Keynote at Journalism & Women’s Symposium

The women feminism left behind

Journalism and Women’s Symposium

Whitefish, Montana

Oct. 10, 2015

 

Thank all of you for being here tonight for this dialogue. I have never been to JAWS before but a great number of women I love and respect have told me about it or rather they have told me they can’t tell me about it. They say things like “It’s a really special weekend. We can’t quite explain.” OR “You just have to be there. You emerge feeling all inspired and badass and powerful to take on the newsroom.”

That is why I didn’t send any journalists from the LA Times here. Just kidding, can my colleagues – Saba Hamedy and Laura Nelson – please stand up. And you might as well meet my real family, who also join me here in Montana – my husband and two kids. More on them later.

I’ve never keynoted anything before and I imagine some of you might be bristling at the title of this. The women feminism left behind. Easy for me to say – it seems to have worked out just fine. Here I am.

I thought it might help to start this conversation to tell you how I got into journalism. It was actually at another CAMP – in the early 1990s, I got into a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund’s Minorities Journalism Workshop. At the time, I did not know I was a minority. Having been raised in Puerto Rico before arriving in New Jersey for high school, I was conscious of difference but did not identify as a person of color. On the first night of journalism camp, in the dorm lounge, we watched John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.” I had seen it before but this time – on VHS, among 16 black, Latino and Asian teenagers – was different.

I want to show you the scene that changed me.

You might have missed the lines so let me repeat what Doughboy said:

Turned on the TV this morning. … Either they don’t know…don’t show…or don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the ‘hood.

Imagine if I stood here and said to you all, you do not exist. Let me repeat, you do not exist. I don’t see you. No one sees you. Imagine if the world said that to you over and over, through every genre and platform and medium for decades. Even centuries.

Let’s get more real. Every time people of color walk into a conference, a Costco, a workplace, a meeting, there is a scan of faces. We all do it. Back me up, ladies. Does anyone look like me? Who is here? Every time an editor sends out a note praising people’s stories, we look to see. Are we here? Every time there is a lineup of people to interview with – who are they? Do they look like me?

It took those words from “Boyz N the Hood” of all things for me to understand what it means to see yourself. And the importance of being seen.

That power – to make a difference through the types of stories we tell and the types of people who tell them – willed me into journalism. My entry represented the collision of a few movements: civil rights, affirmative action, workplace diversity initiatives, and, yes, feminism. It was a better economy then, so there was money to support such efforts and the 16 of us in that workshop thought we could set things right.

But a funny thing happens when you leave safe spaces. (And that will be Monday morning for this group.) Those 16-year-olds went onto college, dutifully did internships, we all entered newsrooms and fulfilling Doughboy’s desires were suddenly not so easy. There are inverted pyramids and objectivity, two sides of a story instead of 15, the need to translate or explain everything, to edit out the hero of a story being a Jehovah’s Witness or a born-again or having a record or just inconvenient to the narrative. Samosas became a savory, triangular-shaped Indian delicacy stuffed with vegetables and spices. Empanadas became a savory, often triangular-shaped Latino delicacy stuffed with vegetables and spices. Our desire to tell stories from inside communities often fell on deaf ears. A friend and I joked that we needed to rename the immigration beat to “immigrants serving food” because that was an easy way to get stories past editors.  

What does this have to do with feminism? I suspect a crowd like this understands what happens when women from SOME communities are not heard. We ALL lose.

The reason this matters is because we women know all too well the life-changing power of allies and how important they are in getting our work done. Let me. tell you about a few of them in my life and how they got me here today

When my daughter was born, Don Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post, sent me a teddy bear. It was perhaps a small gesture for him but huge for me. I mattered. I could go back to work. There was a place for me. In her first two years of life, I worked part time, often from home. It made a huge difference in my decision to stick with my career.

Years later, when I lost a baby to an ectopic pregnancy, Robert Thomson, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, sent me flowers. His words were simple: “Just tell us what you need.”

