according to an editor’s note.

But being a columnist, Thomas said, was her “dream job,” one she had performed in her hometown for nearly 11 years. “I was hired as a columnist. It was a miracle that I got paid to tell people what I thought,” said Thomas, who wrote primarily about social justice issues. “Now I’m back where I started.”

Columnist jobs are considered plum assignments for newspaper journalists, achieved only after years of honing the craft as a reporter and editor. The digital era, however, has turned that on its head, with commentary littering the Web. The difference, newspaper columnists say, is that their writing is always informed by reporting and adheres to journalistic standards; much of the commentary online does not.

Newspapers, in general, have drastically cut the amount of staff they devote to commentary, according to a 2013 Pew Research Report. While no one officially keeps tally, Pew wrote that membership in the Association of Opinion Journalists, formerly The National Conference of Editorial Writers, had dropped from 549 in 2006 to just 245 in 2013.

And while there have never been that many op-ed or metro columnists in other minority groups (Latino, Asian American or Native American), black columnists had made significant headway in securing these jobs. Now, they are being hit hardest in losing them. Since 2008, newspapers have laid off, reassigned, or retired at least 21 black opinion writers, according to the Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince. In 2011, Prince called the exodus of black opinion writers “a depressing trend.”

Prince is also a member of The Trotter Group, founded in 1992 by three high-level black columnists not only to increase the number of black columnists at mainstream daily newspapers, but also to nurture and educate future black opinion writers. The group is still in existence but has seen its numbers plummet from a high of about 40 members to now anywhere from eight to 12, co-founder Les Payne said.

While Payne acknowledged African Americans are still not at the table on Sunday morning talk shows and are now in decline at daily newspapers, he expressed optimism that African Americans are finding other platforms where there voices can be heard, particularly online. He pointed to Mary C. Curtis, a former columnist for The Charlotte Observer who now writes regularly for The Washington Post’s “She The People” blog and offers commentary on a local Charlotte TV station. Others include sports website Deadspins’s Greg Howard who, this week, penned an epic takedown of another sports columnist and commentator, ESPN’s Jason Whitlock, and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently produced a piece making the case for reparations that set site traffic records.