Introducing ‘Leavers’: results from a survey of 101 former journalists of color

How do we move away from 50 years of lip service to sustained newsroom diversity? This survey points the way.

Within the diversity represented by the sample, a typical Leaver profile emerged. (Illustration by William Lager)

For the first time in 50 years, Black and other journalists of color (JOC) are waging a public campaign to air newsroom grievances. Using Twitter, they’re sharing horror stories that previously circulated via discrete, “insider” whisper networks. Individual journalists are finding common ground with each other despite traditional outlet competition and hierarchy. They’re interrogating hallowed norms like “objectivity,” and staffers are calling out and demanding accountability from newsroom leaders—all in the Twitter public square.

I’ve been in journalism since 2005 (I left in 2016; for my story scroll to the end). Up until two months ago I couldn’t conceive of these public “newsroom revolts.” As a matter of fact, disrupting the insular, siloed nature of diversity grievances and cautions, and demands for change, is one reason I conducted an informal survey this winter, of journalists who had left the industry. It is one of the few exit interviews of its kind: The “Leavers” Project: former journalists of color speak about the journalism industry.

For three weeks this February-March, more than 100 “Leavers”—81% of whom were women of color and half of whom were Black—responded to an ethical and practical call to gather exit data to: “serve as a resource for current students and JOCs who are making [career] decisions, often in isolation, in an industry in crisis” and “help newsroom managers to improve the retention of JOCs, particularly, through mid-career.” As a testament to the survey aims and design, and respondents’ commitment to journalism—the practice, less so, the industry—83% agreed to participate in follow-up interviews and surveys related to this project.

Results of the survey were first released in a session at SRCCON 2020, and are shared more fully here. Below you’ll find Key findings, How to use this data and My story—or, you can skip these and head directly into a profile of “Leavers” and results, here.

“I often felt like I was being preyed on. I trusted white, female bosses to be my allies, but in the end, it felt like they tore my heart out and stomped on it. I wasn’t allowed to own my ideas—they were theres [sic] and they took them without the value of years of my work that went into formulating them. I’m still a bit heartbroken….”
—Female respondent, Middle Eastern or North African, age 27-35

Key findings

The data corroborate whisper-network news and this project’s central hypothesis that JOCs leave at mid-career. (Most “Leavers” left journalism because “they decided to”—not because they couldn’t find sufficient or any work; company downsizing, restructuring or buyout; nor retirement.) Also of note, one-third of “Leavers” say they had managerial duties at the time they left.

This mid-career “leakage” of experience, potential leadership and representation matters. It raises questions about the timing of diversity initiatives at the start of the career pipeline and their return on investment (ROI) for both the industry and communities that newsrooms serve. Proceeding along this line of inquiry re-frames the newsroom/the industry as the problem—not “Leavers’” inability to “fit” in nor a lack of training.

“It’s tough being a black woman in television news. If you’re a serious journalist you’re perceived as ‘angry.’ I was once told I didn’t smile enough. If you advocated for a different angle in storytelling you were often dismissed. Corrected a millennial, you were intimidating. That coupled with how social media changed how we covered news left me burnt out and depressed. Had I not felt that way day in and day out in good of [sic] the daily stress that comes from working in TV news I may have stayed.”
—Female respondent, African-American or Black, age 45-53

Another key find is what appears to be a high proportion of “Leavers” who are women, Black women in particular. Is this sample anomalous? Does it represent what’s happening in journalism? How does the industry, especially one in crisis, impact the careers of Black and other women of color, and white women, too? We need more data on this and other questions raised by “Leavers” results, like: what do JOCs do immediately after leaving journalism? Does journalism depress or raise the post-journalism career prospects of JOCs? Is there a revolving door back into journalism or do JOCs leave for good? Does the commercial news model encourage or depress race/ethnic representation in newsrooms? How do work experiences within the JOC category differ? How are they similar?

How to use this data

Data and results from the ‘Leavers’ survey of 101 former journalists of color, conducted February through March 2020, are available here.

