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Gene Grant is the 15 year host of New Mexico in Focus, airing Friday nights on 5.1 New Mexico PBS. Previously Grant was a weekly columnist for the Albuquerque Journal and Tribune.

Lori Waldon, President and General Manager of KOAT TV

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The Paper.: Congratulations on your post. Being the first African-American woman to attain your position in Albuquerque is a major accomplishment worth noting. I appreciate you joining this conversation for Black History Month.

Lori Waldron: Thank you so much, Eugene. It is a pleasure to meet you, and I’m happy to be here!

Increasing diversity in the newsroom, in the overall, has been somewhat of a well-documented challenge going on for multiple decades. Some say the problem is in the so-called “pipeline,” meaning, not enough of a talented pool of journalism school graduates, etc. to choose from. Do you agree with that?

I’m always disappointed when I hear employers say they can’t find enough talented journalism graduates and specifically students of color. That has not been my experience at all. I’ve met hundreds of bright, talented journalism grads. They are ambitious and sharp and they are hungry to break into our business. When employers say they can’t find talented up-and-coming journalism grads, my questions are, “Where are you looking, and how hard you looking?”  

There’s no such thing in 2021 as a media owner or executive who doesn’t get the reasoning behind the need for diversity. Why hasn’t it happened?

Most media owners and television news managers fully understand the importance of diversity. They know that it’s critically important that our stations and newsrooms reflect the community we serve. Diversity recruitment and promotion is not only the right thing to do. It’s smart business.

I’m proud of the diversity we have at KOAT. We have employees who are white, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. We have employees who are part of the LGBTQ community. We have military veterans. And we have employees with roots on the East Coast, West Coast, the Midwest and the South.  

Having a diverse group of employees provides a variety of voices that reflect our audience. Smart media companies not only hire diverse employees, they aggressively seek to hire them. Those who ignore the need for diversity do so at their own peril.

Overall, I think we’ve seen an increase of diversity in broadcasting. But our numbers can and should be higher.

Traditionally we’ve used sort of an opt-in system when it comes to journalism. Meaning, if you’re feeling it as a pursuit young, it’s actually preferable because the needed passion for the craft will be there as well. Can journalists be created who otherwise might be headed in a different career path?

I think great journalists come from different disciplines. I know many smart journalists who didn’t come from J-school or major in communications. I, myself, majored in political science. I’ve witnessed successful journalism careers blossom and thrive outside of the traditional pathways. I’ve found that strong journalists are well-rounded. They are curious and inquisitive. They are excellent writers, storytellers and critical thinkers. And they are relentless when it comes to drilling past the who-what-when-where-where-why-how.

I’ve seen opinions that media outlets have been distracted trying to stay afloat financially in recent times to really lean into diversity issues. That’s understandable given the marketplace, but it also makes the point that diversity without leadership to drive it won’t happen.

I strongly believe that financial success and diversity are not mutually exclusive. The strongest media companies know that financial success and diversity work hand-in-hand. And that’s not just the case in big city television markets. It’s been my experience that successful small- and medium-size television stations also know the importance of diversity, and they walk the walk.

That being said, I definitely agree that diversity without leadership won’t happen. Building and promoting diversity starts at the top. It must be part of the vision and there must be accountability.  

The latest American Society of News Editor’s “Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey” (2018) for newspapers shows total Black employment at roughly 7.5 percent, split almost evenly between men and women. The year before it was roughly 5.5 percent. For Black newspaper newsroom leaders, it’s also an increase of two percentage points year to year, with African-Americans now making up 6.5 percent. 

In your world of television, the 2020 Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) survey on diversity in television news shows African-American representation in television newsrooms at 13.8 percent, up from 12.4 percent last year. It was just over 10 percent in 1995, the first year of the survey. Less than a four point increase since 1995 makes the point on how difficult this has been, doesn’t it? 

It’s getting better, certainly. But it can be stronger. And not just for Black journalists. We need to see more Hispanic, Asian and Native American  journalists as well. Overall, we have a long way to go.

For African-American television news directors, it stands at 3.9 percent in 2020, down from 5.5 percent last year. 1.6 held the position in 1995. This is a key position and the numbers again demonstrate the challenge. 

Correct. Things are better, but we need to see stronger progress in the news leadership ranks. I am very passionate about both mentoring and recruiting people of color and women to news management.  

One of my frustrations watching reporting on the community is it often comes one of two ways. The first is what I call The Jackie Robinson Syndrome; meaning, if you’re a trailblazing pioneer, you’ll make the paper or TV station. The second is Crime; be it perpetrator or victim. In between it’s crickets chirping.

Not so long ago, I remember that the only time we saw minority community coverage was for a crime story or when covering a festival. I do think things are better, especially in larger markets. But I also think we have to do a better job of finding balance of stories in communities of color in all markets. This also includes seeking out a diverse pool of experts, our pool of “go-to” people to provide analysis. There has to be a concerted and sustained effort to show diversity on air in all walks of life.

For non-African-Americans here, why is it important to have African-American voices in the newsroom? What’s in it for them?