Nobody ever knows what to say to a woman who have miscarried which is kind of weird because 25% of us do — and it’s become clear to me throughout my career that the workplace often has no idea how to react – and yet here it was. Empathy. Thanks to the Journal’s support, I left a fast-paced editing job managing 25 people to return to reporting. We tried again. And we had Riya in 2011.

A funny thing happened when people at the Journal found out about all this and about Robert’s kind response. Women started coming to me and saying they had had two, three, even five miscarriages. They worried about planning business travel against their ovulation cycles and they worried even more about how to tell male bosses. The fact that the very top editor had sent me flowers changed the culture around conception – and toward women – in our organization

I want to stick with motherhood for a while because I think biology has indeed awarded us the ability to think about something besides ourselves. There was a line I clung to in the dustup between Roxane Gay and Erica Jong – that Twitter went crazy over – that I think both sides can probably agree on: “It’s not about us.”

But that can be hard to accept and I get that it’s hard to practice. Especially in this era of personal brands and the need to perfect your image on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, your Tumblr page, your website, your personal email newsletter and so many other ways we put ourselves out to the world.

A lot of you who have come here might just want assurance that it will be okay. These are the years where we read interview after interview with digital strategists (largely male) who are telling us our future. Everyone having more Twitter followers than you, or more clicks on their story. The harassment we face on social media, the congratulatory notes that bypass us and go to young, perhaps more energetic colleagues. Maybe they are the stars we used to be, before bedtimes or bedwetting or just feeling like the world and all its skills and technology have somehow passed you by…

There is a simple truth: when we don’t see ourselves reflected in the mission of an organization or credit for the work we do, the web traffic we bring in, when we are not empowered to act or fix things, we leave the profession. Our numbers in senior management and byline counts remain abysmal and as Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently said, “Are we really still talking about this?”

How do you get through it? How do you get ahead? Or how do you just stick it out?

I think the answer is a combination of conviction in what you are doing and being purposeful. To remember: this profession is about more than you.

But what’s also become clear to me – especially once we occupy positions of power is that our jobs – as women, as minorities, as managers, as journalists, as idealists – is to actually look around and stick up for each other.

This is not about guilt. Rather it is about broadening our definition of inclusion and how it relates to your life and work. There is no path forward for any of us without making space for all of us.

I feel like I’ve been a little too preachy so I wanted to get a little more concrete for a moment. What are some tangible things to make our cohort more inclusive? How do we actually look out for each other?

  1.    Listen. Just listen.

 

  1.    Panels. We need some rules for representation. Here are mine, and they are partly inspired by Alexis Madrigal, formerly of the Atlantic and now of Fusion. He refuses to do all-male panels. I do the same. I’ve also gone a step further and refuse to be the only anything on there – I also watch how many times we ask women to “moderate” discussions versus contributing insightful thoughts to the conversation. That’s not cool by me either. Now I know for some of you, you want to be building a brand and this is one way to do it. Proceed as you must but when you get to a stage where they need you more than you need them, try to remember the rules and force true inclusion.

 

  1.    Don’t let anyone be the only one talking about diversity in hiring. Bring it up. All the time. The industry has spent the last few years copying Buzzfeed’s headlines. Maybe we should look to its instructions on hiring too. Ben Smith tells his staff: “The final interview round should never just be several straight white men.”

 

  1.    Women and minorities actually run the internet. Let’s break it together. Some of this is the nature of identifying with and sharing content – women understand shareability and emotional resonance of content more than any other group I have worked with. Much of the internet is a tribal place and that imperative we had once upon a time – to tell stories from the inside out is the only way.

 

  1.    Use metrics. In a highly fractured media landscape, strong, deeply engaged niche audiences hold unique social power — they cause virality, they spark movements. Diverse teams help us us tap into those ideas before they hit the masses. It is the only way we can be competitive. When it works, show the newsroom Chartbeat. Show who is showing up.

