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Star-Ledger/NJ.com reporter Tennyson Donyea. (Photo: Twitter)

NJ.com reporter decries newsroom racism, says editors want stories that appeal to white readers

Tennyson Donyea says ‘black journalists can’t breathe,’ calls out racism at Star-Ledger, other NJ Advance Media publications

By David Wildstein, June 17 2021 7:35 pm

In an unvarnished, heartfelt denunciation of racist attitudes by the leadership of New Jersey Advance Media, which owns the Star-Ledger and NJ.com, a Black reporter is alleging a culture of hypocrisy and a corporate mission of appealing to white readers.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

“Black journalists can’t breathe, and it’s become my mental health hell,” said Tennyson Donyea, who took to Twitter on Thursday to give voice to his grievances. “This may be career suicide.  I may go bankrupt.  But after working in this industry for five years, it’s the hill I must die on for the sake of my Black sanity.”

Three weeks ago, Donyea said a senior-level manager asked him what they could do to salvage his frustration.

“I told them we need town halls.  I told them the diversity committee needs to be independently moderated.  But my biggest sticking point was, and still is, this: racism in leadership must go,” he said.

Among other things, Donyea said editors reminded him that he’s writing for predominately white readers.  The lack of reporters and editors of color at the Star-Ledger and other NJ Advance Media publications was conspicuous.

He felt pressured to look the other way, but that stopped today.

“After years of dancing around for these people, I can say I would rather be dead, like the ancestors who jumped from the slave ships, than let these companies keep getting away with treating journalists of color the way they do,” Donyea stated.

Donyea called out the news organization for their hypocrisy, pointing out a recent Star-Ledger report about the lack of women on powerful boards and commissions.

“The arbiters of the truth and transparency for everyone else – except when it applies to themselves, I suppose,” he said. “They ask you to meet them ‘halfway’ – and that’s not something I can do when it comes to racism.:

Holding nothing back, Donyea painted an unflattering insider’s view of a news organization that was once New Jerseys’ respected paper of record.

“Their microaggressions, the tone policing, and the dismissiveness are actually hostile.  Their willful ignorance makes it hard to do our jobs,” he said.

Instead, the company seeks to exploit the small number of journalists of color they do employ.

“They love to use our skin for their diversity efforts and marketing.  But once you start speaking up about inclusion and equity, and once you start calling out their racism, it’s a problem,” said Donyea.  “It’s hypocritical because they can call our racism and tokenism when it’s about other organizations or people.”

The journalist told the story of a headline he read on the NJ.com site following the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant: “Kobe Bryant and 15 other athletes and celebrities who died in plane and helicopter crashes.”

“I immediately found the article to be a devaluation of Black life and in overall poor journalistic taste,” Donyea asserted.  “I was not alone in this and had the support of many rank-and-file in the newsroom.”

NJ.com fixed the headline after he raised an objection and apologized on Twitter.  But Donyea said he learned about the “decision making process that made the headline possible was indicative of greater concerns I had about company culture.”

“A senior level manager I talked to about this actively disagreed and moved on,” he said.

Later, a Black History Month project Donyea pitched and created for NJ.com didn’t get the attention he had hoped for.

“Before it was published, my editor told me to ‘lower my expectations’ for its release and presentation,” he said. “Working on it for months, the company didn’t initially put its full backing behind the project compared to how it does for other projects.

The same editor reminded him of the demographics the Star-Ledger was appealing to.

Still, the project was well-received.

“‘Black in New Jersey’ resonated with the community I hoped it would and I asked the company if I could cover Black culture and lifestyle regularly – back then I covered entertainment and clickbait ‘trending’ news,” Donyea said.  “A senior level manager told me no.  I guess I was simply making them too much money writing about the Real Housewives of New Jersey and Wendy Williams’ divorce saga.”

After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Donyea went back to leadership at NJ Advance Media and delivered an ultimatum: that they either allow him to cover “diversity, culture and identity” or he would quit.

“Now, all of the sudden, when the pressure was turned up,”  they caved, even though it shouldn’t have taken a Black man  being murdered online for them to do something they had been resisting.”

Last June, NJ.com created a Culture, Identity and Diversity position, offering Donyea the job.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Donyea says he took the new beat “enthusiastically” and said he wanted to “cover the issues of minority communities from an unapologetic, raw and unfiltered standpoint,” and hoped to “talk about the root causes of all of these issues, in the voice of the oppressed.”

“But my enthusiasm turned to deference.  Deference led to helplessness.  That helplessness led to a realization for the need of liberation,” Donyea said. “It quickly became a token beat.”

He said his editors “made it clear they were powerless to go up against prevailing belief.”

