By TRACIE POWELL
News publications want young, rock star journalists. They want them to know how to zoom in on a compelling story, shoot it, write it, edit the audio, code, appear on camera, and do just about anything else an editor asks with a smile. All for as small a pay package as possible.
What happens when a news organization gets all that in one package? Most editors’ dream come true, right? The Boston Globe’s new life sciences start-up, Stat, just fired its wonderkid on Friday, but not before they switched the journalism and computer science grad’s job from research and reporting to primarily clerical work that included filing expense reports for the editor-in-chief (which is apparently against Globe policy), creating name tags for Stat events (which was initially assigned to an intern before the journalism grad was tasked with it), as well as booking lunches and ordering food for editors, and other reporters.
The young journalist said she was even asked to create a database to input information for checks written to the company’s operation director’s previous employer, The One Fund, which supports victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Great cause, but it was unrelated to Stat or The Boston Globe.
The journalist said she was unexpectedly escorted to the human resources office Friday morning where she was informed that she would have to either resign or be fired. The journalist would not, she was told, have to return the $5,000 relocation package she was given.
Like any good journalist, the young woman pushed further, asking for specifics regarding her termination. She said the human resources manager told her that she’d forgotten to make a name tag for an attendant at the recent company event; she was later told that her refusal to handle checks for the One Fund also played a role in her firing.
Now, before anyone helpfully chimes in that this is likely just a single case of a “bad fit,” or that the journalist must have done something egregious like plagiarize, lie or steal: 1) She had not published anything because the startup has not yet launched. 2) When the journalist inquired about her termination, she was told it was because she wasn’t a good fit and did not perform her administrative duties satisfactorily. Let’s consider that for journalists of color, this happens more often than some may think. I’ve seen it before. I can’t say how often it happens, but I have certainly heard plenty of stories and, in fact, experienced something similar myself.
This may shed some light on the “mystery” exodus of young people of color from the profession.
In 2003, perhaps the last time a comprehensive study was done on why journalists of color leave the industry, researchers found that it is primarily due to a lack of professional challenge and/or promotion. In the 12 years since that study was done, the decline in the number of journalists of color in U.S. newsrooms has hastened, said Benet Wilson, chair of the Online News Association’s Diversity Committee and editor of AllDigitocracy.org.
“We know, anecdotally, but we don’t have hard numbers to say how many young journalists of color are leaving. We know it’s happening, but no one is tracking this,” Wilson added. “But everybody’s leaving, it’s not just the youngsters. They are either leaving altogether, or putting together their side hustles.”
It is true that journalism is a mess right now and everyone is leaving. But the absence of journalists of color is especially acute for news organizations trying to figure out ways to reach and engage with new and increasingly diverse audiences.
Poor pay and long hours have long been drivers of journalists exiting the profession in general, but a 1995 report in the American Journalism Review also found that lack of advancement opportunities is why young journalists don’t hang around newsrooms for very long. Earlier this year the European Federation of Journalists reported that the top three reasons young journalists leave news are: increasing workloads, a lack of time, and pressures to produce for multiple platforms. All of those are related, I would think. But that hasn’t stopped young people from majoring in journalism, likely because they want to make a difference.
I am not yet naming the young journalist at The Boston Globe property because she, in my opinion, did nothing wrong. But I did speak with the executive editor of Stat, former Politico executive editor Rick Berke. I asked him about his hiring practices and retention philosophy. Berke’s response: “In my newsroom roles over the years, I have aggressively pursued efforts to promote diversity, and continue to do so as we get Stat off the ground in the coming months.”
I never asked Berke about diversity, curious as to how he’d navigate the elephant in the room. Since he brought it up, I followed up with him, asking that he provide examples of his commitment to diversity and I repeated my questions about hiring and retention, Berke did not respond. So I reached out to Stat’s parent company and asked the same question. While The Boston Globe editors had been briefed about this particular firing, they emphasized that Stat is a separate entity.
The Globe itself has seen the departure of several high-profile journalists of color in recent years including popular columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who left the newspaper in June.
“Stat is a new operation. And while they are connected at a higher level, the news operations are totally separate,” Managing Editor Christine Chinlund said through Paula Bouknight, assistant managing editor for hiring and development. “We were not part of the hiring. There is some overlap in that both Stat and the Globe cover some of the same industries and that there may also be some content overlap. But as far as a news operation, they are totally distinct.”
