This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
A busy editor might be tempted to dismiss diversity as a buzzword or a lofty goal you don’t have time for. You need to regard it as a matter of journalistic integrity and business survival.
Accuracy is the core of journalistic integrity, and your news will more accurately reflect the events and issues of your community as your staff better reflects your community. And your news organization will have a more prosperous future if your content appeals to the entire community, not just the aging white audience you probably have now. Your content will have broader appeal if your staff brings broader experiences and perspectives to news coverage.
The top editor needs to say the right things about diversity, but actions always trump words, so what you do is far more important than anything you say.
So here’s some advice from a middle-aged white guy for recruiting, hiring and retaining a diverse staff and for making sure that your content reflects the diversity of your community:
Seek diverse pools of job candidates
Be aware of diversity every time you have an opportunity to fill an opening. To diversify your newsroom staff, you need to take deliberate steps to ensure you consider a diverse pool of candidates every time you’re considering a hire or a promotion.
You may naturally be drawn to people of the same generation, gender and ethnicity as yourself, whether you acknowledge that or not. Consciously broaden the view of people that you invite to apply for a job. Reach out to some people of a different gender, race, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation and ask them who would be good candidates. Don’t ask them specifically to recommend people who share their demographic characteristics, but include them in your networking as you seek candidates.
Post your job with journalism groups that represent segments of the profession that are underrepresented in your newsroom.
A Digital First Media team recruited at last year’s Unity conference. We made our initial contacts there with some excellent candidates we brought into our Thunderdome newsroom and referred others to DFM newsrooms that were hiring. In each case, I think we hired the best person for the job, which should be your goal. Our consideration of diversity factors was in the front end, reaching out to a diverse pool of applicants.
Find a diverse pool of good candidates and you’ll diversify your newsroom without ever deciding that you need to hire a woman or a person from a different racial or ethnic group for a particular position.
Don’t overvalue experience
Experience has value, but the value we place on experience tends to perpetuate past discrimination. If white males used to have an advantage in newsroom hiring (and if you think we didn’t and still don’t, you’re deluding yourself), you don’t eliminate that advantage just by overcoming gender and racial bias.
On the whole, white males have more experience and you prolong the effects of past and present bias if you hire and promote based too heavily on experience.
We need to value varying kinds of experience. When I worked at newspapers in Iowa and Nebraska, we had an inherent bias, I think, in our hiring toward people who knew our states because they had lived in or near the state. Knowledge and experience has value. My knowledge of both states helped me immensely in working there.
But both states are heavily white. We weren’t going to diversify our staffs without also valuing other kinds of life experiences, such as familiarity with segments of the community we didn’t cover well.
Give someone a chance (like you got)
I remember a discussion with senior editors (both white males) at a metro newspaper where I used to work about a promising journalist I wanted to promote to an editing position supervising reporters’ work. She was young, about 27, as I recall, and she probably looked younger.
As the other editors were about to talk themselves out of that promotion based on her lack of experience, I asked how old they were the first time they were promoted to a supervisory position at a metro newsroom. One was 23 and one was 25. I was 24. We promoted her and she excelled.
Where other editors had seen our promise as outweighing our inexperience, they were about to see her inexperience as too great a factor. Recognize the promise in diverse job candidates, just as someone recognized your promise.
Learn about comfort factors
After attending a Freedom Forum diversity program, I volunteered to undertake a diversity study for the top editor in one of my old newsrooms that lacked racial and ethnic diversity. I interviewed current and former staff members who were African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American, promising confidentiality, to learn what it was like for them to work in our newsroom.
Their answers were eye-opening for me and for the editor.
Our newsroom didn’t have obvious signs of discrimination that the editor would have stopped immediately. But we didn’t know about the subtle daily annoyances until I asked about them.
Similarly, I have worked in newsrooms where the men in power did subtle (and on occasion blatant) things to make women feel uncomfortable. I was aware of the predominance of men in the newsroom’s leadership but was at first unaware how uncomfortable women in the newsroom were, especially the few in leadership positions.
Make the effort to learn about these comfort factors and work to make your newsroom a more comfortable workplace for a diverse staff. It will improve your diversity in hiring and retention.
Think beyond race and gender
You generally are aware of a person’s race, gender and approximate age when you meet. But you may not know about sexual orientation or religion unless the person says something in conversation or in social media. Similarly, some disabilities are immediately obvious but others are not.