 

  1.    Bring people into your living room. One of the changes we have seen in tone and presentation is that accessible and conversational news performs much better. When I was at Quartz, I would tell people that I wanted our commentary section, which I launched and oversaw, to feel like you were listening to someone in their living room with no filter. Race is one of those filters. How do we let people into the ways we really are talking and thinking? Isn’t that more accurate journalism?

I had asked a few of you on Twitter and Facebook what you wanted me to talk about. We are going to open it up to questions in a bit but I picked three that felt important.

 

This one is from Twitter handle @radioradical. How to make newsrooms welcoming, nurturing space for minority journalists?

A mentor of mine told me you could stealthily try to advocate for diversity in the newsroom or you can wear it on your sleeve. I do the latter.

You can ban phrases like “We just can’t find the talent” and “Nobody applied.”

I encourage you all to read what “This American Life’s” Stephanie Foo wrote this week. It’s a manifesto on diversity at work through the lens of public media.

Stephanie, please stand up. Read her piece. Then read it again. Here’s a line:

“Our industry desperately needs to rethink what the perfect applicant looks like.  …One of the most basic tenets of being a good journalist is to be curious and empathetic. If we extend that courtesy to our interviewees, why not extend it to our colleagues?” She goes on to talk about microaggressions like confusing two colleagues of the same race. Read her piece.

This question from Jackie Spinner, a former colleague of mine at the Washington Post, now a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and a professor and a mom of two.

How are you transforming the LA Times and bringing your own brand to the table to do it?

I’ve spent the last 10 years in media startups and brand is such a funny thing. Nobody knew the places I started up – Quartz, Mint in India, even the Greater NY section of the Wall Street Journal. Nobody thought to turn to the WSJ for local stories. Every day we started from zero. It is so so so hard.

At the LA Times, what we have going for us is that millions of people are showing up every month to be educated, informed, and entertained. Our brand really matters.

I’d say a key difference between us and other large media outlets is that we are not chasing clicks but readers. And given changing audience habits, I need to find them – in all the places they are. So our hiring of someone to cover Black Twitter and communities online is an example of a reporter fairly publicly being out there and then bringing back ideas from niche groups to the LA Times. We are doing similar things with Snapchat and debate watch parties and forums coming up on applying to schools. The exciting part is that we have a real geography and people to serve. And yet LA is hardly parochial – Mexico matters, migration from Syria matters, school shootings matter. That also makes it hard because we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our viral hits for the day.

From a DM on Twitter –

Simple question: How do you do it?

The answer is I don’t. We do. We have supportive parents, in-laws, neighbors, nannies and friends. I have a husband who doesn’t complain about me working late or too much. There is no work-life balance in our house. For both of us, (he’s an artist) our work is our life. And that’s why they are all here.

Every time I get a promotion or a new job, my mother makes it a point to call my nanny and says, “Thank you so much for all you do for her and the children. It would not be possible without you.” Then she calls me and says, “Don’t you dare keep all the money for yourself. Give the sitter a raise.”

And with such gestures, my mother too recognizes everybody’s need to be seen.

Thank you so much for hearing me out tonight.

Keynote at ASNE

American Society of New Editors

Oct. 18, 2015

Palo Alto, Calif.

Thank you so much for having me here today. And what an honor it is to be introduced by Jennifer Preston, someone I have long admired and considered a bit of a mentor. She is proof of the long game that so many of us play when it comes to both our journalism and our relationships within – she had no reason to call back a student at Rutgers University – but she always always did. And here we are today, 20 years later…

This is my second ASNE conference. I joined you last year in Chicago – which happened to be the last time I saw my friend Dori Maynard, a pioneer in so many of the things you are talking about here this weekend. She was a disruptive force before that ever became a thing in Silicon Valley. It was at last year’s awards luncheon that Dori and I sat together and had our last conversation. I was so depressed over the recent newsroom diversity numbers that I didn’t get a chance to dwell on some real victories that digital has not just enabled for newsrooms but forced upon us. I will talk more about that later but I do want to acknowledge Dori, her role in this movement and just how much I miss her today.