Berke is a Politico alum, a culture I am already familiar with; it is one that many journalists of color say they feel uncomfortable. I’ve written about it in the past (here and here). Black people generally don’t work at Politico, and apparently not at Stat either (At the time of last week’s firing, the young journalist was Stat’s only black newsroom employee.)
Berke, by the way, resigned from Politico due to differences with founders Jim VandeHei and John Harris over strategy. Berke’s slower, more methodical news-gathering ways clashed with the founders’ “quick-metabolism news bites, scoops and relentless self-promotion,” the Washington Post reported last fall.
If Berke takes diversity into consideration when hiring and promoting newsroom employees, then he is to be commended. I just wish he’d been able to provide some concrete examples to illustrate his commitment.
Back to Friday’s firing at Stat. It happened during the National Association of Black Journalists’ 40th Anniversary celebration, no less. Talk about timing! The journalist graduated from a large state university where she was an editor on the student newspaper and was really excited about her new job, posting on social media that she knew how fortunate she was to land a job straight out of college.
She was an intern for the Online News Association, heralded for her performance in the organization’s 2013 student newsroom where she wrote poignantly about the instability of her childhood, living in 20 houses in 20 years. She later successfully interned at The New York Times and NPR. She was a National Science Writer’s Association fellow and also interned at NASA. She has stellar work samples– audio, video and print. She knows C++, FORTRAN, and HTML/CSS. And if you don’t know what those are, then know that she’s a triple threat, quadruple even. One groomed by the National Association of Black Journalists (Transparency: I first hired her as an NABJ intern when the journalist was a sophomore). An NABJ baby. One of our crown jewels. A rarity.
Most important, she’s hungry. Hungry to tell great stories, and to make a difference.
The day before her graduation in May, the young journalist wrote this on a social media platform: “It’s been a while since I’ve cried tears of joy but, today was the day! The day before my college graduation ceremony, I was offered and accepted a WONDERFUL job opportunity with The Boston Globe in Boston!” She later posted photos from her moving day, and an image of the badge identifying her as a Boston Globe employee. To say she was excited is an understatement. And her supporters were excited for her.
Not even after Berke approved switching the journalist’s direct supervisor from an editor to the operations director did she openly revolt. She continued performing clerical tasks and worked on a reporting assignment from home, during her own time (Berke, she said, suggested that she work on reporting when she could get to it).
Weeks earlier I reached out to managing editor Stephanie Simon after the journalist contacted me about concerns she had after being switched to a new manager. Simon had recruited the reporter to begin with and I had given a strong recommendation for the journalist when Simon had conveyed Stat’s need for a researcher/reporter.
Simon told me that everyone “loved” the journalist, that she wanted to mentor the young woman and that everybody was having to pitch in and do administrative duties temporarily. Simon reassured both the journalist, and me, that the young woman would be doing more research and reporting once the site launched. And Simon added that she was eager to edit a story the journalist was working on, a story that the publication’s multimedia team used to demonstrate storytelling on multiple platforms.
When I asked Simon why the journalist’s supervisor had been switched from an editor to the operation director, Simon told me that there was initial confusion about who the young woman would report to; since her duties, for now, would be primarily administrative, Simon said it had been decided that the young woman would report to the operation’s director. Telephoning me while on vacation, Simon said that she would help the journalist devise a development plan and advise her on navigating newsroom politics.
Simon declined to speak with me following the young journalist’s dismissal.
Based on all the information I have been able to gather, it appears Simon was overruled by the man she reports to when it came to Friday’s firing. But even in a power struggle, I don’t think newsroom leaders would have to make the young journalist a secretary. Furthermore, perhaps the woman who hired the young journalist should ponder whether she wants to continue working at Stat. But internal politics is none of my business.
I write all of this not to indulge in the internal failings of a journalism startup, nor because I am trying to brag about someone I’ve helped raise through the ranks, or because I’m trying to help her find a new job– this young woman is so talented, she will land somewhere that values her skills with leaders who will continue nurturing her. That I’m not worried about. I’m writing this in hopes of finally getting people to understand why we leave. And to help those above my pay grade figure out why the numbers in the American Society of News Editors newsroom diversity censuses are worsening. Hint: It’s the cause, not the symptom, that we need to treat.
Tracie Powell is the founder of AllDigitocracy.org, chair of the National Association of Black Journalists Digital Task Force, member of the Online News Association’s Diversity Committee, an inaugural member of the Poynter Institute’s 2015 Women’s Digital Leadership Academy and a 2015-16 Knight Fellow at Stanford.