Let's Talk About Detroit's Columnist Demographics, Shall We?

Well here's an interesting prelude to the Detroit Press Club's holiday gathering this week. Is there enough diversity in the ranks of our local media's print columnists? Yes and no — depending on how you look at it.

Our cousins in the Gawkerverse crunched some data from national publications showing that the loudest and most dominant voices are older white guys — specifically, an average age of 60, despite the average age of a U.S. citizen being nearly half that. On a local scale, Detroit's no different.


On a national scale, the reason why we have so many old white guys shouting from the rooftops could be the intersection of several things: Less-than-inclusive hiring practices at the beginning of these guys' careers, a bleed-out of talent as the industry began to implode, and maybe just a refusal of some of these guys to retire. Could the same be said about Detroit? Who knows, but let's take a look anyway.

We'll start by looking at the voices from the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, the triumvirate of the Oakland Press, Macomb Daily and News-Herald and Crain's Detroit Business. The Freep and News are obvious subjects, being that they are mostly daily papers with a daily web presence. While Crain's doesn't have a daily print product, they are daily on the web.

That leaves out MLive Detroit, Deadline Detroit, The Huffington Post's Detroit Edition, Curbed Detroit, Model D, Motor City Muckraker, et al. One could argue that most of these publications are daily on the web, but none of them have a roster of columnists comparable to the aforementioned publications.


Next, we'll look at full-time (so no, Josh Linkner doesn't count) general-interest, metro, business, automotive and sports columnists. Why sports and automotive when Gawker didn't include those? Because Motor City. And not only is Detroit a four-sports town, there's one very prominent columnist who traverses between sports and general interest. We'll get to him in a second.


Detroit Free Press
Number of columnists: 12

It goes without saying that the Freep's most prominent columnist, 55-year-old Mitch Albom, fits snugly in the white guy-columnist demographic. In fact, just more than half of 12 columnists (discounting features) fit the mold: Albom, Brian Dickerson, Tom Walsh, Jeff Seidel, Mark Phelan, Mick McCabe and John Carlisle. There's age diversity spanning from the late 30s, which speaks to a more accurate reflection of the region.


Race and gender diversity is an equally healthy mix, though. The remaining hodgepodge of Stephen Henderson, Rochelle Riley, Susan Tompor, Nancy Kaffer and Drew Sharp speak to a variety of ages and viewpoints, though what roles they play in the larger landscape will be explored later.


The Detroit News
Number of columnists: 9

The News was a trickier mix to decipher because it's like...is Kurt Mensching, whose face appears alongside the regular columnists but doesn't actually work for the paper, a face of the paper? Or what about sports reporters who occasionally write columns? Would it be fair to count Neal Rubin if he's technically on the features desk? I decided to just use the staff list and the dropdown menu of columnists on the News' homepage. Rubin's listed under "news and opinion" but as features on the staff list. For this, we'll count him as news.


Like the Freep, the majority of columnists are white guys (I like to think of that screenshot above as a slot machine — which combination is it going to be today?), but it's not nearly an even split. Out of the nine major columnists, six are white guys over 40: Nolan Finley, Bob Wojnowski, Neal Rubin, Brian O'Connor, Daniel Howes and Henry Payne. The News can't claim any age diversity either. That leaves John Niyo, Terry Foster and Laura Berman.

Crain's Detroit Business
Number of columnists: 2

Crain's was an interesting one because every reporter blogs, but if we're going by strictly who's a columnist, you could only claim Keith Crain (a white guy over 40) and Mary Kramer. There's not much to go off there, but they're still important to the discussion.


The Oakland Press/Macomb Daily/News-Herald
Number of columnists: Um...

I'll be honest, I had no idea how to approach the Journal-Register Digital First Media papers. Most of the opinion is syndicated, but there are exceptions. Pat Caputo (white guy over 40) is the OP's sports columnist; Chad Selweski (white guy over 40) contributes opinion to the Macomb Daily, and the News-Herald...OK, OK, all of their websites make my head hurt and I think we can all agree that Caputo and Selweski are all we need going forward.


So what's there to learn?

Out of Detroit's 25 major print columnists, 16 are white guys. Interestingly, the next major demographic is white women — and sure, there are only four to speak of. With white — and more than likely over 40 — columnists making up 80% of the voice, that's ahead of Metro Detroit's overall white population of 70%. Even if you were to add in columnists from other departments — let's say, Marney Rich Keenan at the News or Sylvia Rector at the Freep — you'd still be looking at a very white demographic.


It's probably most interesting that if you remove sports, there are only two columnists of color speaking on metropolitan and general-interest issues — Riley and Henderson — and both work at the same paper. None of the papers surveyed here can claim a Latino or Arab-American metro columnist, demographics that have seen increases in the region in the last decade or so. We've talked a bit about building gayborhoods in Detroit, yet the only recent time I can recall a gay voice in the editorial pages was a guest column. Even more curious is the fact that there's only one black woman in the mix in a region that once counted Betty DeRamus, Susan Watson, Desiree Cooper and Robin Givhan among its ranks. What happened there?

There's not a single metro or sports columnist under 30 and pickings are slim under 40. Maybe there doesn't have to be. But as Gawker notes, the Washington Post claims a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old columnist. So why not Detroit? We talk every day about new, fresh and young people moving into the city, right? Washington, D.C. is one of those places where the kids are going these days. Again, why not Detroit?


There was a lively discussion on Twitter last night where Henderson suggested that a column in a major market like Detroit (but not Washington, D.C.?) comes with experience. And I was almost ready to go with that — until I remembered that the Freep endorsed a 28-year-old for City Council and regularly sings the praises of Mike Duggan's 27-year-old right-hand man. So we can trust day-to-day operations of a city in bankruptcy to people roughly five years removed from college, but we can't let them sit on an editorial board. (Worth noting: Albom was 27 when he first became a Freep columnist.)

Gawker's assessment of older white guys dominating editorial pages ends this way:

But we think it's pretty clear: Newspaper columnists are, statistically speaking, old dudes. This is unsurprising, since columns are usually bestowed on the tried, true, and grizzled. But if you're staffing your back pages with almost all veterans, you're missing out on a wide swath of important perspectives—like, for example, "The internet is a useful tool" and "I am not made uncomfortable by interracial relationships."


Could you say the exact same about Detroit? I can recall Albom being a Luddite several times, but I'm certain no one has an issue with interracial relationships.

But I can recall awkward interactions with Detroit's younger population and an unusual bit of fawning over C-list celebrities, which leads me to wonder if valuable column space is being used wisely and whether some other voices can approach difficult situations with more aplomb.


[Photo via Getty]

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