Knight managing director Dawn Garcia honored for commitment to diversity

Dawn Garcia has been honored with a Career Achievement Award by CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California. Garcia was cited for her commitment to diversity throughout her career as a journalist and as the managing director of the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford.

CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California is the oldest organization of journalists of color in the country. It is dedicated to the advancement of Latino journalists and to fostering fair and accurate portrayals of Latinos in the news media. Garcia will receive her award at CCNMA’s 34th Scholarship Banquet on May 30 in Los Angeles. Also being honored are Tony Valdez, a longtime reporter with Fox11 in Los Angeles; Phillip Rodriguez, who produced the documentary “Ruben Salazar: The Man in the Middle;” and NPR station KPCC-FM for its commitment to diversity in hiring and editorial content.

Garcia was a reporter and editor at West Coast newspapers for 18 years, including the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle, where she wrote about politics, immigration and legal affairs. For the last 13 years, she has been a director at the Knight Fellowships, an ambitious program focused on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.

“First as a reporter and then as an editor, and now with the Knight Fellowships, Dawn Garcia has fought to include Latinos in the newsroom,” said Julio Moran, CCNMA executive director. “She understands the importance of diversity and has been successful in getting more candidates of color for the Knight Fellowships.”

‘Tireless advocate’

In fact, this year’s fellowships’ application pool is one of the program’s most diverse, with 43 percent identifying themselves as people of color. Each class typically has 12 U.S. and eight international fellows. Of the 13 U.S. Fellows in the Class of 2013, seven were people of color. In this year’s class, eight of the U.S. Fellows are people of color. Those numbers are no accident. The fellowships directors have purposely expanded their outreach to a wider range of journalists and journalism entrepreneurs and broadened the types of journalism conferences they attend, according to Director Jim Bettinger.

While working at both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, Garcia headed efforts to increase diversity. Her efforts at the Chronicle helped launch the paper’s internship program, which emphasized diversity. “I was once an intern and I saw how that could really help get you into the business.” She remembers creating a large pie chart poster for a meeting with management; the poster compared the diverse demographics of the Bay Area with the not-so-diverse newsroom.

She also championed diversity at The Mercury News, which had possibly the most diverse newsroom in the country. She worked there for eight years as an editor, rising to assistant managing editor.

Joe Rodriguez, a staff writer at the Mercury News who worked with Dawn, and nominated her for the award, said, “she’s been a dedicated, tireless and successful advocate for diversity in American newsrooms. But she’s so quiet and classy about it, I wonder if she’s received the attention she deserves.”

As a newsroom leader she helped assemble one of the most talented, racially and ethnically diverse newsrooms in the country, he said. “We tackled some thorny, hot-button issues, from illegal immigration to affirmative action, and we did it with sophisticated and lively writing.”

Diversity means accuracy

Garcia learned to value diversity at an early age, she said. She grew up in Santa Clara Valley – now Silicon Valley – with its rich population mix, people of all backgrounds and cultures working and living side by side. Throughout her journalism career, she saw the value of diversity in both hiring and coverage.

“I always thought that including everyone in news coverage meant that it was accurate, that diversity is an important element of accuracy,” she said. “As a reporter, I felt it was important to include people of all walks of life, color and backgrounds so you’re really telling the whole story.”

“Sadly, too many newsrooms have abandoned diversity in their desperate drives to survive or maintain unrealistic profit margins,” said Rodriguez.

Newsrooms today have “diversity fatigue,” she said. The combination of staff and budget cuts has had its impact. Few newspapers send people to journalism conferences anymore to recruit for a diverse staff. “Now it’s thought of as an extra when it should be integral.”

Study after study shows that greater diversity can have an impact on the bottom line, she said. A newsroom more reflective of its community is likely to make better coverage and management decisions. That’s even more important as the country’s demographics shift – especially California, with its growing Latino and Asian populations, she said.

“At the Knight Fellowships, we’ve learned that diversity is a major factor in having a successful group of fellows. Collaboration is the key to success today, and that requires people with a wide range of ideas and backgrounds coming together to make things happen.”

The silver lining

Changes in the news industry that have hurt diversity efforts are also creating new opportunities, Garcia said. “So many barriers to entry have been lowered that people are creating their own news organizations. They don’t have to wait to be hired.”

But advocates for diversity will still be needed, she said. As legacy media transitions to a new normal and news startups proliferate, it’s important they don’t repeat the mistakes of tech startups, which have been criticized for lack of staff diversity.

 “It doesn’t have to be that way,” Rodriguez said. “I’m glad Dawn is still in the journalism arena advocating for inclusion and quality.”

Garcia is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is a board member of the Institute for Justice & Journalism, a nonprofit that seeks to improve media coverage of social justice issues by training journalists, funding reporting projects and developing digital tools. And she is a past president of the Journalism & Women Symposium, a national nonprofit organization of women journalists and journalism educators.