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Newsroom Execs and Managers: Ways to Uphold Your Diversity and Inclusivity Values During COVID-19

Here are a few practical strategies for thinking through tough decisions in an equitable and inclusive way.


Our values are even more important during a crisis. Here are a few practical strategies for thinking through tough decisions in an equitable and inclusive way. (Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash)

Journalism funders: Looking for concrete ways you can uphold diversity and inclusivity values during COVID-19? Jenny Choi, managing director at the News Integrity Initiative has you covered.

In overwhelming times, easier things often get done first, while harder, more complicated problems wait. But we need to spend time on the harder things, and to do so now, so here’s a guide to make upholding your diversity, equity, and inclusivity values during a pandemic one step easier.

This list of concrete actions across different scenarios is based on the techniques I see some newsroom leaders already practicing, merged with my own leadership and management experience. Keep in mind that this is only a starting point and you may need to adapt these to your newsroom.

Foundational Assumptions to Start From

Three assumptions you should understand and use as the foundation for anything you do.

  • COVID-19 is not impacting everyone on your staff equally
    Whether it comes to how likely someone is to contract or die from the virus, get access to testing, be targeted in the surge in hate crimes, or need to work while taking care of loved ones at home. Because of this, journalists of color and your lowest-paid staff (likely to be the same folks) are probably dealing with many extra layers of stress and anxiety, especially because racial disparities impact not only your staff but also their loved ones.
  • Everything you do now will be imbued with extra weight and meaning.
    This applies to both the pieces you choose to publish and the actions you take within your newsroom. People are looking to you for leadership even more than usual, and as an exec or manager, you may already know that pre-pandemic, the people who report to you (and the people who report to them) already read into what you say with great detail. That’s highly amplified now.
  • Small gestures are significant.
    Do not underestimate how much an impact small gestures from you can have. Since everything you do already carries extra weight, small gestures that come from any exec or manager can have a disproportionately good impact on your staff. If you haven’t yet, start by publicly acknowledging that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on people of color (including your staff) to your staff, even if your publication has already covered this topic.. You can also: Send notes of encouragement to your team or staff (even a few sentences goes a long way), call staff members to ask how they’re doing and just listening, or ask about the wellbeing of people’s loved ones by name. To go further: Pay attention to who might benefit from taking the rest of the day off, call them up, and explicitly tell them, “Hey, why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

How to Lead by Example

  • Take your breaks visibly.
    Whether it’s using scheduled PTO, or disconnecting for an hour, a day, or a weekend amidst a 24/7 news cycle, take breaks and take them visibly. Demonstrate that it’s okay to not be “on” nonstop, especially since we have no real sense of when COVID coverage will slow down. It could be especially effective to tell your staff examples of when you’ve already taken a break, and follow that up with the message that you expect them to do the same. Similarly, if you’re writing emails late at night, but they could be sent in the morning, use the “schedule send” feature in your email (here are how-tos in gmail and outlook) to send it during regular work hours so employees don’t feel obligated to respond in the middle of the night. Some of you may already be doing this, because it’s great practice both during and outside of a crisis.
  • Email your newsroom or team resources for how to best take care of themselves and their loved ones (if you haven’t already).
    The more topics covered the better, including topics such as mental health and resources for if you’ve been the victim of a hate crime or if you want to get bystander intervention training, specifically around the anti-Asian/American harassment happening now. You can also draw from the resources our team at OpenNews has curated, which helps filter down the mountain of guides and articles available, and focuses on the human-side of what we all need right now, including understanding grief and how to support each other. Each resource you send will signal that you’re thinking about that topic, and you care about the well-being of your staff. Sending resources regularly (weekly or bi-weekly) will show that you’re continuing to think about these topics, and you continue to care about your staff.
  • For those who manage managers: Seek out and send your leadership team resources on leadership in difficult times, as well as leading through grief.
    Here are two pieces from Lara Hogan, one of my go-to sources on how to be a great manager — both in terrible times and otherwise. Here’s an old but valuable article from the Harvard Business Review about what it means to lead through grief, and the compassion required to do it. You should do your own reading and find what resonates with you and share it.
  • Communicate regularly to your entire staff.
    Most things in our lives have become unknowable, but what’s going on at work shouldn’t be one of them. What you say doesn’t have to be lengthy or certain, it just has to be true or direct. This can come in the form of a weekly email, or any other way you have of ensuring everyone gets the message at the same time. That means only communicating at regular staff meetings is not a good option, since especially in journalism, folks often have interviews or deadlines that require that they miss meetings. The goal here is to establish regular communication with your staff, so that no one is left out of the loop, or needs to get the information later from their colleagues, and so everyone understands that the lines of communication are open and that if they do have questions, there’s a welcoming place and way to ask. Here are some additional great communication-related steps for leaders to take during emergencies.
  • Be the one to start the conversation about values.
    It’s important for this conversation to start at the top. If as a newsroom exec or manager you believe in the importance of diversity in our news organizations, proactively bring this up with the rest of the leadership team. Then, tell your organization about the ways you’re thinking about it and incorporating it as your organization weathers this moment in history. Good and honest communication about this will go far.
  • Take care of yourself.
    When everyone is anxious or panicking, leaders (whether that’s managers or just folks people respect) can be a calm, reassuring presence. But you can’t provide that if you aren’t taking care of yourself. What’s worse: Driving yourself into the ground means you’ll more likely be short-tempered or react poorly to mounting levels of stress. Taking care of yourself helps you do right by your staff.

