Racism, diversity and a local news organization’s role

I’ve accepted an invitation tomorrow night to be part of a panel of community leaders speaking at a community forum addressing racism and discrimination against Hispanic students in our city’s school system.
A good thing happened in Torrington, Conn., about two months ago. A new school superintendent arrived in town. At age 33, he is too young in the minds of many residents skeptical of the revolving door of past leaders spouting the latest education jargon but having negligible impact on student performance, graduation rates, etc.
But there is reason for hope with this guy. He is owning up to the school district’s problems. He is attacking them head-on. He is doing it with a policy of transparency.
Racism is a big, ugly elephant in the room here. One that most would be happy continuing to ignore.
The only reason it is rising to the level of community forums, a cynic would say, is that Hispanic kids got so tired of feeling unsafe that a rumor was spread that Hispanic gang members were coming to Torrington to retaliate. That put the police department into high alert, and caused a panic among white parents.
Imagine the panic that Hispanic parents feel every day in sending their kids to school in that kind of environment.
Except they don’t run the PTO. They aren’t represented on the school board. They are too new a community within our community, even, to have a cohesive voice or ability to organize.
They don’t have a voice, or don’t feel their voice is heard, our new superintendent says.
And that’s where he thinks – and I think – we can help.
When I arrived in Torrington as interim publisher two years ago, one of the first things I did was kill a zoned regional edition of our New Haven-based Spanish-language weekly, “Registro.”
Besides the fact that it lost a lot of money, Registro was a forced, traditional newspaper company attempt to exploit a “demographic.” The disconnect between the product and the community it purported to serve couldn’t have been larger.
If you think the one-way communication of traditional media is wrong-headed, imagine that, run by people who don’t have any connection to or understanding of the communication they are feeding readers, nor speak or read the language of that one-way communication.
What’s left?
In The Register Citizen, and its story comment section, the Hispanic community finds a mirror reflection of the culture where “teachers do nothing” and the community reacts only when the police sound the alarm about scary rumors of Hispanic gangs from the city.
How do we change that?
Well, I think I’ll start by asking that question tomorrow night.
But we need to back that up with a willingness to give voice to this community on its terms. To give up the traditional compulsion to control information and the way it is distributed. To offer a partnership that could give them a voice – and financial benefit – instead of viewing them as a “target demographic.”
Could be a very good thing, for us, for them, and for Torrington.

About mattderienzo

Matt DeRienzo has worked for more than 20 years as a reporter, editor, publisher and corporate editorial director and has been recognized nationally for leading newsroom innovation. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University, writes a monthly column for Editor & Publisher magazine, and serves as interim executive director of LION Publishers, a national network of local independent online news site publishers. Previously, he served as group editor of Digital First Media's publications in Connecticut, including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, Register Citizen and Connecticut Magazine, and Northeast regional editor for Digital First Media. He also served as publisher of The Register Citizen, Middletown Press and a group of weeklies in Northwest Connecticut, and before that was corporate director of news for small dailies and non-daily publications for the former Journal Register Company. In early 2011, The Register Citizen was named one of Editor & Publisher magazine's "10 Newspapers That Do It Right," and DeRienzo was named to its annual "25 Under 35" list of leaders in the newspaper industry. In the fall of 2011, The Register Citizen was awarded the Associated Press Managing Editors Innovator of the Year Award in recognition of The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, an "open newsroom" launched in Torrington, Connecticut, in December 2010. He led a team of more than 100 journalists in covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in late 2012 and 2013, and has been honored for his editorial writing and leadership of public service and investigative reporting. In 2014, his efforts at the New Haven Register were recognized with the APME's and ASNE's Robert C. McGruder Award for Leadership in Newsroom Diversity. DeRienzo is a former longtime board member of the United Way of Northwest Connecticut, and served as co-chairman of the United Way's annual fundraising campaign in 2009 and again in 2011. In 2011, he received the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.
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