A chance encounter with a digital media rockstar confirms what I already knew: Women journalists aren’t on the same page when it comes to effecting change in the news industry
This past week I was among 150 women entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of digital news who gathered in New York City to connect with funders, visionaries, and each other. It was an opportunity to learn from, inspire and motivate ourselves. The Cracking the Code Summit, sponsored by the Ford and International Women’s Media foundations, was all that and more.
The summit also allowed me to talk personally with a woman I have long admired and respected from afar. Except now I wish I hadn’t.
I won’t name the woman. Her name isn’t important.
Suffice it to say this woman is a rock-star digital journalist entrepreneur. The business model she launched was reportedly worth millions and is now a well-respected brand in the industry. She has a reputation for being engaging, approachable and even fun. Except she was none of these when I met her.
Almost from the second I stuck out my hand to introduce myself, I wanted to snatch it back. Her facial expression let me know that she wasn’t interested. But I persisted. I told her we’d met before and how enamored I was with her story. I wondered if she might give me some advice about how to pursue building All Digitocracy. She seemed to want to be any place other than standing there talking with me.
I quickly asked if I might email her, maybe talk with her about possible mentors. “No,” she said. “No. So many people ask me about that, and no. I’m busy and don’t have time.”
“That’s fine,” I stumbled in response. “It doesn’t have to be you, I just thought you might know someone who I could…”
“No. No,” she interrupted. “Just no.”
I felt awkward and stunned as she continued. “What’s the point? Do journalists of color support this?” she said.
The tone of her voice as she referred to All Digitocracy as “this,” let me know these were statements of her facts, rather than questions. It’s not the first time someone has tried to make me feel “less than.”
So many thoughts ran through my head. The first being that you should never meet your heroes. Later, as I processed what happened, I thought of all the things that I wanted to say, but didn’t.
I wanted to run off the statistics published by the IWMF, the group that had invited us both to speak at the summit. I wanted to tell her that while women still lag behind men in U.S. newsrooms, the number of women of color is actually declining. I stuttered instead, caught off-guard by her coolness toward me.
Maybe she doesn’t like the fact that I include “journalists of color” when I talk about women, media and diversity. I know many journalists aren’t comfortable talking about race and ethnicity, so this reaction didn’t come as a total surprise. Still, I wanted to shoot back something about her response confirming an assumption I had already made about the company she founded, an assumption that it practically ignores people of color. That the assumption had spurred me to launch All Digitocracy.
I said none of this.
Besides, she was right. If journalists of color don’t support All Digitocracy at a certain critical mass, it won’t be a success. And if All Digitocracy can’t get support from journalists who aren’t of color, it won’t work either. I recognized this early on before I launched, so her saying this wasn’t what bothered me so much. It’s what came next that really stung.
“It’s not just journalists of color,” she charged. “Look, journalism is dying. I think you’re wasting your time.”
Then why is she here? I thought. This was, after all, a conference about journalism innovation. And she was there, supposedly, to share expertise with journalists about how to innovate and how to make journalism more relevant. Instead she knocked the wind out of my sails by saying my work to help save journalism doesn’t matter.
I choked out a response about All Digitocracy’s successful crowdfunding campaign that concluded this week and the fact that I’ve already gotten more than 150,000 page views despite the fact that I have just started. “Well then do your one project,” she said. “But the rest of it… I think you have a very ambitious agenda. And I just don’t think it’s going to work.”
She must have sensed how deeply her words cut because she apologized if my feelings were hurt and asked if I got anything out of her talk. I responded positively.
And with that, we both eagerly, and hurriedly, parted company.
Two women who had stood nearby and witnessed the conversation immediately walked over to me and asked if I was okay. “That was brutal,” one of them said. The other wanted me to know that she respected what I was doing. That she thought it was great. They were supportive and encouraging, just like the rest of the summit turned out to be.
My chance encounter with someone I once respected was an anomaly at an otherwise inspiring and phenomenal week that was every bit as inspiring as it was informative. Truth be told, even if this woman is no longer admirable, I can still admire the company she built. And I do.
I don’t share this story because I want sympathy after someone I respected turned out to be a jerk to me. I write this because with all the energy and money being put into developing women leaders in news media, the conversation underscores an important fact that women journalists will have to discuss at some point: When it comes to media diversity, many women aren’t on the same page, so how can we expect to effect real change? Women journalists of color have issues unique to us, one of them being that white women don’t necessarily want to hear us out. They simply don’t want to be bothered.
It’s similar to a refrain I heard a couple of months ago when the immediate past editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, came off clueless and dismissive over slights that had recently appeared in her former newspaper against TV producer Shonda Rhimes and actress Viola Davis. Abramson doesn’t get it, just like the woman at the summit doesn’t get it. Thank goodness there are so many other women – white and those of color – who do get it.
I hope those of us who do, outnumber those who don’t. If not, journalism really will die.