Philadelphia Magazine isn't alone in whitewashing

Philadelphia Magazine's October 2015 issue. (Twitter)

I'm not crazy about journalists analyzing journalists. Most of the real world doesn't care about which newspaper is falling apart (pretty much all of them) or which reporter did something dumb (all of us at one point or another). Philly is full of people and issues that desperately need the attention of the shrinking Fourth Estate. For example, 186,000 Philadelphians live in deep poverty, according to an Inquirer examination of recent census data.

Those are the kinds of stories that should enrage us, that we should be focusing on. But sometimes something comes along that's bigger than one incident or place.

Philadelphia magazine makes itself an easy target. I opted against piling on about its monumentally tone-deaf "Being White in Philly" 2013 cover story, and had planned to do the same when I saw this month's cover photo showing no African-American students in front of a school that's 60 percent nonwhite.

Mostly because, in a city with so many needs and injustices, a magazine's stupidity and stunts just don't rank. And because, like every other news organization trying to stay afloat and relevant, some great journalists are doing great stuff there despite the distractions.

But that's just it: If journalists have any chance of survival and fulfilling our obligations to the public we should be serving, we have to stay relevant - especially as the population gets more diverse. And by "we" I mean every news organization. Because, as easy as it is to use Philadelphia magazine as a whipping boy, it is hardly alone. Staff diversity was among the first casualities of crumbling legacy newsrooms. And before new outlets think it's just an old-paper problem, journalism startups aren't exactly awash in people of color.

The script is that news organizations can only afford to hire young people. OK. Then how about hiring millennials of color?

This latest screwup by Philly Mag is important, not because it stepped in it - again - or because journalists relish eating their own, but because it illustrates a larger issue that we can't afford to ignore.

When your newsroom doesn't reflect the community you are reporting on - or should be reporting on - you're not just going to step in it, you're going to be irrelevant. And irrelevancy will kill us faster than any hedge-fund owners or ink-stained editors.

Philly Mag apologized quickly and profusely, and that's good. Maybe this time they actually learned something.

"We blew it," editor Tom McGrath wrote. "It was a stupid, insensitive decision that I deeply regret."

Enough apologies, from Philly Mag and from other news outlets that find themselves in similar positions. Enough falling on your swords and earnestly talking about doing better.

Just do better.

"Build a team that looks like the audience you want to reach," Tasneem Raja, senior editor of NPR's Code Switch, reportedly said at this year's Online News Association conference.

And fair warning: Do not whine that you can't find qualified or interested applicants of color. Not all the good ones - as I once was told - are working for the New York Times. No secret password opens the gates of the magical place where journalists of color reside.

There are plenty of qualified candidates of color. Maybe just stop looking in the same circles for the same journalists who keep getting or giving each other jobs. In a recent Latino Reporter article about the American Society of News Editors' annual census that showed the number of minorities in newsrooms unchanged in a decade, former National Association of Hispanic Journalists president Hugo Balto put it best:

"It really is a trickle-down thing. When you have mostly white males in top executive jobs, they're comfortable hiring the same white males for midlevel jobs, and it goes on."

Still, I will try to be helpful:

- If you look at your masthead, your reporters and your columnists, and they're distinguishable only by gender, age or maybe the shade of khakis they're wearing, you probably have a diversity problem.

- If you're consistently defending staffers against cries of insensitivity from the community or apologizing for tone-deaf pieces and photos, you probably have a diversity problem.

- If you think you don't have a diversity problem, you probably have a diversity problem.

If we want to survive, we have to do something about this now. People may not care about the inner workings of news organizations, but you'd better believe they care about having their lives accurately portrayed, about feeling a connection to the people and places telling their stories. And when we fail them, they aren't going to stick around. We may think we still control the narrative or the platforms or the hashtags - but we don't. People have plenty of ways to tell their own stories - and every day that is exactly what they are doing.

So we either keep apologizing and making excuses and convincing ourselves that it's that other organization's problem - or we realize the importance of diversity to our own survival and to our obligation to the public.

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