Sincerely, Leaders of Color: This is my commitment as an ally and a leader
There’s much work to be done to better support and develop journalists of color. Here are a few steps I’m taking this year.
Commitments, Not Predictions: As we start 2022, Sincerely, Leaders of Color asked our fellow leaders, allies, and rebels — of all colors — to make commitments and promises for the year ahead, and how they’ll contribute to making safer, healthier newsrooms for all journalists of color. Here’s what they said. This special series is presented with support from The American Press Institute.
If people of color who work in news don’t see a future among us, we’re doomed. And, right now, they are exhausted and abandoning an industry shaped by systemic underrepresentation and marginalization.
To reverse course, we need systemic change. Thankfully, even as we acknowledge how thoroughly we’ve underdelivered on our earlier promises, there is hope.
My company, Gannett, has rededicated itself to a culture of inclusion, earning a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index. There are echoes throughout the organization of a time of progressive thinking when John Quinn, who became the first editor of USA TODAY, joined with Nancy Hicks Maynard, her husband Bob and John Seigenthaler of The (Nashville) Tennessean in an effort to upend the all-male, white establishment inside newsrooms. For those who want to learn more about this history, I learned a lot from this book.
Forty four years later, I’m yet another white editor in a privileged position with an obligation to fix what bedevils us. To succeed, I must create pathways for journalists of color to lead. If I don’t commit to fixing what’s broken, my allyship means nothing.
That’s what Emma Carew Grovum and P. Kim Bui asked me to do: Commit in ‘22.
I work with Kim at The Arizona Republic. Last year, she introduced me to Emma, who invited me to a series of peer chats sponsored by Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
These chats served as inspiration for self-growth. And they had me squirming. They left no doubt: I need to create space and time for journalists of color, women, and LGBTQ+ journalists to thrive. This year, that’s my priority. So, how do I do that? Before crafting this commitment column, I gut-checked myself with a dozen colleagues and critics. Not everyone wanted their frank assessments on-the-record. But, here’s what a few had to say.
Let’s start with Liz Nelson, who I met in California after she migrated from washingtonpost.com to LA. For a few years, I convinced her to join me in Palm Springs to lead digital for The Desert Sun. Empathetic and creative, she’s a fearless editor punching up in traditional and nontraditional news environments.
Today, she’s vice president of audio at Vox. I asked Liz how journalists are feeling, about the health of our culture and prospects for the future.
“At no time has trust in journalists and media been lower,” she said. “Audiences are increasingly retreating further into entrenched beliefs via polarized media outlets and social algorithms. Then add to that we’re all working largely from home and dealing with our own real lives in a pandemic. We need to center the well-being and mental health of our colleagues or we will lose them.”
People are hurting. We need to acknowledge burnout and fatigue – and then take action to address it. This is something Mizell Stewart III, Gannett’s vice president in charge of News Performance, Talent & Partnerships, preaches to the legions of colleagues and editors he’s mentored for three-plus decades.
In good times and bad, Mizell has championed the next generation of diverse leaders. I wanted to know what he sees today in the eyes of journalists of color.
“Our journalists are … exhausted, juggling the same pressures as other folks during the COVID-19 pandemic along with their high-profile roles in the community,” he said. “This contributes to feelings of isolation among many of our colleagues, and the latest Omicron surge has compounded that sense of uncertainty.”
Uncertainty breeds despair. In a flood of uncertainty, leaders need to be bulwarks of hope.
“You and I lived through the salad days for newspapers – and through the bottom dropping out of the business model in the aughts,” Liz said. “But compared to 2008, I am so friggin’ optimistic. We have come such a long way, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”
At The Republic, we’re adding staff, as many as seven new positions, with a healthy mix of grant-funded partnerships, subscriber revenue and advertising. We’ll cross the subscription Rubicon with more digital than print subscribers, more than likely this year.
This is good news. But for it to equal success, existing and future leaders of color must believe in the vision and the future. So, in year three of this pandemic, I must engage with journalists of color, not just once or twice or after the next national outrage. Now and always, I commit to the following actions.
Slack is not enough. We must combat the dissociative powers of the pandemic by reconnecting in multiple ways. Mentoring seems like a small thing. It’s not. We’ve expanded mentoring and training programs at The Republic to restore pathways eroded by distance and distraction. Typically, I mentor one or two journalists a year. This year, I’m mentoring four journalists of color with a mission to dismantle the hierarchy and to provide a safe space to reach and react. We’ll crystalize goals and set a course of their choosing. Nurturing these relationships is invaluable for their future and ours. The Republic is kicking off 2022 with a series of development sessions for new employees, which I’ll shape. This builds on a program I launched last year to support new editors.
“We have smart, curious people entering this profession every day – whether as cub reporters, podcast producers, videographers, data visualization whizzes,” Liz said. “We need to do our utmost to support them economically and with strong mentorship and resourcing, then get out of their way. Industry-wide, we need to continue to find ways to support each other. Whether that means more formal reporting partnerships or simply encouraging a culture where we share our learnings across brands vs. guarding them territorially, we will (as a smart character on LOST once said) either live together or die alone.”
Can we avoid Twitter? Nope. Snap access to sources is a feature, not a failure of social media. But journalists are targets, especially women and journalists of color, and it’s imperative we provide online safety training, access to counseling through Employee Assistance Programs and swift action when a threat is leveled. Nearly every month last year, Gannett offered digital safety and security courses, and live courses led by Mizell are now held monthly. The same lessons are available online around-the-clock. I’ve organized digital safety training at The Republic, too, and I hear about and act on every direct threat.
