The women feminism left behind
Journalism and Women’s Symposium
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?
- Listen. Just listen.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.