Critical diversity checklist for newsroom managers

CJR Editor Kyle Pope and our resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about getting beyond platitudes in discussions about newsroom diversity, career prospects for journalism graduates, and where young journalists can turn for mentorship opportunities.

Kyle: Lack of diversity in newsrooms is getting extra attention since the election, and rightly so. Most managers know to look closely at hiring, sourcing and mentorship, as well as story selection. What else can we do if we’re serious about diversifying our newsrooms?

Jill: Attention to “hiring, sourcing and mentorship” sounds good, but those are very general terms. To get serious, let’s get more specific with these questions for news leaders:

  • Are you so focused on day-to-day newsroom survival that you’ve come to see diversity as a luxury, not a necessity?
  • Do you hire so infrequently that you’ve given up on creating a pipeline for those rare openings?
  • Do you have a clear, strong response for those (even in your own newsroom) who dismiss diversity concerns as “political correctness”? Here’s a reply you can borrow: Diversity is essential to accuracy and it is good for business.
  • Does your anemic budget preclude you from bringing in job finalists to meet your newsroom and your community? How does that affect diversity, and how can you creatively address it?
  • Have you taken time to read up on “unconscious bias,” how it influences even well-intentioned people who are making hiring and promotion decisions, and can shape the way you frame news stories?
  • Because businesses measure what they value, is diversity a metric that matters to you, not just as a numbers game but as a standard of performance that you share alongside others?
  • Is your news organization’s business strategy (target audiences, demographics, platforms) a de facto “story killer” that telegraphs to staff that certain people, places, and things aren’t important? Even when ideas seem to fall outside the targets, great editors find ways to help reporters bring those stories to life.
  • Have you revisited your organization’s longstanding assumptions about what it takes for people to “pay their dues” before getting an assignment, a role, a promotion? Are those ideas still relevant?
  • Are you mindful of the potential challenges faced by those who are the “only ones” on your team? Do staffers who are unlike the others (including those with religious or political viewpoints) feel comfortable talking with you about their experiences as minority voices? What do you do for them?
  • Does your team have the skill and will to go beyond the surface when a story has multiple layers, one of which relates to diversity? Example: When Sean Spicer tells April Ryan to stop shaking her head during a press briefing, is your automatic reporting frame: “White House spokesman cuts off reporter” or does someone just as quickly suggest a piece on why this interaction hits a nerve with many women—especially women of color? What sources do you cultivate to ensure that you’re providing cultural and historical context, not just a “vox pop” piece that adds heat but not light?
  • How do you respond when online trolls shower your employees with racist, homophobic, or sexist spittle? Do you expect them to shake it off—or do you have a personalized and systematic approach to supporting them?
  • When you ask your minority staffers to serve on a diversity committee, or serve on other projects to make certain they’re diverse, or to help recruit, or to mentor other employees—whom do you think should be most grateful, them or you? What kind of weight do you give their efforts when you write their performance evaluations? When I teach in ASNE’s Emergng Leaders programs, I remind the class not to let such tasks become “invisible work.” They—and you—should recognize and reward it.

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Kyle: It’s job-hunting season for college graduates. Has the current political climate changed how people should be thinking about their searches?

Jill: Students who chose journalism because they love hard news are graduating at a great time. The Trump administration is providing a feast of reporting opportunities for reporters—veteran and newbie—to dig into the impact of its policies. As Trudy Lieberman reported for CJR, that’s happening very effectively on the local level, where students get their start.

If J-grads are strong in open-records searches, data journalism, and contextual reporting and they also have multi-platform skills, they’re going to have a greater chance of being hired than their feature-loving friends. There’s a hunger for investigative talent right now, so showing evidence of that as an existing or developing skill is going to give graduates an edge. They should structure their resumes accordingly.

Then, when they’re hired, they should very gently break the news to their parents: They have officially become extraordinarily low-paid enemies of the people.

 

Kyle: As local newspapers continue to close, it’s hurting the mentorship opportunities for young reporters. Where can they go now for the kind of advice they used to get from small-paper editors?

Jill: In recent years, small-paper editors have been so squeezed that they’ve been doing front-line work themselves, so their capacity for advice may already have been diminished. But reporters, producers, designers, and photographers need not go hungry. With a little initiative, they can reach out for advice to respected colleagues close by or potential mentors in other newsrooms.

With a modest investment, they can cash in on low-cost training. Because I teach at so many journalism events, I see how these professional organizations are striving to provide value for their members. They have to, in order to remain relevant and solvent. That’s why they’re focusing on skills training. From state broadcasters associations to The Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) to regional media groups like the Mid-America Press Institute to national stalwarts like SPJ, RTDNA, NPPA, and IRE, there’s a widespread commitment to delivering learning close to home and online, not just at national conferences.

But media organizations, take note: If you hand off responsibility for your employees’ training and coaching to nonprofit journalism groups, and if you expect your staff to learn on their own time and dime, they’re very likely to pick up valuable new skills at those events—and network for new jobs.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.