Layoffs at Chicago Tribune anger 'journalist of color'

David Paulin
Some "journalists of color" are livid over the Chicago Tribune's recent layoffs, claiming members of their racial and ethnic group were disproportionately targeted. Altogether, the Tribune laid off 40-plus people last Friday. According to one account, newsroom tensions were so high that a "powerful white columnist" challenged a "journalist of color" to a fistfight. All of this is reported by Richard Prince at his online "Journal-isms" column, published by the Maynard Institute that promotes minority hiring in the news business.

Could Tribune news managers really have based those layoff on racist motives?

That what Ray Quintanilla, a 14-year Tribune veteran, tells Prince who seems eager to believe him. "It's sad because if you look at the list (of people who were laid off), it's heavily minority. It looks bad," Quintanilla related. However, the ex-staffer offers no figures or statistics to back up his accusations; and nor did Prince's column offer any.

What does seem certain is that Quintanilla has some deficiencies in respect to newsroom politics and charm. According to Prince's column:

(Quintanilla) said his marching orders came a day after he challenged a powerful white Tribune columnist who for the fifth time had hired a white assistant, asking the columnist if he had considered any people of color. He recalled that owner Sam Zell had told employees to question authority.

Quintanilla said the columnist publicly challenged him to a fight, and said he has filed a complaint with the Tribune's human relations department.

The reporter said he could not prove his layoff was related to the Thursday incident, but said, "It just smells bad to me."

Neither the columnist nor Tribune editor Gerould W. Kern responded to requests for comment.

What to make of all this? First, consider what's been happening in recent months in newsrooms across the country. Thousands of editors and reporters have been laid off, a result of shrinking ad revenues and decreasing numbers of readers. The downturn is so severe that even top editors and reporters at papers like the Washington Post and New York Times are being laid off or encouraged to accept buyouts. Race and ethnicity have had nothing to do with any of this. On the contrary: It's all about economics.

But what if Quintanilla's claims are true, that the Tribune did indeed lay off a "disproportionate number" of minority journalists? In all likelihood, it was not due to newsroom racism. One of the most likely possibilities is that Tribune editors eliminated positions that had been created in recent years, during better economic times, and that were filled with minority journalists. Indeed, newsrooms have for years been trying hard to increase "diversity" in the newsroom, even if it has meant using "quotas" in hiring -- and even if it meant hiring less qualified minority candidates over more qualified white ones.

But don't tell that to Quintanilla and others who are used to whining about newsroom racism. Viewing the world through a racial prism, they see racial bias in any perceived slight or newsroom decision. Indeed, Quintanilla is quoted as saying: "The Tribune is where minority reporters can go to die. They get lost in the bureaucracy and they're ignored."

Well, what a shame. But that's not a reflection of newsroom racism; it's the nature of newspaper journalism. Lots of newspaper reporters and editors could say the same thing. Indeed, I've heard those complaint often over the years from journalists of all colors. It explains why so many journalists, after a few years, get out of the business for good.
Some "journalists of color" are livid over the Chicago Tribune's recent layoffs, claiming members of their racial and ethnic group were disproportionately targeted. Altogether, the Tribune laid off 40-plus people last Friday. According to one account, newsroom tensions were so high that a "powerful white columnist" challenged a "journalist of color" to a fistfight. All of this is reported by Richard Prince at his online "Journal-isms" column, published by the Maynard Institute that promotes minority hiring in the news business.

Could Tribune news managers really have based those layoff on racist motives?

That what Ray Quintanilla, a 14-year Tribune veteran, tells Prince who seems eager to believe him. "It's sad because if you look at the list (of people who were laid off), it's heavily minority. It looks bad," Quintanilla related. However, the ex-staffer offers no figures or statistics to back up his accusations; and nor did Prince's column offer any.

What does seem certain is that Quintanilla has some deficiencies in respect to newsroom politics and charm. According to Prince's column:

(Quintanilla) said his marching orders came a day after he challenged a powerful white Tribune columnist who for the fifth time had hired a white assistant, asking the columnist if he had considered any people of color. He recalled that owner Sam Zell had told employees to question authority.

Quintanilla said the columnist publicly challenged him to a fight, and said he has filed a complaint with the Tribune's human relations department.

The reporter said he could not prove his layoff was related to the Thursday incident, but said, "It just smells bad to me."

Neither the columnist nor Tribune editor Gerould W. Kern responded to requests for comment.

What to make of all this? First, consider what's been happening in recent months in newsrooms across the country. Thousands of editors and reporters have been laid off, a result of shrinking ad revenues and decreasing numbers of readers. The downturn is so severe that even top editors and reporters at papers like the Washington Post and New York Times are being laid off or encouraged to accept buyouts. Race and ethnicity have had nothing to do with any of this. On the contrary: It's all about economics.

But what if Quintanilla's claims are true, that the Tribune did indeed lay off a "disproportionate number" of minority journalists? In all likelihood, it was not due to newsroom racism. One of the most likely possibilities is that Tribune editors eliminated positions that had been created in recent years, during better economic times, and that were filled with minority journalists. Indeed, newsrooms have for years been trying hard to increase "diversity" in the newsroom, even if it has meant using "quotas" in hiring -- and even if it meant hiring less qualified minority candidates over more qualified white ones.

But don't tell that to Quintanilla and others who are used to whining about newsroom racism. Viewing the world through a racial prism, they see racial bias in any perceived slight or newsroom decision. Indeed, Quintanilla is quoted as saying: "The Tribune is where minority reporters can go to die. They get lost in the bureaucracy and they're ignored."

Well, what a shame. But that's not a reflection of newsroom racism; it's the nature of newspaper journalism. Lots of newspaper reporters and editors could say the same thing. Indeed, I've heard those complaint often over the years from journalists of all colors. It explains why so many journalists, after a few years, get out of the business for good.