As you learn about these things, be aware of your own biases and consciously ask yourself whether you are being unfair to someone because of how he or she is different.
You shouldn’t hire someone specifically because of these factors, but be aware that subconsciously (or in the past, perhaps consciously) your newsroom may have excluded people who were different.
Value the diversity these candidates might bring to your newsroom as much as you value the experience of other candidates who might not face the barriers that they have.
Cultivate diverse students and interns
Digital First Media newsrooms had eight Chips Quinn Scholars working for us this summer. These interns have had experience in our newsrooms, so our editors know the work they can do, and they know what we expect.
We hope this will lead to some future hires that will diversify our newsroom staffs with excellent journalists. (If you’re a Digital First Media looking to fill a vacancy, contact me and I can put you in touch with Claire Gaval, chair of the DFM Diversity Council, and she can connect you with some of the interns.)
Explore opportunities such as the Chips Quinn Scholars or local programs to provide opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds. Perhaps you should consider a partnership with a local university to cultivate such students with local ties.
Analyze your news content
The DFM Diversity Council (of which I am a member) encourages our newsrooms (and full organizations) to take Fault Lines training. We have partnered with the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education to provide the training in several locations and to train Diversity Council and Training Council members in providing the training.
Fault Lines increases our awareness of coverage of people along such lines as race, gender, age, income and geography. At a previous newsroom, I worked with colleagues on a Reality Checks audit of our content, showing how we were and were not reflecting the community’s diversity.
One area many newsrooms need to work on is expanding our circles of sources. Ask reporters to identify their “usual suspects,” the sources they call on regularly. Examine the diversity of that group. You may find that most are white men and that those who aren’t are consulted mostly on issues of race or gender. Challenge reporters to seek out more sources and to use diverse sources in stories that don’t relate to race or gender.
Value diverse opinions
One of the benefits of a diverse newsroom and a diverse management team is that you get a wider perspective on the community and its issues. I remember a study of some kind back in the 1970s or ’80s that showed that male editors placed higher news value on stories about prostate cancer than breast cancer, but that a group that included even one woman was more likely to give front-page play to the story on breast cancer. (I apologize for the vagueness, but I think this was a decade or more before Google, so I’m not even going to try to look for it; if you know something about the study and can find it, I’d be glad to clarify.)
As you diversify your staff, or especially if you lack in diversity, seek out the opinions of staff members on issues with which they have experience or understanding because of their gender, race, ethnicity, age or other demographic factors. If your editors are all white and you’re making a tough editorial decision about a story that involves race, invite a staff member of the race that’s involved to join the discussion. Seek his or her advice and weigh it carefully as you make your decision. And explain the decision to the staff member if you don’t follow the advice.
But here’s the most important thing about seeking the advice of staff members who aren’t white males: Ask their advice regularly, not just about matters of race or gender.
Two of the most common complaints I heard when interviewing non-white staff members of that former newsroom were that the editors didn’t ask staff members’ views on stories relating to their race and that they were only asked their views on stories relating to their race.
I explicitly asked a Latina staff member if she minded being consulted on news judgment issues relating to coverage of the Hispanic community and African American staff members if they minded being consulted on stories relating to race relations in the community. Each of them said they would rather be consulted than to deal after the fact with a coverage decision they disagreed with (and all of them said both things had happened).
But again and again, they said they wished that wasn’t the only thing their editors consulted them about. They said it seemed as though their editors only recognized them as experts in one topic: race or ethnicity.
Keep in mind three things in seeking opinions from editors or staff members who increase your diversity:
- Their diverse perspectives and experiences are valuable in subtle ways even on the stories you don’t think of as relating to race or gender.
- They know a lot more than race and gender. Seek and value their views on business, politics, education and other aspects of community life.
- Learn their particular interests and expertise and consult them on stories relating to those topics.
Especially if your staff is small, you will not reflect the full diversity of the community in your staff. Whether you create a formal advisory board or identify a few trusted members of the community to use as sounding boards, I encourage soliciting advice and feedback from diverse members of the community as well as the staff.
Don’t diminish anyone’s opportunity
Discussion of diversity and hires that increase diversity sometimes bring a dismissive response, particularly from white males. We may dismiss a hire or promotion as “reverse discrimination” or “political correctness.” That’s generally bullshit and you shouldn’t practice or tolerate any talk that diminishes opportunities for qualified people.
