Editor’s Note: To better our own diversity and inclusion efforts, we interviewed some of the first minority reporters to work at The Daily Texan.
For UT journalism professor Erna Smith, The Daily Texan’s fall 1971 newsroom and the margins of its daily publications shared one similarity: They lacked color.
Smith’s first conclusions about the workspace were interrupted by an introduction from Lori Rodriguez, a 1972 UT alumna and the newspaper’s first Hispanic editor-in-chief. In hindsight, Smith said seeing another woman of color in the newsroom was what ultimately convinced her to join the Texan.
“Just (Rodriguez) coming out of her desk when she saw me and shaking my hand made a big difference,” Smith said. “It makes a difference what the diversity of the room looks like. (If it wasn’t for her,) I might have just not went into the room.”
But Smith isn’t alone — many minority journalists have defied the challenges of a homogenous industry to introduce their unique perspectives into print. And some of these pioneers’ journeys began at the Texan.
The University’s past policies of segregation facilitated a long history of exclusion in the Texan newsroom. Griff Singer, a retired senior lecturer at UT who worked at the newspaper as a student in the early 1950s, said diversity at the time was never discouraged — rather, it was simply not possible.
“The Texan, historically, has generally been an open organization that hasn’t methodically tried to keep diversity from happening on the staff.”
Along with discriminatory legislation, familial expectations also prevented some aspiring journalists from initially joining the industry.
Fernando Dovalina, a 1963 journalism alumnus and son of working class Mexican immigrants, attended college with the intentions of becoming a pharmacist before a professor at Laredo Junior College (now Laredo Community College) noticed that his “sparse writing style” was suitable for reporting.
“All it took was one, single person,” Dovalina said. “(My professor) thought I was a good writer, and she changed my life.”
A space long accessible to solely white and some Hispanic students, the Texan became more integrated following UT’s admission of its first black undergraduates in 1956.
Amongst the first black undergraduates to attend the Forty Acres were also aspiring journalists, including Dr. Leon McNealy, a radiation oncologist and 1963 journalism alumnus. While reporting for the Texan as a wire editor, McNealy said the Texan newsroom gave him freedom of expression within a college atmosphere which made him the victim of attempted lynchings and arrests.
“The Texan was sort of an oasis — it wasn’t heaven — but you could see it like that,” McNealy said. “Here you are in this atmosphere where you could be killed, or injured, or hurt, and no one would give a s--t, but it gave me an outlet to express myself.”
Part of McNealy’s freedom of thought included “Dear Momma,” a column in which he painted a satirical picture of the University’s segregated campus life for his majority-white audience. His presence at the Texan gave readers a new perspective, but McNealy said at least one Texan editor disapproved of the column.
“I remember standing on the steps of the journalism building and him telling me he hadn’t made up his mind on segregation and desegregation yet,” McNealy said. “He pressured me into stopping (“Dear Momma”), but of course, I didn’t.”
In addition to publishing varying staff perspectives such as McNealy’s, the Texan of the ‘70s, starting from Rodriguez’s leadership from 1971 to 1972, made it imperative to publish marginalized opinions outside of staff. The editorial board began publishing “guest viewpoint” columns from members of students organizations, including the Black Students Union, Young Socialist Alliance and Mexican American Youth Organization.
Accompanying Rodriguez as some of the newspaper’s first leaders of color was Sylvia Moreno, managing editor in the fall semester of 1974 and 1975 journalism alumna. The former Washington Post reporter said that as a first-generation Latina student, the Texan gave her vital experience and networking opportunities in a field dominated by advantaged whites.
“Part of my college world was where you get a real job to support yourself in a professional way,” Moreno said. “Some kids are lucky enough where they can come to Washington and be interns for free because their families can afford to put them up while they’re getting experience and not getting paid.”
This professionalism in the newsroom extended into the 1980s with staffers such as 1984 journalism alumnus Roger Campbell, the paper’s first black editor-in-chief. Campbell’s prioritization of professionalism over politics was seen by some readers as right-winged reporting, which earned him some negative feedback from UT’s liberal campus.
However, Campbell said the file full of “nasty” letters and other malicious responses he received confirmed he was doing something right.
“I remember reading in college that a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist’s quote was, ‘When you make people mad, you make people think,’” Campbell said. “Making people mad didn’t phase me, as long as they were mad for a legitimate reason.”
As the Texan grew in size throughout the 1990s, its staff reflected the campus’ increasing diversity to include students of more backgrounds. Khue Bui, a 1995 international business alumnus and former Texan photo editor, found both racial diversity and diverse perspectives of thought, which helped guide his reporting for certain stories.
“(Staffers) could say, ‘Well have you thought about this or have you thought about that idea?’” Bui said. “Taking it into a realm you don’t necessarily think of when you first approach a story.”
While differences in race, religion and class might have had quicker acceptance in newsrooms, Dovalina said affiliation with the LGBTQ+ community took much longer for journalists to openly express.
During his 31 years at the Houston Chronicle, homophobic incidents such as when a staffer told others to “let the queer die” instead of saving him from choking made Dovalina less open about being gay.
“We had gay and lesbian members on our staff at the Houston Chronicle, but that doesn’t mean there was complete acceptance,” Dovalina said. “It was very difficult for the staff members who were gay, lesbian, transgender or all the other categories to be open.”
After working at the Texan, some former staffers such as Dovalina worked to bring more diverse reporting into the newsrooms they worked at upon graduation. Dovalina, as a crime reporter for The Beaumont Enterprise, integrated the newspaper’s all-white birth record, a risky move he said the staff didn’t notice, but Beaumont’s black community must have.
“I bet someone (reading the birth records) that morning said, ‘Look, honey, our babies’ births are in the paper,” Dovalina said. “‘So maybe things are changing.’”
Despite efforts to diversify newsrooms, the American Society of News Editors 2018 survey reported that people of color represented 22.6 percent of newsrooms surveyed. Disadvantages in networking and a lack of belonging experienced by journalists of color has prevented the industry from diversifying, said Tracey Everbach, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas and 2000 UT journalism alumna.
“Bigger news organizations have made efforts to diversify, but if you take all newsrooms across the country, you’re looking at all kinds of small news organizations where they probably have one person of color or none,” Everbach said.
Angela Shah, a 1994 journalism alumna and the managing editor in 1993, has been one of these few people of color in the newsroom. Familiar with situations in which she was “the only (Indian-American),” Shah said she didn’t realize the negative implications of such a reality until she started her career.
Bui’s solution to combating such situations is similar to Shah’s: Maintaining a presence in the newsroom despite a lack of inclusion. Although everyone is entitled to an opinion, the former Associated Press and Newsweek Magazine photographer said critiquing the current diversity issues in newsrooms from the sidelines does little.
“Being a part of (the issue) and trying to change things is significantly more helpful,” Bui said. “At that point you can understand the operations of the system. If you find them inappropriate, make the change yourself.”
Many changes still need to be made to improve diversity and inclusion. But even more than having an effect on those in the newsroom, Bui said changing newsrooms’ lack of diversity will accurately educate readers about the world.
“(Diverse reporting is) not about educating just yourself,” Bui said. “It’s about educating the rest of society, about the differences of people and getting them to understand (them). I really hope you get a ton of people in that newsroom who want to change the world.”