But the real reason I was with you last year in Chicago was to speak about how to create an innovative culture. Back then I was the executive editor at Quartz – and I am going to tell you the truth: Last year, I felt very much an outsider among you. I was a “digital native,” which is such an odd term, especially for someone like me who is Indian and usually so sensitive about the term “native.” But I suspect it’s a lot of the divide that a lot of you feel when people from Vox and Quartz and Buzzfeed and other outlets are brought in to educate us on how to fix this industry.

Yup, I said us. Because as of six months ago, I made the jump back to the future to join most of you here in this room who work for outlets defined by a print product, who as much as you try to push your newsrooms to be digital first, still have to race against a clock to get sports scores in, the right spelling of a victim’s name, and the weather. Oh the weather. And then you get a report the next morning about the trucks and there’s emails from people who say the paper came late. The paper didn’t come at all. The paper. The paper. The paper.

And let me keep digging myself into a hole and tell you that when I was here last year, feeling like an outsider, I also felt smug. Because I didn’t have to deal with all of that. I didn’t have all those 5 p.m. deadlines imposed on me so it was easy to convince a newsroom to publish early, when we were at peak audience. I didn’t have to convince a newsroom that metrics mattered. Chartbeat was on screens everywhere. I didn’t have to embark on marketing studies to prove an audience. I didn’t have to communicate better with developers and ad sales. They all sat next to me.

So why did I leave? Why didn’t I stay native? Why didn’t I stay in the future?

There’s a few reasons. One night when I was an editor at Quartz, I was sitting with a prominent advertiser (I do not consider it unethical for someone like me to lay out editorial plans and campaigns to advertisers) and I was talking about a story we had written that had gone viral. “Oh traffic numbers,” the client said. “I don’t even really care about that.”

“You don’t?” I was incredulous because I had been losing sleep over driving clicks to this particular promotion.

“Nope. Only two things I care about: Who are my customers? And influence.”

I thought about that and the trajectory that a lot of digital natives are set up for – when you start with an audience of zero every morning, you have to drive traffic. It’s the only way. When venture capitalists are funding you, you talk about scale and more scale. It’s the only way. And when you are a scrappy startup in a crowded media landscape, you have to pick your hits.

Chasing traffic makes it an easy decision to chase stories that are trending. Breaking news is a real luxury. Packaging news became a digital specialty. Among the digitally native, I want you to think about one that is a site of record, a destination for you to actually get your news.

A few weeks after this client meeting and my epiphany, I happened to get a call from LA Times editor in chief Davan Maharaj. I ducked into a Dunkin Donuts on the Upper West Side to get out of the cold. “I think you can help us,” he said. Then he told me it was 75 in LA and that the Thai food was better. I flew out three days later.

The day I arrived in LA was election day. Voter turnout has been falling steadily in Los Angeles and this time was no different. The next day, at the morning meeting I attended, a metro editor reported that it was an abysmal 8.6%. Davan suggested we send out our iconic, beloved columnist Steve Lopez with a video crew to find someone who had voted. Here’s what he came back with:

That night I looked up some other demographic data on Los Angeles. You’ve read those trend stories about everyone moving to LA now. It’s kind of true. The number of college educated youth in Los Angeles surged 30% between 2000 and 2012.

So I considered these trends: The population of Los Angeles is getting more educated. But they are voting less. I kept going down the google tunnel. Voter turnout across the country, especially in local elections, is plummeting, by as much as 5 percentage points between 2001 and 2011, according to the University of Wisconsin. “Low-turnout elections typically aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, dominated by whiter, more-affluent and older voters. such elections contribute to poorer outcomes for minorities, including uneven prioritization of public spending.”

Sound familiar? And I was working in digital? And I had to think: Is nice-to-read going to serve as the pillar of democracy?

I cannot describe to you the urgency I felt with that realization – and the urgency that I feel today. To be relevant, to be vigilant.