To manage high volumes of online bilge, The Republic developed a tracker to log incidents of harassment and intimidation, which I review. The idea surfaced during a joint management-Guild health and safety committee meeting and is expanding to all Gannett newsrooms, thanks to Mizell, who piloted it for The Republic.
“Our journalists are dedicated, resilient and focused,” he said. “They are producing high-quality journalism under increasing pressure, notably from segments of the community that lack trust in institutions such as ours. The increasing polarization is personal and that is exacerbated by generational shifts and tensions over DEI within the workforce and community.”
We need to solicit feedback about our culture and our coverage and course-correct in real time. We’ll do that in two ways this year. First, we’re organizing a Digital Advisory Group to measure the success of our efforts to grow audiences in communities of color, especially initiatives to expand coverage of Indigenous issues and reach more Spanish-language dominant and bilingual households. Nonsubscribers will be invited to the DAG so journalists hear from people who might not know or trust us. The DAG program is a companywide effort led by Cynthia Benjamin, Gannett’s director of audience engagement and trust. How we are perceived by communities of color has a direct correlation to how journalists of color perceive The Republic. We must listen to internal and external voices.
Second, to be accountable, we’ll audit our work. Thankfully, this priority is in the hands of The Republic’s Diversity Committee, a key partner in our efforts. This year the committee will focus on one or two topics – for instance, coverage of the pandemic – to examine our goals to reach all communities. The audit will reveal whether we’re inclusive and representative. If we fall short, we’ll remap beats and teams and add coaching and training to meet our goals.
It’s not enough to diversify. At The Republic, we’ve gone from less than 30% journalists of color to nearly 44% in three years. Every manager of color in the newsroom was hired and/or promoted over that period. Those numbers speak to progress and failure. A healthy newsroom culture must be cultivated and nurtured. We must be proactive, consistent, and transparent. We must admit mistakes.
Jennifer Dokes, now a consultant at her start-up, JDD Specialties, joined The Republic’s editorial board in 1992 and left in 2014. “I was the first African-American, the first woman, and the youngest editorial board member,” she said. “I had no idea what all that meant at the time, but it turned out that it meant a lot to the community… But, I have to say, in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion it was a textbook way of not to do that.” Her first boss at The Republic told Jennifer that “with my hiring he checked off a lot of boxes…I guess it didn’t shock me. I guess I would say that was the attitude then about diversity and inclusion, you know, this just trying to check as many boxes as you could and be done with it.” So, when discussing progress, I must be mindful of how far we’ve had to come and why. Every step forward is across a divide of our own creation.
Liz is vocal on this point. “We see pockets of progress and sustainability. It’s part of the reason I joined Vox in 2019. Vox, and others, are (taking the pandemic into account) figuring out how to survive and thrive and center mission in a corporate construct. At the same time, I’m heartened by non-profits like ProPublica, The Marshall Project, the soon-to-launch Capital B, The 19th, and even more hyper-local state-based coverage from orgs like Spotlight PA. And more of us are teaming up to work together to tackle big stories at both the local and national level. A great example: We partnered with The Republic in 2019 to report from the border in Nogales as part of our series about the impact of Trump’s border wall policy on that region. Vox could not have done that kind of on the ground reporting without The Republic.”
Optimism breeds optimism and excitement feeds excitement. Not only do we need to share the vision we must celebrate the vision – and each other. Pulitzer, Goldsmith, Polk, Emmy, we’ve won these and more. A virtual town hall full of emojis for applause and joy is great, but it’s not enough. We need to raise glasses in person (as often or soon as it’s safe). And we need to celebrate work at all levels. For instance, Kimberly Torres, our newsroom manager, organizes an Unsung Hero award for The Republic, which gives staff members a chance to praise colleagues for acts of kindness and journalism. Kimberly was a finalist this year for Gannett’s “Greatest” awards. There were more than 1,000 entries for Gannett’s annual journalism contest, with journalists from across the country competing to win. That’s “more than double the number of nominations received last year,” Mizell said. “I find that to be very, very encouraging.” The Republic is a talented newsroom producing extraordinary work. I need to remind them of that every day.
Positive change is what you do; not what happens. We must be active agents for evolution in the industry.
At The Republic, Stacy Sullivan, director of community relations, and editors Kaila White and Weldon Johnson spent two years establishing a pipeline of interns from community colleges in Maricopa County. The payoff has been a talent pool with candidates from every economic level. This summer we hope to add a recruit from Grambling State to a special Pulliam internship cohort. Stacy and Weldon sit on a Republic committee developing long-term relationships with HBCUs and Tribal Colleges and Universities.
These initiatives emerged from a series of working group discussions I launched in 2020 in response to a call for action on DE&I led by members of The Republic’s Diversity Committee. Since then, we’ve revamped onboarding at The Republic to make sure everyone accesses a network of support and is embraced by colleagues on a shared mission. New hires are scheduled to meet with the Diversity Committee. If they happen this year, we’ll send staff to conferences sponsored by NAHJ, NABJ, NLGJA, AAJA, NAJA, IRE, ONA, SEJ and others. Consistent investment in training and professional development is critical to our future and to nurturing a culture of inclusion in our newsroom. For this to succeed, I must be purposeful and positive. I must invest time and devote resources specifically to journalists of color. I must clear a path for the next leaders of color and then get out of the way.
Sincerely, Leaders of Color, this is my commitment.
Executive Editor / The Arizona Republic
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.
Greg Burton is executive editor of The Arizona Republic and a regional editor for USA TODAY in the West, leading newsrooms in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Utah, California, and Arizona. He is co-leader of a national cross-team of journalists covering climate change.