When I started working at the Alligator in the summer of 1986, reporters were still typing their stories out on manual typewriters. The clickety-clack of those ancient machines always made it seem like we were in some black-and-white 1950s movie instead of on the verge of the digital age.
It was a time when there was very little emphasis — or even awareness — of the importance of diversity in our newsroom. During my days at The Alligator, I was the only staffer of Asian descent that I can recall. When I was appointed to the role of managing editor in 1987, I never wondered whether I was the first Asian American to rise to one of the top two positions in the newsroom. While I think I might have been, I don’t know for sure.
I do know there were some who came after me. Today, I’m thrilled to know The Alligator’s Editor-In-Chief, Jiselle Lee, and Digital Managing Editor, Jackson Reyes, are both Asian American.
As someone who had never had many Asian Americans in my schools growing up, the situation in the 1980s seemed pretty normal. I’m sure if I had grown up in California or a major urban area, instead of South Florida, I would have had a greater awareness of the contributions Asians had made to American culture.
There was no Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month back then. President Obama wouldn’t sign the proclamation making May AAPI Heritage Month for another 25 years.
The lack of diversity in the news industry really wouldn’t hit me for a few more years. I was a reporter at the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s when I first started to wonder why there were so few Asian American journalists in the Florida market. I could count the ones in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach market on both of my hands and still have a few fingers left over.
That feeling of isolation was one reason a handful of other Asian Americans and I founded the Florida Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association in 1995.
Our chapter provided a network for Asian Americans in the news business, but we also monitored and responded to unfair portrayals of Asians in the state’s newspapers and broadcast news. Most importantly, we pushed our newsrooms to examine their hiring practices.
Having a newsroom with reporters and editors from different backgrounds and cultures is important to being able to cover the communities they live in.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as having someone on staff who can see past cultural blindspots, flagging hurtful points of view or phrases someone else wasn’t even aware of. It’s also critical in building trust in the community.
For example, the Orlando Sentinel in the 1990s found that it had very few Spanish-speaking reporters on staff to cover the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in Central Florida. After the community protested, the Sentinel made a major push to hire bilingual journalists.
Representation matters. Having two top editors of Asian descent for the first time in The Alligator’s 117-year history matters. Their voices, their perspectives and life experiences matter – not only for their newsroom but for the UF community.
The Alligator has come a long way since those days of manual typewriters, when we literally cut and paste new paragraphs into our stories. Having a newsroom as diverse as the one we see at today’s Alligator also reflects how much the times have changed. And yet, in a state where the governor and legislature have outlawed the very idea of promoting diversity, having that representation at The Independent Florida Alligator matters more than ever.
Joe Newman is a photographer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He spent many years as a reporter and editor at Florida newspapers but has worked in nonprofit communications in D.C. since 2007. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Florida’s J-School, teaching a course on public interest communications.