The Heartland Project Ends, But Work Continues to Make Newsrooms More Inclusive

By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

The Heartland Project officially ended in February, but the endeavor has extended beyond.

Last week, an Omaha television station used a photo I snapped of police officer Kerrie Orozco huddling with her youth baseball team. Orozco, who had just given birth three months ago to a daughter, was shot and killed in the line of duty while helping serve a warrant on a suspect in a September shooting. Orozco, 29, who coached a team sponsored by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, was part of a story I did for NET public radio about baseball’s diversity challenges.

A few days later, National Public Radio broadcast a piece about the toll of heroin on the tiny town of Madison, Neb., as part of a weeklong series on heroin in the Heartland. The story recounted the tragic consequences of the drug on one family and one tiny community in the Great Plains. The story captured some of the voices of ordinary Americans swept up in the resurgence of the opiate.

On the surface, some might wonder what my NPR piece had to do with diversity and inclusion. But not every story about Latinos or Asian Americans has to be about immigration; not every story about blacks should be tinged with the issues flaring in Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo.; and not every story about Native Americans has to be about poverty and alcoholism. Indeed, confining coverage of communities of color to a narrow band of issues only reinforces stereotypes.

The Heartland Project was about promoting broader coverage of our communities, regardless of subject matter. A story about taxes, for example, is as relevant to Asian Americans, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans as it is to Anglo-Americans.

Much of the recent coverage of the resurgence of heroin has focused on the intrusion of the drug among whites, particularly in rural America, but the drug is also a concern in other sectors of rural communities – in this case, a Latino family in a small Nebraska town.

All along, The Heartland Project was about inclusion.

I’ve spent the past months reflecting on whether my year in Nebraska had been worth it. Had I made a difference? What did newsrooms get out of it? What did I get out of it?

There are no immediate answers to these questions.

I arrived in Nebraska more than a year ago with so much ambition and excitement. I had signed on to be the lead reporter for The Heartland Project, a yearlong experiment to help newsrooms across the state broaden their coverage of communities of color, as well as gays, lesbians and other communities that don’t get much attention from mainstream news media.

It was new territory for the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

One never knows what to expect when treading into new terrain.

It’s not as if Nebraska was uncharted territory. There are dozens of newspapers across the state, including the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. There are television and radio stations that reach Nebraska’s 1.9 million people. Each newsroom, in its own way, endeavored to cover their neighborhoods, cities, counties and institutions.

My job was to enhance that coverage by producing stories that might go uncovered. Some stories were approached from novel angles.

My first project for the Lincoln Journal-Star looked at Lincoln’s changing demographics through the lens of schools, teens and high school proms.

Another piece, this one for local public radio, explored how some white renters and landlords were being affected by an ordinance in Fremont, Neb., that requires renters to first register with the police. The story reported on how some white residents were troubled and inconvenienced by the law, which was spawned by concerns (unjustified or not) over undocumented immigration.

When I arrived, news managers were confused about my mission. At times, I seemed confused myself. But I was heartened by the acknowledgement by editors that their newsrooms could do better in covering Latinos, Asian Americans, blacks and Native Americans, and in covering issues important to the LGBTQ communities. Identifying that a problem exists is always a good start.

I was to have been embedded at a newspaper, but the deal fell apart before I was even attached to the project. I’m still not altogether sure what happened, but the project morphed into something else. Not only was I the lead reporter for the project, but also its chief ambassador and marketer. I was a glorified freelancer who had to establish relationships with newsrooms, pitch stories and produce.

The expectation was to produce 40 pieces. It was an unrealistic goal. But we met our goal. (Even as one of the most prolific front page reporters at The Sacramento Bee, those kinds of numbers were challenging.)

My time in Nebraska was made easier because of the support the Heartland Project received from UNL’s journalism program, including the college’s new dean, Maria Marron.

Professor Gary Kebbel, a former dean of the college, helped bring the Heartland Project to Nebraska. He was the project’s most devoted champion, and I’m indebted to his support and guidance.

Professor Michelle Hassler taught an advanced reporting class that focused on the Heartland Project, and she was a valued adviser. Professor Tim Anderson continues to do wonderful work with his Mosaic project, a reporting project focused on Nebraska’s growing refugee and immigrant communities. Professor Carla Kimbrough challenges her students to think about fairness, race and the news media.

Of course, I’m especially indebted to Charlyne Berens, the former associate dean of the journalism college, for her editing, guidance, patience and friendship.

