Building A Diverse Newsroom Is Work

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Ah, it’s time to debate newsroom diversity again.

For whatever the announcements of Nate Silver’s new journalism startup, Ezra Klein’s new journalism startup, and Pierre Omidyar’s new journalism startup (featuring three white dudes each leading their own projects) mean for the Future of Journalism, they do tell us one thing: Just as women and journalists of color are beginning to have a major presence in more traditional newsrooms, the disruptive white boys are jumping ship and starting their own ventures — only to replicate the same diversity problems newspapers and magazines have struggled with for decades. (Problems, one could argue, that helped drive them into irrelevance.)

Which is what Emily Bell was getting at in her Guardian piece this week, where she criticized startups for their white male leadership. At Slate, Amanda Hess doubled down: “These online platforms represent the merging of journalism (which is a traditionally white and male-dominated field) with technology (which is even more so!). If anything, their marriage should only produce more powerful white men.”

Makes sense. The networks of white men in journalism function very well at bringing more white men into journalism.

Because besides the issue of who is getting funding to start these ventures — something women and people of color in tech could probably go on about all day — we see fairly clearly that these powerful white men are proceeding to staff up with more people who look like them. To be clear: Hiring 30% white women isn’t the same as having a diverse staff. Nor is hiring white dudes from “different backgrounds,” as much as Nate Silver would like that to be so. (Here is where I note that Ezra and his Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias are friends of mine — and I’ve talked to them both about the stuff I’m saying here. It’s also important to note that their third co-founder, Melissa Bell, is a woman.)

In fact, “diversity” doesn’t stop at hiring one person who represents each so-called different viewpoint, be it race or gender or sexual orientation or political leaning. Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.

Getting to that level of diversity takes work. It’s something BuzzFeed is OK at — and we’re working on improving. The undercurrent to much of the criticism of Silver and Klein et al. is an assumption that it’s easy to hire a diverse staff if you try, but white dudes just aren’t trying. I’m not a white dude, so I can only speak to the first part of that sentence, as someone who’s done a fair amount of hiring in my year at BuzzFeed. So here goes: It actually isn’t easy to build a diverse newsroom.

And there’s no way it could be. The main reasons are inherent to the structure of the news industry and the networks of the journalists and editors doing the hiring.

First, there aren’t a ton of amazing, internet-savvy journalists of color just hanging around waiting to be offered a job. That’s because there aren’t a ton of amazing, internet-savvy journalists who are hanging around, waiting to be offered a job, period. The first order of obvious hires — white and non-white — have jobs that they’re good at, and jobs they have little interest in leaving.

Also happily employed are the strong, even truly great, reporters and editors who are on a daily grind at newspapers in Tampa and Kansas City and Chicago and Houston. They aren’t really playing on Twitter, and certainly aren’t connecting with people on the coasts who should be fighting to hire them.

The third order of hires are recent college grads (often white, often of the Ivies, but not exclusively) who have some experience, though perhaps not much beyond the unpaid internships where they may or may not have done original reporting. But they know how to use Twitter and don’t think twice about emailing or jumping into the conversation stream with people doing the hiring. These people, usually young white men, are the ones “given a shot,” often ahead of the young journos of color and even great reporters who aren’t on anyone’s radar, because they project a competence and confidence that the white guys doing the hiring saw in themselves when they first got started. And because these candidates are young, unlike mid-career journalists, they’re not afraid to take a startup news gig that might disappear in a year. They’re also cheap.

Power is obviously tilted toward people with money to spend and jobs to fill. Post a job — particularly a prestigious one — and those doing the hiring find their inboxes flooded with dozens if not hundreds of people who want to work for their news operations. But wading through those applications is time-consuming, and a packed résumé or nicely written cover letter isn’t nearly as useful as a recommendation from friends and colleagues, especially in an industry as insular as journalism. In some cases, applicants who don’t get a boost from networking might as well be invisible.

The network — on both ends of the equation — is the problem. The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA. Call it the Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox: Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement.

Meanwhile, the white guys doing the hiring who, at least in my experience, are more self-aware than many people seem to think, are asking their non-white or female journalist friends for names of people to hire. But if we know those people, we’re often trying to hire them ourselves — and besides that, we don’t have some secret diverse pipeline of reporters we’ve been hiding. As one journalist of color put it to me, “Why don’t you get out there and find some of your own?”

So, what to do? Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of trying to hire a diverse staff:

1) Everyone starts with their networks. But maybe your network isn’t sufficient. If all you’re turning up is white dudes, that’s a feature, not a bug, in the system. It seems obvious, but sometimes the pipeline is the problem. Look at the sources of your references, beyond your friends and immediate colleagues, and evaluate whether you’ve done all you can to make sure you’re considering a wider variety of backgrounds than, say, white guys from different parts of the country.

2) Sometimes you don’t know who the best possible candidate is until you’ve met them. People who are defensive about their hiring choices often say something like, “We’re hiring the best candidate for the job.” But sometimes the best of all possible hires is someone who didn’t seem obvious on paper, and then brings something more to the organization — not just the job.

3) Sometimes you have to put your pride aside. Maybe the job as conceived isn’t what the job should be. Maybe the requirements for it are biased in ways you don’t realize. Things change so fast — that’s the beauty of the web — and sometimes your applicant pool can illuminate the flaws in what you’re looking for. And when it comes to inexperienced candidates, take the time to be more thoughtful about who you’re giving a chance to.

And here are the things I learned as a black job seeker in a largely white career field:

1) Everyone starts with their networks. That includes the people hiring you. Get in their networks. And yes, it can feel unnatural and hugely painful to reach out to strangers, but that’s just as much the job as having great clips.

2) Sometimes you don’t know if a job is right for you until you start talking to the person hiring. Don’t take yourself out of the running because you don’t feel ready. There are cases when you’ll end up deciding that together, and other cases where you’ll realize it’s perfect for you.

3) Sometimes you have to put your pride aside. There’s a certain vulnerability required when engaging with people who are in power. At least it can feel vulnerable. But the only way people will know you’re looking for a job is if you say you’re looking for a job. So say it.

Now let’s get to work.