For pioneering Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and columnist Acel Moore and for his readers, Philadelphia was special. He wrote about policy, but his trademark proving why everyone’s story was worth telling.
“I do what I do for two reasons,” he told former Inquirer Managing Editor and current Poynter Institute Senior Faculty member Butch Ward, when asked why he got into the business. “First, to tell the true story of black people in Philadelphia and across America, because 40 years ago, that was not done. And second, to make a difference, to erase stereotypes that go beyond race, and to have an impact on the world because of what I write.”
Moore was a vessel for tales of ordinary heroes. But for journalists of color, Moore himself was a hero, and not an ordinary one. Before he was a popular columnist, he shared a Pulitzer in 1977 with Wendell Rawls for their investigation of a local mental institution. A Pulitzer is a rare distinction for any journalist, but being a black winner in 1977 put him in a tiny club with names like Gwendolyn Brooks and Moneta Sleet, the Ebony photographer who captured the now iconic photo of a veiled Coretta Scott King holding her daughter at Martin Luther King’s funeral. Before his Pulitzer, he co-founded the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in 1973. Two years later, discussions came to a head to start that type of organization at the national level, and he was involved then, too. The Philadelphia group actually offered its bylaws as the blueprint for the national organization. The National Association of Black Journalists was born.
Colleagues from the Inquirer remember a man who encouraged them to speak up, who would listen when they needed an ear, who would offer support to journalists of all backgrounds and who fought tirelessly for diversity. “As I’ve gotten older I appreciate more and more and more the path that he cleared for all of us,” said Inquirer Managing Editor Sandra Clark, “not just minority journalists, but also really challenging the newsroom to cover communities with truth and authenticity.”
So Acel Moore became a legend before he passed. Like the people whose stories he shared, he too represented something. And while Philadelphia media has changed tremendously since the day in 1962 when he informed a colleague that he was not to be called “boy” ever again, severe underrepresentation of minorities in newsrooms persists. Coverage of Philadelphia by its media does not represent the city’s diversity.
And so more than the unsettled destination of columns he spent his last years assembling, his passing leaves lingering questions. His legend will live on, but what of the programs he started? What of the diversity goals he championed? Who will tell more stories from the ordinary yet remarkable kinds of people he made to sure to put in his address book and in the Inquirer?
What is the legacy of Acel Moore?
As Moore pointed out in his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at NABJ’s 2011 conference, when the organization was founded in 1975, “There were fewer than 100 black journalists at the 1,800 daily newspapers in this nation. That 2,500 people are attending this convention is surely a sign of progress.” The American Society of News Editors has surveyed newsrooms on their diversity numbers since 1978. The percentage of minority representation in the nation’s newsrooms has more than tripled since ASNE’s first survey, but that still represents 13 percent, a figure that’s been stagnant for the last decade. In an analysis of 2015 ASNE data, the Columbia Journalism Review found that no paper with a circulation of 50,000 or fewer had a single journalist of color on staff. According to the Census, minorities make up 38 percent of the population of the U.S.
Philadelphia Media Network, the company that owns the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com, would not say how many reporters and editors of color work in their merged newsroom. “We don’t categorize our personnel by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identification, etc., so that information is not available,” Amy Buckman, PMN’s Public Relations Manager said in an email. Managing editor Sandra Clark told me, “I don’t have a count at all. We need more, but I don’t have a count.”
But the Philadelphia Inquirer provided details to ASNE. In 2015, before its newsroom merged with the Daily News, the larger daily reported 13 percent of its newsroom were journalists of color, 6 percent of them black. For comparison, 64 percent of Philadelphians are minorities, and 44 percent are African American, according to the Census. (The Daily News’ numbers were higher, but still not high: 16 percent black and 21 percent of color.) In decades past, the Inquirer had been praised for a diversity program that Moore started: In 1984, he convinced the paper to host a journalism skill-building seminar for underserved high school students. The Acel Moore Career Development Workshop saw the newspaper’s staff training teenagers in the craft.
But after a 30-year run, the program was frozen.
“Our longtime coordinator for the program who really put his heart and soul into for so many years, Oscar Miller, he had to step down,” said Clark. “It was the 30th anniversary. It was just time to do a pause. We are definitely going start up the program again and putting in a whole new set of volunteers and really looking to modernize it and bring it into the digital age.”
“I think our hope would be to relaunch it this year,” added Clark. When this year? She couldn’t really say. Stan Wischnowski, the executive editor of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, did not respond to a request to comment on the future of the program.