Don’t draw over-large conclusions

The “Leavers” sample (n=101) may not be representative of JOCs leaving the U.S. journalism industry, and findings are applicable to the sample population, only. Do use the “Leavers” profile and findings as a starting or supplemental point in discussions around the hiring and retention of JOCs in local, regional or national outlets and markets, and for informed discussion about career pathways.

Duplicate and scale

We’re living through an historic unwinding of the fourth estate in the U.S., and yet we’ve barely expended commensurate investment to capture its impact on a) the “typical” journalist; b) journalists of color at mainstream, local and race/ethnic-serving outlets; c) freelance journalists; and certainly, d) the next generation of journalists. We need rigorous data collection, not informal surveys run by a single person, about journalists as workers at local, state and national levels, and we need to share findings with their publics. We also need to explore the work experiences and reflections of the racial/ethnic groups captured by the catch-all term, JOC. It subsumes tremendous difference.

My story

I’d never run a survey before; I’m a writer and editor who still thinks of herself as “just a reporter.” I ran this survey, and I’m grateful to NII for funding it, because I believe that caring about journalists as workers is the most direct route to sustaining newsroom diversity and, in time, rebuilding our news ecosystem. Also, I think of the “Leavers” project as a care package to my younger self.

I’m an advisor to this year’s #50Women in Journalism cohort, and a few weeks ago I told them that when I was a cub journo I wish someone had offered a class on, ‘Negotiating race in newsrooms.’ So many of the other Black women on that Zoom video call were visibly nodding. In these moments of recognition, however, I’m also doubly conscious of my other identity faultline in U.S. newsrooms: I’m an immigrant and while I’m Black, ethnically, I’m not African-American. After 30 years of immigration, people like me are more common, including in the Midwest and rural America.

Still, our industry’s modus operandi is so 1960s. It reduces Black/African-American, Latino(x)/Hispanic, Asian, etc. into “single stories” for consumption by a white audience (also typed)—both in coverage and inside newsrooms. Accuracy in this respect isn’t an industry strength. So I spent a decade tripping multiple landmines that ultimately “[weighed] me down every day” as one Leaver put it, until I left journalism in 2016. I’m a Leaver, too. And despite feeling heartbroken and that I’d failed in my vocation, anecdotally, I knew those landmines weren’t bugs; they were features. In time, I gave myself permission to trust the question I’d been asking all along: What is wrong with the journalism industry that it is unable to make room for someone like me, with the questions I ask about the world—on my terms?

What did other “Leavers” think? Could their experiences be harnessed to help younger JOCs and the industry? Could the pursuit of newsroom diversity finally lead to sustainability if we centered JOCs, including their mental health and well-being?

It took me from 2005-2016, and time away from journalism culture, to be able to name the landmines of negotiating race/ethnicity in newsrooms, many of which, working and former JOCs are exposing on Twitter. Some of those landmines: newsrooms practicing “tokenism” and selling it as, “diversity;” separating newsroom leaders’ myth and lore of journalism from the poor employment practices they use to sustain it; expectations that JOCs also assume the Human Resources duty of recruiting like-others; newsroom leaders approaching “Blackness” as a commodity to be traded or displayed; the ‘brokering’ relationship between individual JOCs, newsrooms and the population they’re presumed to represent; and more.

My experience led me to the “Leavers” project long before the current “reckoning” began. I hope this chorus of voices will help former JOCs who felt lost and isolated in the newsroom, or working JOCs who are currently asking themselves: should I leave?

You are not crazy.

To newsrooms responding to “the reckoning”: a story idea. Promises and pledges to do better are no different from how our industry has responded in the 50 years since the Kerner report. The journalistic high bar is transparency with your communities—both White and non-White—about the harm that a lack of diversity has caused them over the decades and, now. Turn your investigative lens on yourselves. That’s the measure of meeting this moment.

The “Leavers” project was funded by the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

Help me to shape what’s next. I want to document how you’re using the “Leavers” survey to make change; share with me, here. Also, no matter your race/ethnicity, I’m interested in how “Leavers” is resonating with you. Tell me your story. As with the survey, all responses will be anonymized.



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