Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Three things that could be hindering your newsroom’s DEI progress
To get beyond short-lived gains, it’s time to commit to vision-driven goals that lead to real results
Dear newsroom leaders,
We’ve all just come through the perennial season of prediction-making and intention-setting, the new year is here, and it’s time for us to commit to concrete goals that will move our teams and organizations forward in a clear and shared direction.
In the coming weeks, I am setting out to co-create a new slate of goals at The 19th with a team of 53 extraordinary people—all of whom are committed to centering women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks in our journalism, all of whom want to do nothing less than transform the news. This is our shared vision.
But how do we translate that vision into something actionable? And moreover, how can we—as an industry—ensure that these goals reflect a sustained commitment to advancing a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion?
To be clear: While there has been more collective focus on the lack of equity and representation in our industry in the last three years than I have witnessed in my entire 20-year career, the progress we’ve made thus far is nominal, fragile, and entirely insufficient.
Faced with a resurgence of white nationalism, the murder of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and dire threats to our democracy, many news organizations have attempted to confront their own records on racial justice with a focus on recruiting. But as we put our Zooms down to venture back out into the real world last year, I was startled to encounter the same attitudes and culture from the before-times. The rooms I entered may have looked different, but the walls that contained us were still largely constructed from—and therefore the dialogue constrained by—the status quo.
It’s not that there has been no progress. Hey, at least we’re seeing more people of color elevated to positions of power. Black, brown, and indigenous publishers are finding funds and audiences. Legacy news executives are gathering with the intention of self-examination.
But also: I cannot tell you how many times my jaw has dropped in a boardroom or a Zoom room at the fragility, defensiveness, and, occasionally, outright hostility on display as leaders of color have stepped in to challenge old paradigms of patriarchy and white supremacy.
There was the time a renowned journalist wondered aloud on a call that included Black and Brown participants (though that shouldn’t have mattered) why a memo about local news contained so much “BIPOC stuff.” For every incident this egregious, there are a multitude more subtle but no less damaging. If you are a news leader in these rooms, and are not either seeing these dynamics or creating space for these conversations, let me assure you: My group chats indicate that you should be.
So as we get down to brass tacks and goal-writing for this year, here are three specific ways that I would challenge you to examine your own goal set for this year, and recommit to getting beyond the optics of DEI to realize the transformational change that is called for.
1. Stop thinking DEI is something you delegate your way through.
DEI is a practice of intentionally prioritizing representation in your organization, cultivating a culture of inclusion, and combating the power imbalances and biases that shape people’s experience within your organization as equitable (or not). It only works on an organizational and cultural level when everyone is aligned around the vision and values of this practice—most especially, senior leaders.
Yes, this practice leads to specific goals and initiatives around establishing equitable pay scales, diversifying your teams, diversifying your sources and stories, making your recruiting and hiring methods more inclusive. But too often, senior leaders believe the work stops at delegating these initiatives. If it did, we wouldn’t still be wringing our hands at the lack of representation at the highest levels of our newsrooms, the harmful experiences that journalists of color continue to encounter, or the trust gap that remains between many media organizations and marginalized communities.
While DEI initiatives may make it seem like your organization is making progress, without a culture that integrates an equity mindset, the impact of these initiatives will be limited at best.
So, what does it look like for you, today, in whatever position you hold in your organization, to adopt a more personal practice of DEI? This may include practicing what your organization preaches with regard to rest and boundaries. It may mean holding yourself accountable for your team’s professional development—particularly in developing a new generation of managers equipped for this transformational work. It may mean becoming aware of the principles of white supremacy, and working to recognize when legacy mindsets and processes are reinforcing those harmful practices in your own teams and workflows. It may mean listening more to your direct reports—particularly those from marginalized communities—to understand how their daily experiences align (or don’t) with the values your organization claims to uphold. Are you inviting feedback? Do you have the kind of relationships that sustain tough feedback? How does that feedback inform your vision and the goals you set for yourself and others?
2. Stop thinking of yourself as exceptional.
When I examine my own DEI practice as a newsroom leader, I think about my tendency toward exceptionalism and my own struggles with identity. I have reflected in recent years about my own experience being a Latina who is perceived by colleagues as White, feeling guilty about access and opportunities that I’ve received by virtue of my appearance, while also clinging to a community and identity that I haven’t always felt I deserved. But I’ve learned to lean into this tension—of being ni de aquí, ni de allá—as a strength, an asset of my identity, instead of a paralyzing weakness.
This experience certainly informs my own vision for creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive news ecosystem—but to supplant one status quo vision with mine alone simply shifts power from one node of privilege to the next. As a newsroom leader, I am intent on distributing that power from one to many, from the center to the margins, from newsrooms to communities. For me, this means continually acknowledging my own blindspots and gathering feedback to check whether my vision and expectations align with those of my (insert: colleagues, readers, stakeholders). When gaps emerge, we often brush them aside (perhaps to “tackle later”) as deadline pressures and overloaded schedules weigh upon us. But there is inevitably a cost to this—the cultural equivalent of technical debt.
Instead, consider the benefit of slowing down to examine those gaps more closely. Is someone objecting to my vision, or trying to communicate an unmet need that has not yet been addressed? If you consistently find yourself out of step, ask your colleagues directly for feedback. As I was writing this column, I asked one of my direct reports to gut check me on a blindspot that I’m missing (with a hunch, of course, of what my weakness might be). He kindly told me I could do a better job at communicating my vision to our staff, at making the implicit explicit. Which leads me to my next consideration.
3. Stop assuming that the vision in your head has been clearly communicated to your staff.
He is exactly right! I assume because I live, eat, breathe, and sleep (or, sometimes don’t sleep) with a clear vision of what we’re trying to accomplish and what it means to advance equity and share power at The 19th, that everyone is on the same page. That everyone is connecting the dots in the ways I do, and that they’re bought into this vision. After all, this vision is infused in everything I communicate, from quarterly all-hands presentations to feedback given one-to-one to internal policies and documentation. Or so I think.
But even as my vision informs my approach to literally everything I do—I cannot assume that what I see is what others understand, much less agree with, until I make the implicit explicit, until I connect the dots to explain concretely what the vision is and how we’ll realize it, in a strategic sense.
This is something I am already thinking about SO MUCH during my first week as a 2023 fellow of Poynter’s Media Transformation Challenge. We have been charged with tackling a performance-driven challenge specific to our organization over the next year—but this week’s aha moments have already helped me see how much time we spend equating tasks and to-do’s with transformational outcomes; i.e. the kind of measurable change we expect to see as a result of our efforts.
Zooming out, I think this is where so many organizations get stuck on DEI efforts: in creating long lists of tasks and to-do’s, without factoring in the cultural and transformational changes required.
As we are learning at MTC, any transformational change starts with a vision (one that is only a shared vision to the extent that we have articulated it clearly and rallied colleagues around it). It becomes real when we attach specific and measurable outcomes that indicate meaningful change, beyond pageviews or new hires or subscribers converted. What does it all add up to? Who is it all for? Why are we even embracing DEI initiatives in the first place?
If we are to get beyond well-intentioned but short-lived DEI gains, newsroom leaders need to be just as focused on our own goals and equity practice as we rally our colleagues around theirs.
Publisher and Co-Founder, The 19th*
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.
Amanda Zamora is the publisher and co-founder of The 19th, an independent nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy. When she’s not disrupting the news, she’s wrangling three dogs and doing [insert something fun] with her beloved fiance.