Why We Issued a Newsroom Diversity Report on Day One
A Q&A with Audrey Carlsen and Hasani Gittens of The City
The City is a new nonprofit newsroom in New York City which just launched last month. We’d been following the lead-up to their launch, and when they released a diversity report about their staff on their first day in operation, we invited Audrey Carlsen (Data and Graphics Reporter) and Hasani Gittens (Deputy Editor) to tell us more about it. Here’s our lightly edited Q&A with Audrey, Hasani, and OpenNews director Erika Owens.—Ed.
Erika: We’re really excited to hear about the launch and launching with a newsroom diversity report on day one. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
Audrey: I can speak a little to how this came about. …A month or two ago when we were ramping up, I had started noticing some discussion on Twitter, comments from people in the community that I read as embodying skepticism of what the team was, who would be hired to cover different neighborhoods. For example, to cover the Bronx, someone thought odds were that the person wouldn’t be from the Bronx and would be white. That got me thinking about the perception people have around media and the skepticism of new ventures. One of our big talking points is that we are here to serve all New Yorkers. But we can’t assume people will trust our good intentions.
Looking around the newsroom I thought it would only benefit us to be more transparent with people about who we are. We do actually represent a pretty diverse set of demographics, including the fact that a lot of people have really strong ties to New York. A lot of people grew up here. I’m one of the few people who isn’t from the state and certainly have had the shortest tenure of anyone. To me it does seem like an obvious thing to want to be more transparent to build trust and set the groundwork from the beginning.
The first step was writing a proposal and passing that on to my editors. Generally people were pretty open to it. It took a series of conversations and meeting with people, to feel out the idea. A big component of what made it possible was being able to reach out to comparable organizations that have done similar things. ProPublica has a history of releasing annual reports. I talked to the people at the Marshall Project, the Texas Tribune.
I talked to individuals behind the diversity reports at those places and was able to bring all that info back to editors and the publisher here to demonstrate that this is becoming a best practice. Other organizations have done it and have received really good feedback from doing it. One concern was whether it was opening us to criticism, opening a can of worms, but we were able to say that at other organizations it has only built trust. I talked to them to get a better understanding of how to go about doing this kind of report.
Erika: That’s super helpful. It sounds like there are two threads here, the internal newsroom thread and also reaching out to other news organizations and building from things happening in the field. Were there any things that were particularly helpful in those conversations that helped with the approach and design of the report?
Audrey: Honestly, it was a pretty straightforward process. We put together a Google form for people to fill out. It wasn’t required, we just encouraged everyone and explained why it was important. I guess the thing that was the most helpful was talking through the best way to introduce this sort of thing to staff. This obviously shouldn’t feel like a top-down thing. At what point should we communicate with staff about why we were doing this? We’re a pretty small organization, only 18 people in the newsroom and 21 total. Talking to organizations with a hundred or two hundred people helped a lot – it’s super important to communicate well and get everyone on the same page in case of misgivings or questions.
We have a Monday morning meeting where the entire staff is there, so it was pretty easy to roll this out and talk about it. But it was still helpful for people to understand. We don’t want to randomly send out a survey one day asking people to fill it out. We thought it was important to explain why we were asking about particular identity questions – we asked about gender and race and not others.
Hasani: When the conversation first started among the editors about how we would do it, there was some self doubt about how we were going to be perceived, how should we go about it, what questions are we even allowed to ask, how in-depth should we go. Talking to the other comparable news orgs gave us confidence. In this small nonprofit news org business, people are often sharing best practices and seeing what works best.
Audrey: And I found everyone to be so willing to talk. There was no sense of “these are our secrets” —I really appreciated that.
Erika: I love hearing about how this is yet another area where the community is so generous. You mentioned earlier that part of the thought process was seeing some of that internal criticism or skepticism as the project was growing before launch. I know it’s just a week out (and thanks for joining us in the first week), but have you heard feedback so far? What has the external response been like?
Audrey: It’s mainly been a conversation I’ve been following on Twitter, and for the most part it has been very positive. People are generally appreciative that this happened with the launch in particular. For other places this sort of report came out only in the past few years. The NY Times put out their diversity report in 2018 and have been around much longer. People were appreciative that it was happening from the get-go as opposed to being a little more responsive to criticism. We were kind of in a nice spot, not needing to feel like we were in any way apologizing.
Hasani: We weren’t playing defense. We were just saying something. Our newsroom is very diverse and reflects the city. We wanted to show that right out of the gate.
Erika: Reflecting the city was very interesting, seeing that side-by-side in the report. That’s something we saw in the ASNE report last year. As a reader, you didn’t even have to go out and compare.
Hasani: I think we got that from the Texas Tribune.
Audrey: They did a really good job with that and contextualizing why that matters. We can fall into the habit of diversity for diversity’s sake. The Tribune had specific goals, like the number of staff that were Spanish speakers, and wanting it to match the demographic of Texas. It was about reminding people why this matters.
Erika: You mentioned that, in thinking about this first effort, there might be other dimensions of diversity and background that you might look into in the future. I appreciated how straightforward the diversity report page was, and how open it was to future evolutions. Do you have any plans for next steps?
Audrey: There’s a general idea that this would be something we would do annually. We just had a huge surge of hiring so for now it seems like a good living document. I don’t imagine in the next two months there would be a radical change in who that is. But I get the sense that everyone feels open to continuing the conversation. Some things didn’t make it into the report like age or how long people have lived in NY. Some things were more nuanced than we wanted in an initial report.
Hasani: Other things like sexual orientation and gender identity that you don’t necessarily want to probe people on. We were also thinking about expanding report to our board, which people have pointed out is a very important metric, because places may not be diverse at board member level.
Audrey: On that point, too: We kept in mind that given the size of the staff, there were concerns about anonymity with questions that got more granular. For a while we were discussing separating editorial and business, but we only really have three people on the business side. So there were things that might make sense for a larger organization, but right now business staff are sitting in the same room as us, so a distinction didn’t seem to matter.
Erika: Hearing all of this was so helpful! Thank you so much for joining us and sharing more about this process. Congrats again on the launch!
Co-Executive Director of OpenNews.