Coming up with new ideas to support your media outlet’s growth strategies, recognizing your value and cultivating a team of advisers, advocates and confidants are among the first orders of business for women of color who not only want keep a job in the news industry, but move up the ranks of leadership. So says a group of four women power players in digital media who spoke to a standing-room only audience at the joint NABJ/NAHJ 2016 journalism conference and career expo.
Two years in the making, the idea for this frank discussion came to moderator Tracie Powell, founder of All Digitocracy and 2016 John S. Knight Stanford University fellow, after the response she got from a blog post in which she argued that there is no Shonda Rhimes in U.S. news media.
In 2014 Powell wrote that when it comes to the upper level of decision-making at mainstream news organizations, black women have been largely locked out.
“I got a lot of emails and calls about that and people sent me names of the shot callers or show runners in the news business, Powell said at the start of the discussion. “So that’s when I thought we need to have a panel of these shot callers so we can talk to them about how they got there and how we might be able to get there too.”
Diverse media makers working on both the creative and business sides at digital media outlets shared their personal experience climbing the masthead as Powell worked with them to unpack the reasons for the dearth of women of color in leadership roles at a time when news organizations – struggling to respond to issues arising in the 2016 presidential election and in an increasingly diverse America – are trying to gain market share in under-served, but expanding communities of color.
Powell began the discussion citing a 2015 American Society of News Editors statistics revealing another decline in people of color working in American newsrooms and asked the panelists why this is happening.
Sandra Lilley, managing editor of NBC Latino, said she has always had female mentors and says that part of the issue is the contraction of legacy media outlets.
“I worry as the newsrooms shrink where do we go,” Lilley said.
“Over the years there’s been some progress, but people still tend to hire people representing the voices that they are used to seeing,” Donna Byrd, publisher of theRoot.com added.
But after Powell pressed the panelists, some acknowledged that in addition to a downturn in newsroom hiring, status quo hiring practices or the decision women generally have to make on whether to interrupt their careers to start a family, women of color have additional issues that stymie their progress.
“When you don’t feel listened to in an organization and when you don’t feel represented or when it starts to feel like the organization you are in is not an idealistic place…sticking round is not a sustainable proposition,” S. Mitra Kalita, vice president for programming at CNN Digital said, adding that some talented journalists have moved on from journalism for positions in public relations or marketing.
Lauren Williams, managing editor at Vox.com, said that the news industry seems to be harder on women of color.
“I feel that there is a cushion for messing up that doesn’t seem to exist as much for Black women,” Williams said.
Despite these challenges, panelists encouraged women of color, who are not happy in their current roles, to seek new opportunities in the industry rather than leave the media business.
In the current media climate the experiences diverse women bring to newsrooms have value because they can help both legacy and start-up media outlets build audience, panelists said.
It was the rise of Barack Obama and the 2008 presidential election when mainstream media first took note of the dearth of diverse voices and the need to cultivate more writers to report on his campaign, Byrd said.
“There were three people at the beginning of 2008 that [newsrooms] used to go to when they were looking for a Black perspective. [Media outlets] were scrambling because this new senator was getting a lot of buzz,” Byrd said adding that theRoot.com cultivated writers including Ta-Nehisi Coats and Melissa Harris Perry. “I think now [news organizations] are trying to make an effort to reach out to black and brown communities,” she said.
Panelists also said the multiple identities women of color take on provide a valuable perspective for media organizations trying to capture new audiences. “Newsrooms have figured out that identity driven journalism really matters,” Kalita, said.
“Nothing is more valuable than you mixing in your personal experiences, or what you are hearing in your community, or with your friends or colleagues,” Lilley said.
In addition to recognizing your power on the editorial side of the news business, women of color should also stay tuned to what they can do on the business side to move up the ladder.
“There are many, many ways of making your presence known and it’s not just a byline,” Kalita said. “I would actually argue that the people who change photos and miraculously cause a story to soar or identify new markets and audiences are among the most valuable in our newsrooms right now.”
Byrd, whose company was just bought by Univision, which seeks to build audience among millenials of color, echoed Kalita.
“Whether you are on the business or the news side of journalism, if you understand how to sell and package a good idea, you can go a long way in life.” Byrd said.