Staff of Arizona Luminaria

Photo: Noelle Haro-Gomez

Creating a values-based startup culture and evolving over time

A conversation with Arizona Luminaria

As I research how newsrooms are investing in their culture as part of my RJI fellowship, I’m going to be highlighting trust-building habits, impactful policies, and meaningful practices that go a long way to making people feel seen and heard within news organizations. 

Arizona Luminaria is a nonprofit news organization that does local and community news for residents of Arizona. Less than two years old, the organization has grown to a staff of six full time employees plus contributors and freelancers and expects to grow even further. 

Last week, Arizona Luminaria was honored with the New LION Business of the Year Award, which honors a news business “that exhibits, even in its very early stages, a clearly defined commitment to working toward achieving sustainability through operational resilience, financial health, and journalistic impact.”   

Arizona Luminaria has built a strong foundation with their team. They’ve done this by internally anchoring into the same principles that guide their community-focused reporting work: being transparent around evolving policies, and continuing to build on their processes as they learn more about what works for the team. 

It’s taking the same time and care that you would take on the editorial side to also think through how you work on the HR side: What that looks like and how you do it and how you communicate with people — both written and verbally.

Irene McKisson

They communicate early and often about what their needs are at work and have built in feedback loops with staff. And most importantly, the team has made it a priority to invest time and resources into the work culture, both at the outset and as their work continues to evolve.  

I recently spoke with Irene McKisson, Principal Executive of Arizona Luminaria, to learn more about how her team builds a mindful work culture while launching a new nonprofit news organization. McKisson believes that news organizations that take the time and exert the mental energy to get their editorial content right should also invest a similar amount of energy, attention to detail, and passion to the policies and behaviors that inform the work culture.  

“It’s taking the same time and care that you would take on the editorial side to also think through how you work on the HR side: What that looks like and how you do it and how you communicate with people—both written and verbally,” McKisson told me. “Spend as much time on that as you do on fundraising and editorial work. Because it is just as important. And if you don’t spend the time on it, it’s just going to be hard to fix later.”

Before launching Arizona Luminaria in 2022, McKisson and fellow co-founders Dianna Náñez and Becky Pallack developed a vision for what the newsroom would be, how it would serve the community and how they would collaborate as an organization. This leadership team saw the need for a new local news organization in Arizona focused on civic issues, education, environment and equity that centered community needs. 

The values they worked out together, are on their about page today: 

  • “We believe in local news that places the needs of people and communities first. 
  • We believe in local journalism that’s accountable to all Arizonans, especially our most vulnerable communities. 
  • We value the stories, strengths and struggles of all Arizonans. 
  • Our grassroots approach to journalism listens, learns, adapts and unites.”

How Arizona Luminaria approaches, informs and collaborates with the community also guides how they work together internally. In building the organization, the leadership team had many thoughtful conversations about their internal work culture. Central to these conversations was what people need in the newsroom environment, both to support their day-to-day work and to help them grow.

As they built their organization, the leadership team wanted to clearly demonstrate, through their actions and words, that the team cares about the people who work there and the overall work culture. They demonstrate this both by how they talk about the work, being explicit about how they are trying to live their values, and in the benefits they provide. 

Job postings clearly lay out the expectations and qualifications for the job, while also emphasizing the values which guide their work. “At Arizona Luminaria, we are building a newsroom and workplace rooted in equity, inclusion and integrity. We value your voice, your career goals, and your commitment to sharing the authentic stories of our diverse Arizona communities,” a recent posting said. “We’re seeking people who want to work with us to establish anti-racist, anti-discriminatory newsroom cultures and standards.” 

In addition to sharing the values and approach of the newsroom, the postings also give candidates a sense of what they can expect from their supervisor (“grow your skills under the guidance of a great editor”) and how they can contribute to company culture and decision making. One benefit listed is “systems that build in conversations and agreements about what employees want and need to maintain a healthy workplace culture.” 

We want to make sure that [potential hires] understand what they’re getting into. We don’t want to hire somebody who doesn’t understand what startup culture might look like.

Irene McKisson

Being a startup impacts their culture and decision making during the interview process for new hires, McKisson said: “We want to make sure that [potential hires] understand what they’re getting into. We don’t want to hire somebody who doesn’t understand what startup culture might look like.” 

Radical transparency and an emphasis on communication are a big part of Arizona Luminaria’s startup culture. The organization makes decisions through getting consensus from the leadership team and buy-in from staff. 

Open communication carries through to the team’s habits and how they work together. Parents have coordinated school pickup and drop offs, and others know they will be offline during these times. Teammates make an effort not to Slack off hours to be mindful of pressure to respond. Managers do regular well being check ins to see how colleagues are doing. 

AZ Luminaria journalist Chelsea Curtis recently wrote about how transformative it was for her to have someone check in on how her reporting about missing and murdered indigenous people was affecting her. 

“Journalists aren’t typically asked how they feel about their work, nor does it become a topic of conversation during a regular work meeting,” she wrote. “I realized at that moment I hadn’t given myself a chance to process my feelings. I had shoved it aside — like we’re often trained to do as reporters — and just kept working.” 

While working on this project at Arizona Luminaria, not only did the team, including Tara Gatewood, the director of the IWMF Fund for Indigenous Journalists, check in on her wellbeing, but Náñez, her editor, encouraged her to take her time with the work. 

This human-centered approach — checking in, encouraging a reporter to take their time- is a stark difference to what people may experience in other newsrooms where reporters are encouraged to break news at personal costs. The small act of checking-in prompted self-reflection from Curtis. The support from the editor demonstrated to her that her wellbeing was more important than getting the story out quickly. 

Journalists aren’t typically asked how they feel about their work, nor does it become a topic of conversation during a regular work meeting. I realized at that moment I hadn’t given myself a chance to process my feelings. I had shoved it aside — like we’re often trained to do as reporters — and just kept working.

Chelsea Curtis

Supporting journalists at Arizona Luminaria goes beyond communication and well-being check ins to include bigger investments in support, training and encouraging time away from the work. McKisson says this sometimes shows up directly in requests from leadership such as, “Can I get you the time off you need? Can I get you the training you need?” 

For professional development, leaders are keenly interested in where staff would like to go in their career and invest in training to prepare them for future responsibilities. The organization is actively looking for more trauma-informed resources to give reporters additional support. Arizona Luminaria promises a sabbatical to all of its employees.

“Reporting takes empathy, passion and focus,” the recent job posting reads. “A sabbatical is one way AZ Luminaria recognizes that we’re humans not robots. And we need time off to prevent burnout and feel healthy and happy.” 

Arizona Luminaria is still establishing itself,  so communication and transparency are paramount. Tone is important not only in reporting but in internal and public-facing documents. As the organization continues to grow and formalize processes, they have worked to make sure their tone matches the spirit and values of the organization. 

“We’re very thoughtful and sometimes that’s frustrating, because it can be slow to move on. But it can be a good thing in the end,” McKisson said. 

One example of this is in their offer letters. They first put a version of an offer letter together, based on templates, industry best practices, and an understanding of the legal requirements. After review, they realized they were handing new hires a formal document that felt like a real mismatch to the thoughtful conversations that had taken place during the actual hiring process. They reworked their offer letters to better match their internal tone and other Arizona Luminaria documents. 

For Arizona Luminaria, building the organization is a work in progress. The leadership sees that the culture work, like their journalism work, also has to embody their value of learning and adapting over time. They are keeping a list of future policies to adopt when they have the capacity to implement them the way that they’d like, including a “great parental leave program.”

“You don’t have to do things the way they were always done,” McKisson said.

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