Now this is not a message of despair. Because many of us in this room, amid declining ad revenue and falling circulation, have something that is more powerful than clicks. We have regular readers.

Now it is incumbent upon us to serve those readers better. And I think this conference pretty much nails it on the trifecta of how:

First, digital.

A lot of people a few years ago were going around saying The homepage is dead. Remember that?

The homepage is not dead, people. Especially for us.

We need to care for those customers most. Look at the metrics on how much likelier a reader is to stay on your site, click on another story, hang with you. The care and feeding of this customer is very important. Especially for us to continue to be media outlets of record.

That being said, social also matters more than ever. One, it can force a rethinking in your newsroom of how to make our stories relevant, relatable, identifiable, and thus shareable. Unlike ever-changing algorithms in SEO and other traffic drivers, a share (literally the act of sharing) forces a human – not robots – to judge your content. That is powerful. That is redeeming. We should embrace it.

Finally, on digital — don’t forget the online-offline integration. There are events and panel discussions and forums, yes. But don’t forget to lighten up too. During the recent debates, we’ve been holding watch parties. They are standing room only in a theater with a bar attached and attract all ages. We play debate Bingo (with categories like “camera lingers on a person of color in the audience” to “climate change is denied”) and people hold up thumbs-up-thumbs down placards. They drink and hoot and holler with as much satisfaction as a retweet.

Diversity. I’m on a panel about this later but I really want to dwell front and center on how this cannot be relegated. If there are only brown people in my panel at 3 pm, I am not going to be happy. This is not my issue, not my problem, not my agenda. It has to be all of ours.

The good news is that digital journalism is forcing and allowing for more diverse models. Yes, it took mainstream media a few days to fly out to Ferguson, Missouri, last year. But had the outrage (and images of Michael Brown’s body) not been tweeted and retweeted, would it even have become the story it did? A part of our desire at the LA Times to be closer to the ground prompted us earlier this year to hire someone to cover Black Twitter and communities online.

Some ways you can help on the diversity front:

  1.    Don’t let anyone be the only one talking about diversity in hiring. Bring it up. All the time. The industry has spent the last few years copying Buzzfeed’s headlines. Maybe we should look to its instructions on hiring too. Ben Smith tells his staff: “The final interview round should never just be several straight white men.”

 

  1.    Women and minorities actually run the internet. Let’s break it together. Some of this is the nature of identifying with and sharing content – women understand shareability and emotional resonance of content more than any other group I have worked with. Much of the internet is a tribal place and that imperative we had once upon a time – to tell stories from the inside out is the only way.

 

  1.    Use metrics. In a highly fractured media landscape, strong, deeply engaged niche audiences hold unique social power — they cause virality, they spark movements. Diverse teams help us us tap into those ideas before they hit the masses. It is the only way we can be competitive. When it works, celebrate the newsroom and those victories on Chartbeat. Show who is showing up.

Disruption. I think the biggest thing to disrupt might be our distance from the reader. We need to show them we are real-live humans who care about our communities as much as they do. There is a place for cat videos, but let’s also trust our readers to want to better understand city council meetings, and homelessness and actually feel like a fly on the wall inside their kid’s schools.

We have a lot going for us – the trustworthiness index on media put out by Pew ranks legacy outlets all at the top. Actual journalism was committed to bring you our work.

That is not something to take lightly. Our challenge is to look to the other players for inspiration but to trust that we know our unique markets best.

I don’t know that the digitally native outlets magically offer us the prescription to survive. I was talking to an editor of a regional paper the other day and she told me they had tried to adopt Quartz’s obsession model – which is great and has informed a lot of the way I think about areas of coverage. But for her particular newsroom, it wasn’t working for crime reporters.

“It just doesn’t neatly fit into any of our obsessions,” she said.

“Oh my dear. That is because if a man walks into a bar and shoot someone, that is not an obsession. That is news. And you gotta own it. What we can control is how we tell that story.”

Thanks so much for hearing me out today.