Making Coverage Decisions

For every piece the staff works on:

  • Require reporters and editors to explicitly think through how every story they work on can ensure that undercovered communities get covered.
    Just as COVID-19 is not impacting everyone on your staff equally, it is also not impacting communities equally. You can see the coverage everywhere — Black and Hispanic people are dying much higher rates across the country because of historic and institutional racism in the United States. Add on the fact that COVID-19 physical restrictions have made it harder to find sources by physically traveling to places. So newsrooms need to be proactively counterbalancing how they source so undercovered community voices aren’t lost and are being covered respectfully An easy way to get started is by reading this piece from NPR on what work we can do to eliminate crisis coverage where “people of color, poor people of all races and ethnicities, and people more geographically isolated are overlooked or rendered societal clichés, ever the victims; rarely the heroes.”
  • Interrogate and update your newsroom’s existing editing and review structures to make sure no part of a story or story package will perpetuate xenophobia, racism, or stereotypes.
    As a first step, send these guidelines from the Asian American Journalism Association to your staff and tell them it’s important to read and follow them. As AAJA continues to call out racist tropes found in COVID-19 coverage, that same coverage then directly affects the lives of Asian people in the United States. Especially in moments of crisis, not paying attention will cause you to lose readers, but much more more importantly: anything less than a vigilant attitude about this can deal lasting damage to communities of color.

Hiring and Freezes

If you’re still making hires, hiring freelancers or temporary employees, or freezing hiring:

  • If existing hiring processes are on pause, tell all the applicants currently in your hiring system and take down the listings for all jobs you can’t hire for.
    I see messages from journalists wondering every day whether the job they applied for has been frozen, or if existing listings are still real. Again, at a moment when most things in our lives have become unknowable, don’t make this one of them. Instead, email all existing applicants your current status, and keep them updated if anything changes. It’s okay if the email you send tells applicants that your organization hasn’t made a decision yet, but will in the next week, and you’ll update them again then. If you have jobs posted online that you are no longer able to hire for, take them down so that you aren’t giving false hope (and wasting the time) of folks looking for jobs now. As an organization, make sure that you aren’t keeping the applicants that are least connected to your professional network in the dark — because those folks will be the ones who won’t have anyone to ask to get inside information about your hiring situation.
  • Evaluate every step of your existing hiring process to make sure all potential hires have an equitable chance of being hired.
    The people you bring into your organization now will have a lasting impact on your organization’s future. The people who work with you now will have gained valuable experience for getting a future, permanent job at your organization, and built relationships with your current staff. If your organization has them, do not bypass existing best practices around equity in hiring for the sake of speed. Instead, practice your best practices at a quicker pace. If you don’t have any best practices yet, don’t exacerbate a bad situation — start here.

