Why and How Journalists Should Build Better Support Networks
In 2020, how can you take better care of yourself and those around you?
I love bringing people together. I’ve been building communities on and offline for about 12 years, and now I do it in my role as Director of Programs for the Online News Association. As journalists, we work in a competitive, reactive, deadline-driven industry. For decades it has been the norm to try to be first, fastest—those are real values that are part of the culture. So how do we make space for support networks?
What support networks look like
Through the Women’s Leadership Accelerator, I’ve helped build powerful support networks for women in journalism. We provide frameworks to better understand the challenges they’re facing and access to people who can support them, including their cohort, our staff, and a network of alumni, mentors and advisors. We kick things off with an intensive week at the beginning of the year and build ways for them to stay connected to each other and the broader networks throughout the year.
This photo from ONA19 shows women from five years of the program. It’s been incredible to see how they continue to connect with us and share their lives with each other. They turn to each other for everything from advice on work problems to inspiration about new ways to do things, or just to get a boost throughout the day.
It has been so powerful to see women in the program continuing to support and show up for each other. So often our workplaces don’t prioritize support. Other things come before us prioritizing our own care.
Support looks different for different people
Support looks different for different people, and it can look really different at different moments of your life. Personal support is relationship-based. Your relationships are going to change, and the support you have from them changes at certain times too, depending on people’s capacity. Here’s a question you can start with to think about what support might look like for you: What are your asks and offers to your support network?
When you’re thinking through what you need and what you can offer, notice what comes naturally and what feels more challenging. It may be easy to say, “My organization is hiring for X and I know places to share it.” It might be harder to say, “I eat lunch at my desk every day.” You might need an accountability buddy to say, “hey, let’s get outside, take a walk, and talk about movies,” to break you out of your lunch desk routine.
There are a lot of things you might be looking for, and they might change over time. Sometimes you need to talk things out with people who can give you perspective.
Are you looking for technical help?
Do you want to lead change in hiring?
Do you want to process? (Or, you know, vent.)
Are you managing up, are you managing across, are you managing people?
Do you want someone to pitch ideas to before running them past other people?
Are you looking for perspectives outside of your organization?
Expanding your network
Based on what you’re looking for, you might build out your support network in different ways. Who is in your network already who might be able to help? What support do you need that you aren’t getting currently?
Four ways people can offer support:
- Personal Board of Directors: This is a term that some people really love to use to describe the people they turn to again and again for professional support. Can you identify a few key people that you trust and can turn to for a certain type of advice? Maybe it’s previous mentors, or people who offer something that you don’t have. If you do a web search for “Personal Board of Directors,” there’s a ton of advice: “You need one person who advises you on strategy, one with business acumen, one who connects you with people,” etc. I say, build out a group that complements your strengths and what you need.
- Mentors: Mentors and mentees are in relationship with each other. Think about setting expectations when you’re reaching out to mentors. I think it’s helpful to tell them what you want support on—and if you don’t know what that is, you can even say, “I have this big idea, I’m starting to work on it, and I need someone to help me get to a more concrete ask.” Sometimes a mentor is a peer. One organization in my recent SRCCON:LEAD session said they created a peer-mentoring program where the organization fostered the initial matchmaking. Those relationships have persisted beyond the program.
- Sponsors: This relationship is a little bit different than mentoring. Mentoring is a coaching relationship, whereas a sponsor actually spends their social capital. For example, someone might vouch for you to go up for a promotion, recommend you for a fellowship, put your name forward for a grant or other opportunity. If you’re acting as a sponsor, think: “How can I use my reputation to open up doors for other people?”
- Care team: This is a phrase that a therapist friend of mine recently said to me, and I love it. Your care team is really different than your Personal Board of Directors, and some of the roles on your care team might be paid. For example, mine includes my therapist and my homeopath, both of whom I pay. My friend says her care team right now includes her hair stylist, her partner, and her book club.
What are the roles that you’re looking to fill in your life? Do you need an accountability buddy? A coach? A thought partner? A talk therapist?
