An AI-generated image of a lone Black man standing on a sidewalk in Philadelphia with his hands in his pockets, looking up at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has yet to meet with the J.A.W.N. Coalition

Leadership at Philly’s flagship newspaper are putting on a master class in how not to respond to criticism of your newsroom

It sucks when someone calls you out for failing to live up to your commitments. Even when it’s something small, like a relative pointing out during a family gathering that you still haven’t run that 5K you talked about all summer.

It’s even worse when it’s something vastly more consequential, like when a coalition of reporters, editors, and organizers of color call you and your legacy news organization out for failing to hire a single Black male reporter outside of the sports desk (until a few days ago) to cover a city that’s more than 41% Black. And that’s after you publicly committed to becoming “an anti-racist organization” and said you’re working to undo the long and storied legacy of racist and discriminatory harm perpetrated by your news organization.

That’s what is happening in Philadelphia, where the newly-formed J.A.W.N. (Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network) Coalition recently presented legitimate, good-faith criticisms regarding ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion issues at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The latest round of public criticism kicked off with a tweet from Ernest Owens, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.

It would have been easy enough at that point for someone in management at the Inquirer, such as CEO and publisher Lisa Hughes, to simply retweet Owens’ thread, acknowledge the problem and commit to doing better.

But there was no response. At that point, J.A.W.N. had formed and took the opportunity to pen an open letter to Hughes, editor Gabriel Escobar, and the rest of the Inquirer’s leadership that called for immediate action and requested a meeting.

Again, there was no direct response.

Hughes, however, did send an email to her staff warning of “voices outside of our organization looking to downplay and disregard the hard work that goes on each and every day at The Inquirer.” She went on to describe the discussion about the Inquirer and the complaints from J.A.W.N. as “demands, threats, and belittlement.”

The fact that many of the so-called “outsiders” who now make up the J.A.W.N. Coalition are former Inquirer employees makes the label and the general tone of Hughes’ email more insulting.

“NAHJ Philly is deeply troubled by the Inquirer publisher’s email to her staff, which disregarded our legitimate concerns about the lack of Black male news journalists at the paper,” said Vanessa Maria Graber, president of NAHJ Philly and News Voices director at Free Press in response to the email. Both organizations are members of the J.A.W.N. Coalition.

“Dismissing the collective concerns raised by affinity groups, having your DEI director speak to others while avoiding @PABJ is anti-Black,” wrote PABJ President and Philadelphia Magazine editor-at-large Ernest Owens in a Twitter thread.

It’s a shame to see a powerful institution like the Inquirer miss such a huge opportunity by disregarding this coalition. We saw something similar last year in New Jersey, when NJ Advance Media never publicly acknowledged former reporter Tennyson Donyea Coleman’s claims of racism inside its newsroom.

Molly de Aguiar, president of the Philly-based Independence Public Media Foundation, offered similar advice for the Inquirer:

In the month or so since the J.A.W.N. Coalition first published its open letter — adding to the long list of similar issues raised over the last several years — organizations such as the NJ Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists have also joined the calls for accountability.

Leadership at the Inquirer, however, has yet to agree to meet or even discuss these issues with representatives of the J.A.W.N. Coalition.

Will this ongoing issue serve as a lesson for other organizations that find themselves called out, criticized, or under similar pressure to do better and actually respond better? I doubt it, but one can hope.

If something like this does happen to you and your organization, your first response should be to listen and engage even more — not to raise the drawbridges and act like you’re under siege from a horde of “outsiders” hell-bent on tearing you down and discounting all your hard work.

There is, however, some good news for Hughes and the rest of the Inquirer leadership: It’s not too late to admit that you fumbled the ball and agree to meet with members of the J.A.W.N. Coalition.

Joe Amditis is the assistant director of products and events at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu or on Twitter at @jsamditis.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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Joe Amditis

Joe Amditis

Joe is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and the host of the WTF Just Happened Today? podcast.