Internship Programs

Many managers already know that internship programs are one of the best ways organizations can find and train young journalists of color. For many reasons, you might be considering cutting or delaying your internship program this year. If that is the case, here are a few ways you may be able to help the journalists who already applied:

  • Give them stability — If you’ve already selected your interns, offer them a deferral for when your internship program resumes at a later date.
    Guarantee that they’ll have a spot if they are still able to come. This can help assure your 2020 interns that they don’t have to lose out on an important career opportunity. When you make this offer, also think of creative ways you can help the students who would’ve been your interns this year — offer to give them recommendation letters or give them advice about how to list being selected as an intern as an honor on their resume.
  • Giving them training and connections, even if it’s scaled back.
    You can offer a mentorship program, or more informally, provide a way for college students to regularly get digital coffee with members of your staff. Organizations could also offer brief training sessions to everyone who applied for an internship with you this year (or to everyone, period), and take advantage of video conferencing software like Zoom to scale how many people you can reach. Offering any of the above could become lifeboats for emerging journalists during this time. Here are some other ideas.
  • Give them a new kind of internship.
    Some newsrooms, like the Texas Tribune, are switching to remote internships and have focused their efforts on making sure that being an intern during a pandemic — when the newsroom is busier than ever and everyone is working from home — can still be a valuable and thoughtful experience. At a time when newsrooms have gone to working from home overnight and there’s already talk that things will never go back to the pre-pandemic world we used to know — there’s good reason to think creatively and design new ways to do your internships. Digging into this problem means your newsroom could be getting ahead of the curve. If you’re interested in thinking about this further with other managers, join communities such as the News Nerdery Slack or Journalists of Color Slack where conversations about creative solutions are taking place.

Layoffs, Furloughs, and Pay Cuts

If you need to lay off, furlough, or issue pay cuts for parts of your staff, these processes are to help you make those cuts in the most equitable way possible.

  • At each stage of selecting whom to lay off, furlough or whose pay to cut, first collect and review data on the diversity of your affected staff. Then share the final data with your staff.
    Just like you should be benchmarking for diversity during an application process to see where and if a disproportionate number of women, people of color, or other groups that have historically been discriminated against are dropping out of your application pool, you should be doing the same thing when looking at cuts. Build in benchmarks so that you know exactly how your cuts will be affecting your organization’s diversity demographics, so you can have clarity on whether specific groups are being hit disproportionally. If they are, figure out why and if there’s a problem you need to fix. Once you’ve taken thoughtful action, share the final aggregate demographic data internally and externally, especially if your newsroom already releases an annual diversity report. When announcing cuts internally or externally, be clear that you’re taking steps to ensure journalists of color are not bearing a disproportionate burden.
  • If possible, find a way to protect your lowest paid staff.
    We’ve seen some organizations do this already, but when instituting pay cuts, use a sliding scale, or limit pay cuts to only employees making over a certain amount of money. While everyone will feel the hurt of losing pay, cutting your lowest paid staff recovers the least amount of money for the organization while compounding the disproportionate impact of the crisis in general, since your lowest paid staff members are most likely to be from groups where their loved ones are also the hardest hit.
  • See the red flags. Then do something about it.
    If laying off a specific team, or laying off all your recent hires deals a huge blow to the diverse makeup of your newsroom, see it for what it is: a red flag that your organization has not integrated diversity well. There is no doubt that newsrooms that have not been proactively working on diversity will have a harder time now than those that have — but not breaking those habits will only perpetuate the problem. But once you know about the red flags, counteract them. Do not use a “last ones in, first ones out” layoff process. Consider instituting a sliding scale of pay cuts, starting with the executive team taking the biggest hit. Think critically and creatively about how you can keep whatever progress you’ve been able to make even while making tough decisions.