The simple and undeniable fact is that white men have dominated newsroom power structures my whole career. In every newsroom I’ve worked in and most newsrooms I’ve visited, white men hold most of the powerful positions. I remember one reorganization in which all the editors named on the org chart were white men. Everyone who’s ever hired or promoted me was white, and only one of them was a woman (she was the publisher, not in the newsroom).
I don’t think anyone ever consciously thinks or says, “I’m going to hire a white male for this job,” but the unconscious biases and the comforts of the white men in charge give us huge advantages. And the experience we’ve gained through those advantages increases our qualifications and our advantages.
You have to consciously take other factors into consideration to increase diversity. And sometimes it may appear that you are hiring a woman or someone of a different racial or ethnic group who isn’t as qualified as a white male candidate. That may feel and look like reverse discrimination. But remember that conversation I had with male editors about a female journalist they viewed as inexperienced. She actually had to wait longer than we did for her opportunity, but in their view, we gave her that job in part because she was a woman.
Because of the discrimination and scrutiny they face, many women and non-white journalists have (or feel they have) less margin for error than their white male colleagues. They have to work harder and reach higher to achieve similar success. We should value their success under pressure.
I once was passed over for a promotion in favor of an African American editor from another newspaper. I was angry, not about his race, but about not getting the job. I would have been angry if anyone else had gotten that job. I was certain that I was the best candidate, period.
I wanted to check out my new boss, though. So I started calling people I knew at the other newspaper. Again and again, I heard lavish praise for this editor. Again and again, people told me they couldn’t believe the other paper would let this editor get away. I slowly, grudgingly began to look forward to working with him, without ever admitting to myself that he, or anyone, was a better candidate for the job.
It turned out that my friends were right: The other paper didn’t let him get away. They made a counter offer that prompted him to back out of the job at my paper. I got the job after all. And moments after I was offered the job, I was told that I needed to “get more women and minorities” on my staff. It was almost like this editor was apologizing for passing me over, because he had to hire a “minority.” And now it was my turn.
While it was undeniably true that everyone in that newsroom needed to hire more women and minorities, the timing of the comment underscored to me how that editor who backed out might have felt diminished by the white men in power in that newsroom. I had learned on my own that this person was an outstanding editor with exceptional qualifications. But I wonder if part of his decision to stay put was that he felt this perception that his race was more important to his new bosses than his qualifications.
As you value diversity, don’t fool yourself or anyone else into thinking that you’re giving people unfair breaks. You’re trying to remove barriers and give outstanding candidates a fair chance. When they get that chance, don’t diminish it by tying it to their race or gender.
Think of other diversity factors
The value of diversity extends beyond the obvious factors of age, gender and race. If your newsroom skews liberal, be conscious of your need to represent conservative voices in your news coverage and opinion content. If your newsroom has few or no gays, make an effort to watch news and issues relating to gays in your community.
You shouldn’t make religion a factor in your hiring considerations, but be aware of religious segments of your community that may not be reflected in your staff.
On a smaller staff, you may not be able to reflect some segments of your community. By the nature of your newsroom’s staff, you can’t represent some segments: People lacking a college education, those younger or older than working age, the unemployed, the wealthy.
You still need to represent these people in stories and consider them in coverage of your community. Invite some people from those groups to news meetings or newsroom tours occasionally and make conscious efforts to include them in news coverage. Perhaps in a community advisory board you can make sure these people are represented.
What’s your advice on diversity?
I recognize that my experience and perspective on this issue are shaped by my race, gender and age. Except for the first decade or so of my career, when I was younger than the people running newsrooms, I am exactly the demographic that wields the most power in American newsrooms.
I welcome you to share your own perspective, especially if you belong to a group that has faced discrimination and if you personally have had to fight for a fair chance. Add your perspective in the comments here. Or email me — sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com — to suggest a guest post that you could contribute.
I also welcome guest posts on other leadership topics. If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities. I have a few editor friends who say they are planning guest posts, and I hope to post them soon.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
Other diversity resources
These groups address diversity issues in journalism and can be helpful in addressing these issues in a variety of ways (feel welcome to suggest others that I’ve missed):
Update: Thanks to Benet Wilson and Emma Carew Grovum for adding this excellent list of “web journalists of color.” There goes the “we can’t find qualified candidates” excuse.
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). The pace of these posts has slowed, but I’ll still try to post something weekly. What other topics should I cover?
- Developing new leaders