There are so many other faculty members who I’d like to thank – Luis Peon-Casanova, Joe Weber, Trina Creighton, Barney McCoy, Ford Clark, Rick Alloway, Sue Bullard, Amy Struthers, Sriyani Tidbal and Matt Waite, among them – for helping me feel welcomed and making the Heartland Project the success that it was.

While I learned from my colleagues, I learned more from the students I met. Much of the my time at the university was spent mentoring students and addressing classes about diversity and inclusion, as well as helping teach skills that I hope will allow aspiring journalists to push themselves beyond their comfort levels.

Most journalism students at UNL are white and the majority hail from Nebraska, but most of those I came to know seemed to understand my mission. Some made it theirs.

And I’m excited to know that there are serious discussions about further integrating issues of diversity and inclusion into the curriculum.

The word “diversity” has taken on all sorts of meanings. There’s now a diversity of thought on the meaning, with each person loading the word with whatever fits his or her agenda. It’s unfortunate that when people talk about enhancing diversity, some people now see it as an agenda-driven effort. My “agenda” has always been about helping newsrooms better cover their communities.

I now personally like the word “inclusion” to describe how we can work together to make our newsroom and coverage more representative of our neighborhoods and increasingly diverse populations.

It’s imperative that newsrooms transform themselves to be more inclusive in their coverage. Simply put, it’s good for business. It’s about survival. We need to expand our audiences. And we need to make money to pay salaries.

Nebraska’s overall population remains mostly white, with communities of color accounting for less than a fifth of the state’s residents. But look deeper, and you’ll find that Nebraska has among the country’s most dramatic surges in minority population. In fact, the Hispanic population – now numbering about 180,000 – has nearly doubled since the 2000 U.S. Census.

Residents tracing their heritage to Asia and the Pacific Islands increased by more than 70 percent, while the black population increased by 30 percent. Native Americans grew by more than half. As a whole, the state’s population grew by 8.4 percent since 2000, with the number of whites growing just by 1 percent. Look at our future: about a third of the 38,000 students in Lincoln Public Schools are now from communities of color. About 15 years ago, nearly nine in every 10 students were of European stock.

The U.S. will become a majority minority nation by 2044, according to projections released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of minority employees has consistently hovered between 12 and 13 percent for more than a decade, while about 37 percent of the population is of color.

According to the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, “people of color in the United States will command unprecedented economic clout.”

In 2013, Latinos in the United States represented a $1.2 trillion market. African Americans represented $1 trillion, and Asian Americans supply more than $700 billion to the economy.

Meanwhile, there are now more entrepreneurs of color.

  • Between 2002 and 2007, the number of minority firms grew by nearly half – a far higher rate than the 18 percent growth for all U.S. companies.
  • During that period, Asian American-owned businesses grew 41 percent to 1.6 million from 2002.
  • In 2007, Hispanic-owned businesses totaled 2.3 million – up 44 percent from 2002.
  • African American-owned businesses surged to 1.9 million firms in 2007, up 61 percent from 2002.

What does all this mean? There is money to be made by media companies. But why would a Latino businesswoman advertise in a product that does a poor job in reaching potential clients?

For a long time, there’s been a wall between newsrooms and the business side of things. And rightly so. Newsrooms need to be independent. But it doesn’t mean newsrooms shouldn’t be doing more on their own to reach out to communities of color – not to help ad sales people generate more money, but to fulfill its missions of covering the communities they serve. From top to bottom, newsrooms need to take on the responsibility.

I’ve always been hard on myself. I’ve been told that I’m my own worst critic. So I spent much of my time in Nebraska questioning whether I was making a difference.

Outside a small circle of friends and a few colleagues, it seemed no one was paying attention. For the past year, The Heartland Project seemed like a lonely endeavor – working alone in the middle of someplace that had been foreign to me. I was part of something worthwhile but most of the time, I was never sure if anyone was taking notice.

But I was taken aback when I returned home to Washington, D.C., and a noticed a young journalist waiting patiently as I finished a conversation with an old friend during an event. The young woman introduced herself and told me she had been following my work.

I felt relieved. The small gesture seemed to be some validation.

Along the way, there have been other acknowledgements that The Heartland Project was making a difference. It was especially gratifying to get kudos from editors who appreciated my approach to storytelling. It was also nice to hear a compliment or two from ordinary Nebraskans who came across my work. Most importantly, I was encouraged to meet young and aspiring journalists in Nebraska who understand the value of diversity and inclusion.

Regardless of what legacy the Heartland Project leaves behind, it was fulfilling personal and professional endeavor.

The Heartland Project may be over, but our work continues.

It’s been a privilege to serve AAJA, NLGJA, the University of Nebraska and the great people of Nebraska.

Featured image courtesy of Bobby Calvan.