At a time when newsrooms and other businesses are responding to a national reckoning on issues such as racism and equity, the Star Tribune on Tuesday named its first assistant managing editor for diversity and community.

Kyndell Harkness, a photo editor and 20-year veteran at the newspaper, is expected to move into the leadership role in the next few weeks. Her appointment comes on the heels of an internal discussion about racism, diversity and inequity in the newsroom and the effect it has on the newspaper's community coverage.

That discussion reached new heights after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, setting off protests across the country.

As in other newsrooms nationwide, journalists of color at the Star Tribune discussed needed changes and presented a list of demands to management, which included the hiring of an editor who could create a more equitable newsroom culture and hold the paper internally accountable for its news coverage.

A major push by the group is to hire more people of color and publish an annual diversity report that gives readers a better understanding of who is telling their community stories.

"The room is too white," Harkness said. "When you have a homogenous room, it makes it hard to see the nuances when covering diverse communities. You need people in the room who've been there."

The group's demands coincided with the release of a pay equity study by employee union members. The study noted pay gaps across gender and race among its members.

In response, top newsroom editors acknowledged that they are committed to recruiting and retaining more women and journalists of color and bringing more racial diversity to editing and leadership ranks. They recently announced that Myron Medcalf, a Black journalist with ESPN and a former Star Tribune reporter, will write two metro columns a month.

"There's a real sense of urgency to make big strides on diversity and equity in our newsroom as well as our coverage," said Rene Sanchez, Star Tribune editor and senior vice president. "We expect that Kyndell can be a really strong and positive force."

Harkness, he said, was an ideal choice for the job because she knows the newsroom and community well.

"She cares deeply about getting this right," he said. "I have a lot of faith in how she will guide and challenge leaders in the newsroom to stay vigilant on this priority."

Harkness has spent much of her 27-year career as a journalist working on the sidelines to diversify newsrooms and coverage of communities of color, noting that in some organizations, she was the first Black female photographer on staff. She is one of the few Black female photo editors in the country.

"We're the unicorns in the room," she said. "There aren't many people who look like me who do my job."

After Floyd was killed, Black journalists at the Star Tribune and other newspapers began talking out loud about their own experiences in their newsrooms and in society in general, Harkness said.

"Systematic racism is part of every media organization and we asked [ourselves] what changes are needed internally," she said. "We all need to be moving in the same direction toward equity."

It also means better coverage of communities in terms of geographic, racial and ethnic diversity, she said.

"We have to make sure we're not just parachuting in and out of a community," Harkness said. "It's about spending time in these communities and getting a variety of voices. … It's about what can our paper do better."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788