Diversity as a Second Job

Illustration: Chris Kindred

As the sun set in Charlottesville, Virginia, two days after a white supremacist rammed his car into a group of demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman, I ducked out of an event hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I ran past a statue of Robert E. Lee that, the previous day, had sparked protests and counterprotests, and headed to my car. There was plenty to do on the two-and-a-half-hour drive across the hills to my home, in Washington, DC; I had to lay down a few voice notes with my observations about the people I’d met and the fears they’d expressed. I had to check in with my editors at The Atlantic. I had to call my wife and infant son to let them know that I was fine. And I had to find some way to decompress—to find a place to put the emotions that Klan robes, swastikas, and Confederate flags had unearthed.

But first I had to do a few things for my “second job,” the collection of unspoken responsibilities involving diversity, inclusion, and development that I’ve inherited as a journalist of color. In the parking lot, I fired off a series of texts to other black journalists at The Atlantic, with whom I’d attended a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists the day before, in New Orleans. With my car’s air conditioning battling against August heat, I conducted an informal debrief on which promising black journalists from the convention might come to work at the magazine. I then reached out to a larger group of writers of color, colleagues, friends, and people I mentor. This was another kind of debrief. Dozens of times, I sent the same question: “You okay?” By the time I got on the road, it was dark.

ICYMI: “I’ve been an editor a long time and I have never seen anything like this, period”

It seemed a fitting moment for my second job to come into stark relief: NABJ was founded in 1975 as a collective of people working the same second job. The organization was an effort by black journalists who—with their own elbow grease and, more often than not, their own money—aimed to expand their ranks. They sought to do so even though it was a time when joining a black professional organization might have been dangerous for a career in lily-white newsrooms. These journalists performed their second job while also working as reporters and editors to fearlessly peel back layers of racism and rot at America’s core—a job with its own attendant dangers.

At its best, this process means that the power of a lone journalist to effect change in newsrooms, in the course of a lifetime, is mathematically unbounded. 

But the second job represented survival. Then, as now, America’s newsrooms woefully missed the mark not only when it came to the raw numeric measure of diversity, but also in terms of developing and promoting writers of color. Then, as now, journalists of color had to take a page from the playbook of the Carthaginian general Hannibal: either find a way or make one. Still today, they are usually uncompensated for this work, and much of it takes place, by necessity, in the shadows. There are informal coffees, meetups, and Slack channels. This remains the case even as diversity has become a corporate buzzword that employers sense they must embrace. Why should the “second job” still be required?

Personally, I have a flat spot right in the front of my head from trying to break down walls my entire career, forcing diversity of thought and opinion into newsrooms and onto the air.” That was how Gwen Ifill, a revered PBS NewsHour anchor who died in 2016, once encapsulated her life’s work. The league of women and people of color who were directly or indirectly inspired by her leadership is a who’s who of journalist superstars. Shortly after Ifill’s death, Kenya Downs, a NewsHour reporter, reflected in an open letter on what she owed her predecessor: “I promise to uphold your legacy by being a hand or a model for some other woman who one day may see me, or may see a woman who looks like me or like you, and know that she can too.” There are active and passive elements, Downs noted, to the roles played by unofficial ambassadors to marginalized communities. Visibility is itself important. For many of us, that means being seen doing work that addresses that very marginalization. But visibility also means assuming the pressures of being a kind of public face for everything our outlets do that remotely relates to race, gender, or sexual identity—good or bad. Active outreach, recruiting, networking, peer counseling, and even in-office conflict management are often daily duties, too. Flat spots, indeed. 

Second jobs beget second jobs. Downs wrote about the way in which Ifill not only connected networks of marginalized journalists, but also reached through time, expanding those connections exponentially. Recruiting and mentoring two promising candidates means that those two can recruit four; then we get eight, and so on. At its best, this process means that the power of a lone journalist to effect change in newsrooms, in the course of a lifetime, is mathematically unbounded. 

But if newsrooms do not build viable pipelines to support those recruits, the result can be a bottleneck of frustration. Too often, young job candidates of color who have demonstrated initiative and talent are denied a chance to work alongside peers with shinier credentials. Too often, those who make it through the front doors of newsrooms find the paths to advancement closed. Journalists of color tend to earn less than their white colleagues—as several studies commissioned by unions at the largest newspapers in the country indicate—even as newsroom managers take credit for their diversity-bolstering hires. And, factoring in the unpaid demands of work as unofficial diversity and inclusion liaisons, minority journalists might actually be working twice as hard for half as much money. The tragedy of the second job is that, most of the time, the people whose careers are propelled forward by the labor and assistance of other journalists of color find themselves trying to break down the same walls as their mentors. In theory, the second job should one day create the conditions in which journalists of color don’t have to do it. In reality, the necessity never ends.

Of course, there’s an easy way to fix all of this. Outlets should hire more people of different ethnic backgrounds, aspire beyond “representativeness”—a low bar—and make genuine attempts to cater to communities of color. Outlets should pay their journalists wages on par with their white, male colleagues for their work, and they should provide ample mentoring and opportunities for advancement. Contrary to popular belief, these things are not at all difficult—in fact, the presses and news stations run by and for communities of color have managed to do it throughout their histories without too much fuss.

Further, savvy editors can supercharge the second job, providing formal support structures for journalists of color who choose—and the element of choice is critical—to bring their extracurricular talents to bear in the name of advancing the outlet and its journalism. My place of employment, The Atlantic, after responding to feedback from a handful of black journalists who were exhausted from their efforts during last year’s NABJ convention, has begun a concrete process to turn recommendations and informal mentoring into an official pipeline. After two New York Times writers, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ron Nixon, cofounded the Ida B. Wells Society, to train and support aspiring investigative journalists, the Times signed on as a partner with the group. These efforts are a start for translating moral support into material support. There are more distant frontiers that aren’t beyond reach, such as directly compensating journalists for their efforts to diversify their workplace or mentor others.

Today, as journalists find themselves without guaranteed protection from discriminatory policies, and attacks on the free press—including those from the highest levels of government—have become more common, communities of color are particularly at risk. I find my own second job as urgent as ever. I read clips and identify rising stars. I reach out to those reporters. I mentor more students than I probably have time for—several times a week, I distribute how-to guides for pitching and send feedback on resumes—and I continue to check in with colleagues, as I did a year ago in Charlottesville. The second job is fulfilling because we are building something. We are building structures of resilience that are broad and deep, designed to weather any coming storm. All of journalism has been constructed at least partially on support structures, and all of journalism chooses to ignore the second jobs that built them at its own peril.

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

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Vann R. Newkirk II is a politics writer for The Atlantic, where he covers a wide range of topics including civil rights, the environment, and policy. He is a recipient of the American Society of Magazine Editors’s 2018 ASME Next Award for outstanding achievement by magazine journalists under the age of 30. He lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.