You Don’t Need A Network of People Exactly Like You
When building community for the Women’s Leadership Accelerator, I think a lot about how I can bring together different people. It’s not particularly useful to have a network of people who do exactly what you do and approach people in the same way you would. If you’re looking to solve complicated challenges, it’s really helpful to know people who have different perspectives—and I mean that in many senses of the word.
Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people who have different jobs, who come from different backgrounds. When you’re at work, talk with people on other teams. Make friends with people on the business side. Reach out to people in tech if you’re more in editorial, and ask them questions. Go to conferences and events and ask for introductions from people you already know to other people with different perspectives.
Once you’re in touch with someone new, ask open-ended questions. What challenges have you faced? What’s come up that you weren’t expecting? What has surprised you? I use these three questions all the time. Asking people what they’re working on and what they’re excited about can lead to conversations that flow naturally into common ground. You can always ask more questions.
Remember to Make Space
Put time on your calendar. Whether it’s time for your support network or time you’re giving to others, take this time seriously and protect it. It’s work that you’re doing and work takes time. Personally, I block time for both every week. I have a priority check-in with myself every Thursday from 9 to 10—I don’t take meetings and just check in on what I need to do. In the past year, I had an accountability buddy, and we talked regularly by email and phone about a big project. On Fridays, I block an hour and a half to do coaching sessions with women who book my time through digitalwomenleaders.com.
Having things that are regular and where people know what the expectations are can be really helpful, especially with groups. One of our Accelerator cohorts has a recurring video call (same day, same time, once a month) where people can catch up with each other.
Support networks are about relationships. In my experience, you get more out of relationships that aren’t purely transactional. Understand what you need, but at the same time, don’t be a jerk who reaches out to people asking for things all the time and never shows up for other people.
If you’re looking to deepen your support networks, think about how you can show up in relationships and be supportive to other people. Is it crediting and amplifying other people in meetings? Making space at lunch to talk to younger colleagues? Asking people on the other side of the business more about what they’re working on so you can be a better advocate for them? How can you invest in the spaces and people that you need and want to support? Doing that work looks different for different people, and your job is to figure out what your work is and how you can show up for it.
More resources + ideas to think about
Find a group of people who want to be engaged with you. If you can’t find it, you can build it. If engaging with groups isn’t your thing, think about how you can find people to form connections with that work for you.
Affinity groups - AAJA, NABJ, NAHJ, NAJA, NLGJA; Slack + email groups like Binders Full of …, Star wavers, Journalists of Color Slack
Places where people want to learn:
News Nerdery, Lonely Coders Club, NICAR, Gather
Your boundaries! Benet Brown says, “‘Boundaries’ is a big, gauzy word, but it’s a really simple thing: what’s OK and what’s not OK. That’s it. Here’s what’s OK. Here’s what’s not OK.”
Digitalwomenleaders.com—dozens of other women on the site do free mentoring here. I do office hours weekly, offering free 30-minute sessions and I also book outside of the site with journalists.
How to find a mentor and make it work, from Anjuli Sastry, one of the Journalism Mentorship Collaborative fellows who received support from ONA to pursue innovative ideas in mentorship programs.
Beth Pickens - Your Art Will Save Your Life (book; insta)
adrienne maree brown - Emergent Strategies (book; an intro)
IRL IRL IRL:
Libraries! Meetups like ONA Local! Conferences (like ONA and SRCCON)! Book clubs! Lunch club at work! Host creative meetings every Friday! Quarterly social outings!
Find your cohort— some cohort-based programs include the Women’s Leadership Accelerator; JSK Fellowships; Executive Leadership Programs (AAJA); Nieman Fellowships; 50 Women Can…
Jennifer Mizgata is Director of Programs at the Online News Association, the world’s largest association of digital journalists. Jennifer focuses on identifying talented digital journalists and innovative journalism projects and providing them with support. She directs many of ONA’s flagship diversity, leadership and grant programs, including the Women’s Leadership Accelerator, an intensive program aimed squarely at advancing women in digital journalism. A digital strategist dedicated to public service, Jennifer has spent her career building communities online and offline.