Show Your Work, Ask, and Listen

  • Communicate your values and what you’re doing to uphold them.
    Show that you’re tackling this problem clearly and overtly. Repeatedly communicate your values and that you care about diversity and equity. Continuing publishing diversity reports, even in the middle of COVID-19 coverage. If you’re using any of the processes above, tell your staff about it. Show them your work.
  • Regularly ask your employee resource group leaders or diversity committee for insights on how COVID-19 is affecting them and what’s important to them right now.
    If your organization has ERGs or a diversity committee, communicate with them by regularly sharing how you’re thinking about matters of diversity as you manage through a crisis, and intentionally inviting them to share with you their ideas, experiences, and feedback.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a starting point. Many of these suggestions come from my own experience, but many also come from my asking other senior managers how they’re handling the tough situations news organizations are in right now. Every time I have this conversation I learn something new, which usually comes with a new idea for something I could do better as a manager. The more we all talk about it — publicly and privately — the better we’ll get at it, and the more ideas we’ll have collectively.

So here’s my request to you: Take an idea from this guide that you aren’t doing yet, but would like to try, and talk in detail about how you could make it happen with a colleague at work. It could be someone else on the leadership team or just another colleague who cares about this stuff. Afterward, I’d love to hear how it went. I know how hard even the smallest actions can feel as a manager, especially when you already feel overwhelmed. I get it. But taking action here not only helps your news organization, it helps push the entire conversation forward.

Finally, like many folks, I started advocating for diversity from the bottom up before I had the chance to advocate for it from the top down. So if you’re on a diversity committee, regardless of whether it’s official or not, and you want to know what you can do, here are a few ideas.

What Diversity Committees and ERGs Can Do

As someone who co-founded and co-chaired ProPublica’s diversity committee, I know that being on one is a second job. Especially now, as the journalists everywhere have skyrocketed into near 24/7 work, I’ve tried to think of three things diversity committees and ERGs can do that require the least amount of time, and can create the greatest amount of impact — for now or for later.

  • If your newsroom is experiencing layoffs or furloughs, ask top managers to release data on the demographic and departmental breakdown of the staff affected. If managers are unwilling to release it publicly, ask for it to be released internally to the staff, or to the diversity committee. If your newsroom isn’t tracking demographics during layoffs, ask them to. If your newsroom refuses or you are unsure of the official numbers, you can also keep track and make sure that it lines up. Accountability can only happen if someone is keeping track.

  • Pay attention to any new staff members or hiring happening during this time. If you see something happening too fast or without a clear and fair process, point it out to hiring managers immediately. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that yet, keep track of what’s happening so you can figure out what to do at a later time.

  • Finally, email this piece to your leadership team. If you don’t know how to introduce it, you could say, “I found this to be really helpful, and I wanted to share it with you too:” and add the link.

A special thank you to stacy-marie ishmael, an editor at the Texas Tribune, Keith Woods, chief diversity officer at NPR, Mackenzie Warren, senior director of news strategy at USA TODAY network, and Rob King, senior vice president and editor-at-large of ESPN Content, for giving their time to provide me with thoughtful and valuable feedback on this piece. Also, thank you to the Newmark J-School’s Community of Practice for Talent, Inclusion, and Change leaders, for hosting important conversations around this topic that helped inspire this piece.

Organizations

Credits

  • Sisi Wei

    Sisi Wei is the Director of Programs at OpenNews, where she envisions and executes transformative initiatives to help create a journalism industry that is more inclusive and equitable, especially for journalists of color and local journalists. Previously, she was the Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, during which she edited and managed news apps, graphics, visual investigations and large, interdisciplinary projects. Sisi has won numerous Malofiej, SND Digital and ONA awards, the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and the 2016 Data Journalism Award for Best Individual Portfolio. She has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, The New School and CUNY, and she is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact, nonprofit workshop that teaches journalists how to code. She is based in New York City.

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