America’s newsrooms don’t look like America. And it shows in their coverage.
News organizations are whiter and more male than the overall U.S. workforce. Many communities feel journalists don’t understand them. And journalists struggle to engage with underrepresented communities.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the social justice protests that ensued, newsrooms are assessing their flaws and reassessing their hiring, reporting and outreach.
Some newsrooms are declaring their intentions by assigning senior leaders to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Last month, The Washington Post named Krissah Thompson as its first managing editor for diversity and inclusion; The Dallas Morning News appointed veteran editor Leona Allen to a new post of deputy publisher with similar responsibilities; and earlier this year NPR’s Keith Woods was promoted from vice president for newsroom training and diversity to Chief Diversity Officer.
We asked them how newsrooms can address hiring disparities, make short-term progress, and change entrenched cultures.
Diversity and Inclusion can mean different things in different newsrooms. What do you see your chief responsibilities to be?
Thompson: My responsibilities fall into three buckets: hiring and recruiting, shaping coverage, and enhancing newsroom culture and staff retention. I will take the first few weeks to build out plans and strategies to make our already great newsroom better in each of those areas. This is a new position at The Post, and I look forward to making a meaningful contribution.
Allen: I’m charged with leading bold and systemic changes at our company that puts diversity, equity and inclusion at the core of all we do. That includes hiring, training and promotion of employees, reaching diverse audiences with our content, and choosing the companies with whom we do business.
Woods: I’ve had to carve out specific parts of D&I work, because the universe is too big and it’s hard to get anything done if you’re trying to do it all. I’m responsible for driving our diversity strategy, serving as an in-house consultant to other leaders across the company, and with Member stations, and leading a share of the initiatives I help get started.
If you were/are coming into this role at this point of reckoning for newsrooms, what would the first month, three months and six months look like in terms of action steps you’d take?
Thompson: In the near term, I want to have as many calls and meetings with managers and staff as I can to start a dialogue, have input and then start to put together my thoughts on actionable plans. I want colleagues to know that I am available, and I’ll be working to play a critical role in creating a newsroom that is a model of diversity and inclusion for our industry.
I also plan to focus on retention, recruitment and training, and through that we should see an impact on diversity in our journalism.
Allen: In fact, I am coming into this role at this point. This week is my first as new deputy publisher. My approach will be to first listen and learn about what our employees feel are priorities for them. This is a moment of really tapping into employees’ real experiences about diversity, equity and inclusion. We must establish baselines and benchmarks on where we are and where we want to go. I see the first six months as a period of establishing real goals and metrics ( a scorecard, if you will) around hiring, training and development.
Woods: I’ve been in the role through several cycles of upheaval in newsrooms, though nothing quite like this one. I think it’s critical to listen deeply to the things people are saying about unequal power and structural impediments to inclusion and work to remove them. We had put some things in place – mentorships; employee resource groups; equitable hiring practices; a focus on content – that the moment is calling for. I think the biggest challenge for all of us, especially for those of us who have been in these positions longer, is to resist the urge to launch initiatives and instead seize the full opportunity for transformational change that this moment presents.
What steps might a newsroom without a dedicated leader in this area take to champion D&I culture change?
Thompson: I think many newsrooms have people on staff who are passionate about these issues, want to improve the culture of their workplaces and help diversify news coverage. Newsroom leaders should engage them, listen to them and give them the time, support and compensation to do the work of championing diversity and inclusion.
Allen: I’ve seen some really effective committees form that bubble up issues and concerns to newsroom leadership. They’ve been able to push training and development issues that transform the way their organizations do business.
Woods: Leaders need to step up – whether there’s a dedicated D&I person or not – and take responsibility for that change. They need to tap the wisdom and experience on their staffs to understand where the pain points are.
How do you measure short-term and long-term success? What goals are you setting for newsroom leaders to meet?
Thompson: I’ve now been in the role for less than a week, so I’ll be defining goals in conjunction with managers and staff in the coming weeks. Once we have those goals in place, we can then look at the current moment as a baseline and seek to improve from there. Ultimately, we want a newsroom that looks like America and can cover all communities deeply and widely.
Allen: We really are at the beginning of establishing new baseline goals and table stakes that will be the guiding principles around our work and develop tangible objectives and aggressive goals and ingrain those into the performance metrics for each manager. We can’t improve what we don’t measure. Long-term success will be measured in how representative our staffs are to the communities we serve, an improvement in diversity in our content, how much we’ve moved the needle positively in the diversity of our content, how much we’ve grown underrepresented audiences, how much our employees feel valued and that we’ve acted on issues that are important to them.
Woods: Long-term success is systemic change. It’s when we don’t have to work as hard to attract the talent and audience we want or the sources that look and sound like the country we’re covering. Short-term success creating the programs and processes – like counting our sources and recruiting hard for every open position – that can immediately change the way we view ourselves and the way we’re seen by the public.
How are you approaching the challenges you face taking on this task?
Thompson: I am very energetic about this work. I want to foster a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ ethos. No one person can shift a newsroom’s culture or make a place more inclusive. It will take a collective body working together toward the same ambitions.
Allen: I see the challenges as opportunities to dig deeper on the systemic barriers to making marked improvement. I must handle them directly and with frank and honest communication.
Woods: We have to keep our eyes on the larger public service mission so that every part of our effort is connected to something larger than a project, committee or initiative.
What does accountability look like for/in your newsroom?
Thompson: Diversity and inclusion are important goals for us all to strive toward. In an effort of transparency, we recently released publicly a company-wide report on the demographics of The Washington Post and its newsroom, providing regular data that we can evaluate. We are also communicating how this essential work can be applied in various facets, including at a manager level.
Allen: Every employee understands that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility not just a few. We have metrics around what we want to accomplish and accomplishing these goals will be requirements of the job, not any voluntary initiatives.
Woods: At the senior level, the CEO has set a diverse audience as the top goal and demanded action from top leaders. Formal accountability structures around diversity have largely been absent before now.
Newsrooms faced resistance when adapting digital to their organizations and in many places the effort was initially siloed. Do you see parallels in the kind of cultural change that was needed to embrace digital?
Thompson: Diversity and inclusion work must be embraced wholly. It must permeate every aspect of our coverage and how we operate. When newsrooms moved from print to digital, first there was a learning curve and adjustments had to be made. Eventually, even the most reluctant accepted and participated in that change.
Allen: Definitely. See above. It was not until we made digital everyone’s responsibility, that it was ingrained in the requirements for the job did we start to see the needle move. The same must happen with diversity and inclusion. We can’t keep doing business in the same way or nothing will change.
Woods: That cultural change is still needed around digital today. There are clear parallels – breaking old habits, shifting from accommodation to true cultural change; infusing new ideas and new workflows. It’s also clear that the nature of resistance to diversity, rooted in historic bias and bigotry, is far more entrenched than a preference for one platform vs. another.
The Washington Post yesterday announced style changes for racial and ethnic identifiers. Are decisions about language and style part of your purview? If so, what style and language issues would you like to address?
Thompson: Changes to style and language are led by our copy desk chief. I will be one of many people weighing in on such decisions.
Allen: Yes. We’re capitalizing BLACK as an identifier. And as part of my review/audit of content decisions, continuous discussion of style and language will occur.
Woods: I’m among those consulted on such style changes, but the decisions are made by editorial leaders.