Sincerely, Leaders of Color: How to (not) ask for help finding applicants for your program or job

If you’ve already posted your job, it might be too late to get the truly diverse pool of applicants you’re hoping for

(Illustration by @pch-vector on Freepik)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.

If you have ever been a newsroom manager, hiring editor, assigning editor, or really anyone who has built up a network of colleagues that is diverse, you’ve probably been asked for help recruiting for an open position.

By my best count, I’ve gotten about 20 requests for ideas for job candidates this year alone. And I love to get these kinds of requests! (I’ve learned to manage all this by watching my mentors, like Doug Mitchell.) It’s flattering that people appreciate my network and judgment. My career as an editor and founder has been all about getting people into positions where they can do great work, so I see helping talented colleagues get good career opportunities as part of that mission!

But — and you knew there would be a but — most of the time, I wish those asking me for help had called a few months earlier.

Why? Because building out a team means much more than writing a job description to fill a vacancy. You have to design for the hires you want to make. What kind of structure will allow the kinds of people you want to work with succeed? What kind of budget do you need to attract talented people to your newsroom, product, fellowship, or grant program? What skills, experience, or expertise is missing on your current team? What is the history of your organization, city, and industry that you need to take into account when trying to convince someone that this is the right opportunity for them?

When people send me emails, DMs, and Slack messages, they usually don’t want to talk about these issues. They want names, and preferably introductions. They want me to share a link with my hardwon networks — often for free. In truth, I want to help you, and I want to be able to afford to help you. So here are a few things you might think about before you send me that “quick note” to “pick my brain” or “see if I know anyone.”

You want a diverse applicant pool. But why?

Sometimes people give me a side eye when I ask this question. Diversity is good! People who seek diversity are good! To me, that’s not a good enough answer. Organizations and managers who are doing something right on diversity aren’t trying to fill a quota, they’re trying to plug a hole of expertise. Are you seeking a Latino, or do you need someone who is culturally and linguistically fluent to communicate with the communities you are trying to serve? Do you want more women, or is your newsroom lacking expertise on what the world looks like to half the population?

Framing your recruitment as a diversity effort, to me, minimizes the expertise and value (read: money) candidates can command for bringing something that your organization needs. You don’t need diversity so that your staff photos look more appealing; you need diversity of expertise because that’s how we do our jobs well.

Understand what skills you need and include them in your job descriptions.

Okay, so you’re seeking a particular type of expertise. How many people have it and what is it worth to you?

Once you understand the skills your organization needs, assess your budget. If you’re looking for someone to cover a community you haven’t covered well before, for example, that’s a big request! You’re looking for someone who can forge brand new relationships, perhaps overcome prior distrust, speak in multiple languages (literally or culturally) and is also a great journalist on top of all those skills! You cannot pay an entry level salary, hire someone who can barely afford to work at your organization or live off your stipend, and expect them to do such a huge thing for your team.

In general, you should be paying more money — especially for candidates with experiences and skills that you are struggling to find for your organization.

Say it plainly.

Finally, in your job description, don’t beat around the bush about the skills and experience you are seeking. If you want someone who has demonstrated understanding of life in low-income communities, say so. If you need someone who has general news experience but also can bring a new language into your organization, make it clear. If you want someone to take on a hard task that your organization has never done before, seek skills related to leadership.

(Here are some good tips on building an application process from Chase Davis.)

How you recruit applicants says a lot about how you will treat your employees, fellows, or grantees. (See Rachel Schallom’s candid account of the job hunt.) Put the effort in up front to show them you value them and have a plan for them to succeed.

Then send me that email, message, or make an appointment so I can help you find the right applicants.

Angilee Shah
Independent journalist, editor and coach

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Emma. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

Reading List: Here are a few resources that might help you as you budget for your dream hire.

If you’re looking to hire independent journalists on contract, I applaud you! It’s a great way to get a lot of diverse perspectives into your organization. It is not, however, a cost-saving measure if you care about the health of our industry! Start with AIR’s rate guide and move up from there. I’ve also been interested in Buffer’s model of salary calculation.

It’s important to realize that we know when we are being underpaid. There are few organizations whose goal is to hire someone who feels like they have to keep looking for their next job, so pay employees competitively and they might breathe a sigh of relief and focus on this job. Please also know that newsrooms have so many pay gaps; people of color have been underpaid for a long time so please do not base your salary offer on past salary. Closing these gaps is really important to all of us.

Emma Carew Grovum, who with P. Kim Bui graciously lent me the Sincerely, Leaders of Color space this week, has written about ways to diversify your newsroom, including more investments you can make in your hiring process.


  • Angilee Shah

    Angilee Shah is an editor and entrepreneur who tells great stories for diverse, inclusive communities. She specializes in building teams and content for people and communities too often left out of media narratives. Shah spent six years as a founding editor of Global Nation, PRI’s The World’s coverage of immigration in the US, where in one year she brought 50 new contributors to the program. As a reporter and editor, her work has been read and heard around the world, including a book about everyday lives in China and a trio of investigative stories about the end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. She is working on media systems with ground-up approaches to narrative reporting, to tackle the big stories with an editorial process designed for and by the people being covered.


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