This Isn’t the Diverse Newsroom You’re Looking For

How editorial managers can start making a real difference

One of the first mistakes managers tend to make is believing that caring about our teams and wanting the best for them means we’re doing a good job. One of the most important realizations we can make as a manager is that we are, at every moment including this one, making someone’s life miserable.

My “Ms. Management” column for Source is devoted to helping people in management and leadership positions in newsrooms make better decisions (and induce less misery). I will be answering your questions, tackling common and commonly difficult management situations, and offering my perspective on the challenges facing editorial leaders at this particularly interesting moment for our industry.

Image via WocInTech Chat

Amina asks, “What’s the current conversation around hiring and implicit bias? Are managers acknowledging the issues?”

In March, the public editor of the New York Times wrote about the declining fortunes of women in that newsroom. As Liz Spayd noted in her piece, “part of what frustrates many women I spoke with — in senior leadership positions and around the room is what they feel is a backslide from earlier years.”

There has been intense hand-wringing at the executive level of many media organizations about the paucity of journalists from underrepresented communities working in their newsrooms.

This discussion is often focused on getting more women into management, and occasionally tiptoes into how we can increase the representation of ethnic and religious minorities among reporters and editors. You will sometimes encounter advocates for “diversity of thought,” which is often a proxy for incorporating more conservative perspectives at a time when mainstream news organizations are accused of existing in a liberal bubble. Very rarely, we might stop to consider issues of class and geography.

But these conversations have not translated into significant or sustained improvements in making our newsrooms more closely resemble the communities we purport to cover, and this is true for legacy organizations just as much as the newest digital kids on the block.

According to data from ASNE’s 2016 newsroom diversity survey of US newsrooms, “minorities comprised about 17 percent of employees at daily newspapers and 23 percent at online-only sites.” The most recent US census data show that the overall minority population in the US is closer to 40 percent.

The explanations offered for the overabundance of straight white men with Ivy League degrees and stay-at-home wives in positions of newsroom leadership are so well-worn that it annoys me to even type them: “no women applied for the job”; “it’s a pipeline problem”; “we had a couple of applications but their credentials weren’t as strong so they didn’t make it to the interview round.”

Implicit bias training claims to make us more aware of how we might be unconsciously discriminating against different groups of people.

It is not enough for us to merely admit that we have a problem, though there are still many of us for whom that would be a useful first step. Because there’s knowing that we make a series of negative snap judgements about someone based on characteristics they have no control over, and then there’s taking deliberate action to change that.

This is the difference between making appropriate noises about the mix of our applicant pools and relying on unpaid internships which reward people with the financial resources to work for free in some of the most expensive cities in the world and punish those who don’t have parents who can pay their rent for them.

It is the distance between saying we care about diversity and failing to publicly post job descriptions, relying instead on the stalwart, “Do you know anyone who might be good for this?” emails we send to our homogenous networks.

It is rejecting a candidate because: “he didn’t seem like a good fit” when what we mean is, “he seemed less than enthusiastic about the fact our all-hands gatherings are held at a bar after work.”

It is embedded in how we think about those women in our newsrooms who challenge our perspectives on stories in Slack, and the feedback we give to them about “tone” and “approach” that we do not give to their similarly opinionated male colleagues.

It is a function of what we convey in who we promote and who we let languish; who we reward with senior titles and who we tell they’re “not ready yet.” It is evident in who we send to represent us at conferences and whose work we submit for awards.

It is on us as hiring managers and editors to rethink our defaults, to re-examine our assumptions, to review our teams and contributors and ask why we have let ourselves believe this is the best we can do.

Building a diverse newsroom is work. So let us get on with doing better work.

A version of this piece first appeared on Source, as an installment of my “Ms. Management” column for Open News.