“It’s unfortunate that the newsroom today looks a lot like it did when Acel [started],” says Melanie Burney, a general assignment reporter at the Inquirer. “We have a long way to go.” She notes that she’s only black reporter for the Inquirer in the paper’s Cherry Hill bureau, and notes that there are no black reporters on its City Desk. “In recent years, there has not been enough emphasis on recruitment… We don’t see the recruitment at NABJ like we used to.”
Why? Burney points to the papers’ precarious finances — layoffs, and an industry-record six owners in 10 years. That clipped diversity goals, she explains; Newer hires of color would lack seniority come belt-tightening season. (This is a trend that has been observed in research. Minority reporters have slightly lower retention rates nationally.) In 2007, the Inquirer laid off 71 reporters; 16 were black. This was a lot to take for an already disproportionate newsroom. The newspaper had been nearly 13 percent black, more than twice its current share. At the time, Moore called it a tragedy. Burney agrees. “We have never regained that momentum. We were on a roll. We were making inroads.”
The highest minority representation recorded by ASNE at the Inquirer came in 2007 at 20 percent. (Again, that compares to a city that’s 64 percent minorities.)
The benefit for the newsrooms, diversity champions argued, was real. Moore wrote and spoke of how imbalanced demographics weakened the paper’s coverage. Clark doesn’t think today’s numbers would meet Moore’s satisfaction. “One thing Acel would say is that we gotta keep doing better,” she said.
Burney says more than just training is needed. For one, papers should “make a spot for [students] when they’re ready.” But the Inquirer “and the industry need to make diversity a priority in hiring, and do whatever it takes to find qualified candidates.”
Cherri Gregg, community affairs reporter at all-news radio station KYW 1060 and president of PABJ, says there are many reasons why we’re not seeing great diversity numbers in newsrooms.
“This is a tough business to break into and you truly need mentorship and guidance. Its very political in a lot of newsrooms, and there are a lot of African Americans that start out in the business but they end up leaving very early on because they don’t get the nurturing that they need,” she says. Unpaid internships and low starting salaries create hurdles for aspiring journalists that young black professionals can’t always afford. “I personally was lucky [being married] because I didn’t make money for almost two years,” she recalls. “I talk to young journalists all the time and they’re struggling with entry level jobs. If you owe $70,000 in student loans, your mom is going to be like ‘Yo, you got to get a job that pays.’ And so you leave the business. And that’s one less voice.”
Gregg says the PABJ is waiting to meet with Moore’s family to see the best way to honor him. The NABJ opened a scholarship fund in Moore’s name, according to its president (another Moore mentee and Inquirer refugee) Sarah Glover, who also says the national association awaits discussions with Moore’s family.
Gregg says PABJ is planning to award a scholarship to a high schooler, and perhaps that’s an entryway for their tribute, since Moore was passionate about helping younger students. “A big problem is the pipeline, getting more young people interested in journalism,” says Gregg. “Given the way a lot of the schools are in Philadelphia where they’ve cut funding, a lot of schools don’t even have newspapers.” Gregg emphasizes that simply keeping up the tradition of mentorship is a key piece to keeping Moore’s legacy alive.
For six years, Moore was a clerk. He had been hired in 1962, the New York Times reports, after black preachers threatened to boycott the paper over lack of black voices. “My job was to sharpen pencils, clip and file newspapers, go to the library for clips, go for coffee, keep the copy moving,” he wrote. He lapped up the culture; he waited his turn. The years of his clerkship were meant to be defining ones for our country, years that allowed us to transition to a more equitable society.
Towards the end of our interview, Burney recalls the gospel song “If I Can Help Somebody.” The first verse: “If I can help somebody, as I pass along/ If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song/ If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong/ Then my living shall not be in vain.”
“That would be a tragedy if we do not carry on his work,” she continues. “There are too many of us who benefitted from Acel. The civil rights movement isn’t over. We have not won.”
For more than 40 years, Moore lent his voice not only to encourage other journalists, but his readers too. With all that writing, he must’ve written a column that would fit this moment, right? I went to look for it. This excerpt, from an October 2005 column, is the best I could find:
“Throughout her life, (Rosa) Parks remained a hero for Americans black or white, both those who lived during those times and those who came after. The significance of her bravery was understood almost immediately, and her name and picture soon began appearing in history books all over the world. To the end, she was a dignified and graceful woman who always was willing to give.
“As we remember her life, we also should remember that we still have a long way to go to bring to an end the legacies of slavery and segregation. Hurricane Katrina reminded us that those wounds have not healed, that – although overt discrimination and and legal racial segregation have ended – race, class, and poverty are pervasive and are profoundly a part of American culture.
“Today, listening to all the testimonials to the life and heroism of Rosa Parks, I get the sense that most Americans – not just African Americans – know her story, are moved by it, and are inspired, across boundaries of age, race, and ideology.
“May her legacy just keep on growing.”