“We currently lack enough news editors of color,” Donyea states.  “And the editors of color that do exist are either too afraid to speak out like I have, having already admitted their feelings of frustration in private or gone with the trope of how lucky people of color should feel to be in positions of profile.”

Instead, Donyea said he felt “like I was simply dressing the windows.”

“I’ve been told by separate senior level managers that I need to ‘move on from the past’ because the company is – supposedly – in a new place,” he said.  “One senior-level manager told me that’s the way I can help the company move forward.”

But Donyea believes that NJ Advance Media cannot move forward on addressing issues of racism or repairing their own racial inequity without a discussion about their record.

While serving on the company’s diversity committee he found out that in a state likely to be majority-minority within the next decade, NJ.com’s target audience was white, upper middle class and educated.  Donya withdrew from the committee last summer.

“I left the committee because it was traumatizing,” Donyea said.  “It was, and still is, a committee that is backed by a corporate entity that has no obligation or binding resolutions.”

He said he’s been told that the NJ.com diversity committee requires independent facilitators who know how to moderate issues.

“I truly believe a corporation with this much power cannot police its own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia with majority white leadership,” Donyea says.  “It’s not like we are getting paid to be exposed to traumatic experiences – and their ignorance – at work.”

According to Donyea,  his bosses rebuffed bids for grassroots engagement in Black and Brown communities for nearly two years.

“I was told by some leaders that it’s not necessary or that It would have to wait until we do things like hire more people of color, as if the two efforts could not happen in tandem,” he said.

Donyea suggested that NJ Advance Media “loves to pat itself on the back for things it should’ve already been doing.”

“They will tell you all about their token symbolic efforts to make our newsroom and news coverage more inclusive,” he said, strongly indicating an unwillingness to address the root of his exasperation.

He called out an industry wide problem of racism in the news industry, saying that “ratings and page views are ultimately king.”

“Maybe this company needs some good ‘ol fashion public accountability,” stated Donyea.  “I am walking through hell.  I’m suffocating, but I feel obligated to stand up for the liberation of those marginalized, for my soul and my well-being.”

Kevin Whitmer, the senior vice president for content, expansion and development at NJ Advance Media, did not respond to a 10:58 AM request for comment on Donyea’s criticism.

Donyea’s plight caught the attention of others, like the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, Stefanie Murray.

“This is a must watch, a must read, a must everything by New Jersey journalist Tennyson Donyea,” Murray said on Twitter, “This is powerful and brave. It is raw. It is a message to his own news organization and to every news organization in the U.S.”

Carla Astudillo, a talented data reporter who left NJ.com to work for a Texas newspaper saluted Donyea’s bravery for coming forward.

“I stand 100% with Tennyson Donyea and I’m in awe of the courage that it took to call out NJ.com, (the) Star-Ledger (and) NJ Advance Media and detail the microaggressions, the gaslighting and the racism he experienced as a Black reporter,” Astudillo said on Twitter.

She said that Donyea’s narrative “also encapsulates what I — and a lot of other journalists of color — went through at NJ.com.”

“He isn’t and wasn’t the only one,” Astudillo said.  “JOCs are done having our experiences minimized and our pleas ignored. I hope a public reckoning will finally make leadership truly listen.”

Meghan Van Dyck, the communications director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, tweeted that “news outlets are harming journalists, harming communities and harming themselves.”

“Journalism needs radical change,” she said. “There is a vision for what it could look like for journalism to serve all people.”

A NorthJersey.com reporter, Jesse Gomez, tweeted he solidarity with Donyea.

“The news industry needs a total revamp because it’s hell for Black/BIPOC journalist,” Gomez said.  “I’ve 100% lived this.”

The Star-Ledger/NJ.com isn’t the only media company to face stinging criticism in New Jersey this year.

Three North Jersey newspapers owned by Gannett formed a union this year after alleging, among other things, that Gannett newsrooms have “lost an alarming number of reporters and editors of color.”

Later, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker and three Members of Congress – Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson), Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) – alleged that editors at The (Bergen) Record were engaging in union-busting tactics by holding anti-union captive audience meetings with their employees.

In March, the Asbury Park Press fired Gustavo Martínez Contreras, the longtime photographer who used a misogynistic and anti-Semitic photo caption that referred to an Orthodox Jewish nurse preparing to administer a COVID-19 vaccination as “a fucking hot nurse, a total JAP.”

A potential strike by union employees at The New Yorker was averted on Wednesday after their owner, Conde Nast, agreed to higher wages at the magazine.  Conde Nast is owned by Advance Publications, which owns New Jersey Advance Media.

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