Darren Nichols: Detroit News' Anniversary Story on Sports Department Failed To Mention Contributions of Black Writers

September 06, 2023, 9:42 AM

(Top -l-r) Luther Keith, Bryan Burwell, Terry Foster, Rob Parker

The author, a 30 year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.

By Darren Nichols

My earliest memories about journalism came from my dad telling me stories about Luther Keith.

Keith’s beginnings as a high school sportswriter at The Detroit News came when my dad, Charles Nichols, coached Detroit Kettering High School in their quest to win a state championship in 1973. As the first Black sports writer at a major daily in Detroit, it was my dad — and other city coaches — who understood what Keith’s presence meant.

That’s what made his lack of inclusion sting in a recent Detroit News article titled, "These News sports reporters, columnists made an impact over 150 years." It was a birthday party, but apparently some Black guests weren’t there to blow out the candles.

Back in the 70’s, the coaches knew Black folks weren’t invited to those spaces so Keith was let in. Nearly every Black coach rallied behind Keith and to do as we call it today “source” Detroit high school sports. The Raven bar on the city’s east side was the coaching safe space and Keith was invited in.

They wanted his success just as much as Keith.

It was the start of a Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame career, where Keith became the first Black reporter to cover Lansing politics, editor and on the masthead as an assistant managing editor.

So not seeing Keith’s name — among others —  mentioned when talking about Detroit sports writers was not only distressing, but a slap in the face for diversity in the newsroom I once called home.

“It's a damn shame. This is a community that has been a majority African American since the middle 1970’s,” says Detroit historian Ken Coleman. “To The News’ credit, it has hired and employed African Americans who have been prominent in the journalism industry. They have employed very strong journalists who happen to be African American, but to not have included their contributions or others is very, very unfortunate.”

See, it hit hard because if it wasn’t for Keith, Terry Foster, Bryan Burwell, Rob Parker or Alan Whitt, the paper’s first Black sports editor, my sports writing career may have been stalled or sidelined.

Darren Nichols

Watching strong Black men survive against the odds in this area of our industry allowed me to grab hold of my dreams, seeing the possibilities in journalism first-hand. Reading Keith’s bylines in the family scrapbook was priceless; watching Foster cover the Pistons championship run taught me professionalism; meeting Parker on my first daily internship created a bond and a sports department advocate and Whitt, who eventually rose to deputy sports editor, wisely advised me to take a news side internship in case I didn’t get into sports.

Helped Me

They — along with some others — made me a well-rounded journalist.

It’s the same way my godson —  now a college freshman — views my career as he strives to be a sports writer. He needs guidance and encouragement only an experienced reporter can give. But he also needed to read those names and a few accomplishments to understand what he can become.

Iconic moment in sports history missed

My ears began to perk up last spring when I heard Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas brought up Foster during the “The Pivot” podcast a few months ago. Thomas, in discussing the Pistons legendary walk out against the Chicago Bulls, says a press conference the previous day used stereotypes to describe Detroit and labeling the Pistons was unfair.

He suggested some were subtly aimed at Detroit’s media crew, the only all-Black group in the NBA. Covering the Pistons was Foster and Drew Sharp (of the Detroit Free Press).

“You go back and look at that clip and, yeah, we walked off, but the first person you see who is in front of us — his name is Terry Foster who writes for The Detroit News,” Thomas said on the podcast. “The whole city was mad, not because they beat us, but the way they had labeled and used those stereotypes against us as a basketball team and then Detroit as a city.”

Not Mentioning Foster 

The moment is iconic and has been dissected in the media for decades. While the News’ piece doesn’t get into many specifics about sports moments, not mentioning Foster undercuts his accomplishments and place in history.

What’s equally and quite poignant that was glossed over was not mentioning Foster, who covered the Pistons from 1984-1988, transitioned as the paper’s first Black columnist.

Leaving out Black feats undercuts diversity efforts

Let me be clear: 150 years of history can’t be jammed into one sports column. But inclusion of Black journalism contributions matters, particularly when you’re chronicling history. It’s why The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones is so crucial as to how we look at slavery and why Black history is recognized and celebrated.

Here, what’s equally as important:  This undercuts many of the diversity efforts by The News, recruiting some of the best Black journalists into their newsroom. We can’t forget The News fed other newsrooms with a Pulitzer Prize winner and others moved on to some of the highest platforms in media.

Coleman recalls the back page cover ad of The News promoting their diversity efforts for the 1992 NABJ convention in Detroit. The number of Black of journalists working at The News was extensive, unlike now.
“The Detroit News did a better job 30 years ago in employing (and) respecting people who look like me than it does now. There's something wrong with that picture,” Coleman says.

In sports, Parker has hit the screens of ESPN and now is a co-host at Fox Sports One with Chris Bouchard. Parker was one of the few Black sports columnists in the country. The same with Burwell, who was the first Black reporter named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame posthumously in 2015. He also worked at USA Today, HBO’s “Inside the NFL'' among others. Most recently, Vinnie Goodwell has moved out of The News’ tutelage to the senior NBA writer at Yahoo Sports.

What’s needed is a well-rounded and diverse coverage of Black contributions to the outstanding journalism in Detroit. Readers deserved to see acknowledgement of the work of Phil Matney, the first Black reporter at The News, Betty DeRamus, Jim McFarlin, Bill Johnson, Charles Blow, Walter Middlebrook or E.J. Mitchell.

With sports, The News simply fumbled their coverage.


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