I think we all benefit by having a diverse group of co-workers, colleagues and managers. Our stories and news coverage becomes sharper, more thoughtful and more global when there are more voices at the table. Strong stations and news managers know this. To eliminate or minimize diversity is unconscionable. Again, we can’t just hope that it happens. It starts at the top. Station leadership must weave diversity into recruitment, hiring, editorial decisions and community involvement. Stronger diversity makes us stronger broadcasters.

In the story I mention “The Kerney Report” and the interesting goals highlighted when it comes to African-American representation in the media. One of the interesting bits of the report suggests reaching down to high school age to generate interest in journalism. What do you make of that idea? Younger?

I think there’s some validity to that. For example, when we look to efforts to grow more diversity in science and high-tech, we know that success comes by exposing kids to STEM education at an early age. The same could be said for journalism. The reality, though, is that, overall, journalism isn’t necessarily a high-paying profession. Those of us who enter the profession look past the paycheck. Journalism is a calling. I am so encouraged and supportive when I see young people who are eager to become journalists.

One of the results of “The Kerney Report” is most every network affiliate and PBS station across the country featured a weekend public affairs show hosted, produced and specifically directed to an African-American audience. It seemed to perfectly fit the times. There was a show on KOAT, “The Black Experience,” hosted by Juba Clayton for example. Is it time for affiliates to consider these types of shows again?

I think smart, well-produced public affairs shows are a great service to the community in general. The best shows I’ve seen effectively highlight voices and perspectives that don’t always get the air time they deserve. Producing strong public affairs programming also takes dedicated resources. With shrinking budgets, many commercial stations have had to make tough choices.  Unfortunately, public affairs shows may often be the first cut.

Could we as a Black community be, frankly, asking too much of local media outlets since no station can meet all needs inside a diverse metropolis. Do Black-owned pubs and media have a place in the mix to fill that in? Is the burden actually on us to provide in-depth reporting on issues on our community that then perhaps get picked up by bigger media?

It’s true that no one station can cover everything in every market. Especially those stories that require digging deeper. And that may mean that people of color will have to take the lead on bringing certain stories to light that might not otherwise be covered in the mainstream media. But I am also cautious about stories being placed into racial categories. (“Oh that’s a Black story” or “That’s something of interest just to the Hispanic community.”) Good stories are good stories and important issues deserve attention, period. Again, this underscores the importance of having diverse voices in a newsroom.

One of the ongoing dilemmas for newspaper editors and television news directors is getting a fix on exactly “who” their audience is. This poses a particular problem when it comes to developing stories regarding the Albuquerque African-American community, because we are less than 5 percent of the viewership. How do you square that so everyone is served?

In all my years in television news working in seven different TV markets, I have never worked for a station or a boss who only wanted us to solely target or tailor our stories to one specific audience. I have found that smart, well-informed viewers want to see stories about all kinds of people and topics.

The filter we use is “relevance.” We look for stories that help our viewers better understand their communities. And there are universal themes. Are your tax dollars really serving your community? How can we recruit more teachers to New Mexico? How do we attract more businesses to our state? How do you keep your family safe? How do we lower the number of COVID cases in New Mexico.

That being said, I do think we can do a better job of actively seeking out specific stories that reflect diverse communities. And we need to challenge ourselves. Those kinds of stories won’t just drop into our lap. We have to do a better job of aggressively seeking out those stories.

It’s an understatement to say it’s challenging for Black women, no matter what profession. That’s just a fact. I’m curious about your journey, particularly the early years of your career. What was the biggest hurdle?

You are correct. As an African-American woman, I have faced challenges, and many of them were painful. Early in my career, I had bosses who underestimated my ability. For all of the education and experience I had, I didn’t always get the opportunities that I knew my white counterparts received. I knew that I had to be three times as good to get half as much. But I was also lucky. Aside from the bad bosses I’ve had, I had several really good ones. They saw my potential. And they did more than just mentor me. They sponsored me. They not only put me at the table—they put me at the head of the table.    

Being the president and general manager of a Hearst/ABC legacy television station in the 48th largest market in the nation is a major accomplishment, truly. What do you want young Black women to take away from your ascension?

I tell those I mentor that, first and foremost, you must be excellent. Mediocre won’t cut it. Success and excellence go hand-in-hand.  

Have a vision and be laser-focused on who you want to be and where you want to go. Set your sights high, and work fearlessly to achieve your goal. I tell young people of color that the road will not always be easy and that they’ll experience setbacks. People will doubt their ability. But I know from experience that those tough moments make you stronger, and you will succeed.  

And I always want young black women to know they’re not alone. There are many of us who support them and we are cheering them on.

Now that you’ve been here a bit, I’m sure you’ve gleaned just how deep and rich our version of “diversity” is in New Mexico. There’s also a pretty good track record of diversity in newsrooms here, as mentioned in the story. Was that a selling point for you?

I love New Mexico! This is such a beautiful state with beautiful people. I love the diversity here too, and it’s a huge selling point when we recruit potential employees. I enjoy learning the history of the incredible mix of people in New Mexico. And the other thing I love about New Mexico is the food. Wow!

I really appreciate your insights, and again, much congratulations!Again, my absolute pleasure. I am honored that you asked to interview me!

 

 

   

 

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