News managers can take simple steps to better support journalists of color

Once you understand their challenges, what will you do?

At the beginning of my fellowship, I set out to better understand the experiences of journalists of color working in local news. My theory was that JOCs were not being given enough structured growth with an eye toward leadership, and that they were getting hired away from the local markets before they could really settle in and become editors or managers. 

I put out an open call for research interviews with journalists of color and their managers. I published and tweeted a link to my calendar where people could sign up for a slot to chat with me. 

In the end, I interviewed 14 journalists of color working in local news, varying in seniority, experience, medium and newsroom type. From the Bay Area to Miami, the Southwest to Midwest, the folks I spoke with raised several key themes that I believe are central to understanding how to best support and develop these folks toward leadership roles.  

In many situations, they described a lack of opportunity for growth: managers who rarely spoke to them about their ambitions beyond the day-to-day job; small or flat teams with little room for promotion or advancement. In some cases, the journalist had already left one local newsroom for another. For some, it was a matter of getting a salary bump they couldn’t get internally, while others were ready for a change in manager and team. 

But in speaking with these varied journalists of color, I found fire and I found passion. 

“I want to be a disruptor, just by me being the reporter,” a reporter for an online startup told me. 

“What keeps me going is when people from the community message me to say, ‘OMG, I didn’t know that, it was so helpful,’” said a newspaper reporter. 

Several described leaving one local opportunity for another (some stayed in the same local market, while others went on to a different market). In at least one case, the journalist knew their colleagues previously hadn’t fared well by negotiating with an outside offer, so they opted to simply resign, rather than invite the news organization to negotiate. 

My key takeaways and what you can do about them

Direct managers need to be driving the conversation about growth and development

  • Several of the folks I spoke with said they didn’t have regular check-ins of any kind with their direct manager, and that conversations about growth and professional development were few and far between, if the conversations existed at all. “I’ve never had a conversation like that,” one person told me. 
  • One journalist reported that their boss used these opportunities to berate them about what they haven’t done/tried/achieved, and so they’ve actively begun avoiding these conversations and meetings. 
  • Journalists of color aren’t willing to wait forever forever for these conversations to get started. One journalist I interviewed said after their paper went through the Tables Stakes program, they felt that leadership had an eye on them as a potential editor. “It’s something that might create an opportunity if I stay for 10 years,” they told me. Meanwhile, they’ve watched peers from their fellowship program ascend to bigger jobs and newsrooms. 

If you see potential in a young journalist of color, tell them. If you are seeing them display leadership-like qualities, invite them into a conversation and ask if you can help them develop those skills.

Managers need to be creating regular (e.g.: annual and quarterly) goal setting opportunities to review progress and gain feedback

  • JOCs told me that their jobs and roles are constantly changing, especially during the pandemic and periods of high turnover. This makes it difficult to measure success and progress, and means folks aren’t able to clearly understand how to level up. 

If you aren’t meeting with your direct reports for weekly or biweekly 1:1s, now is a great time to start having them, so that you are better prepared to have discussions about goal setting and giving tough feedback. 

Mentorship of JOCs, especially as they are just starting in their careers, but also continuing with them as they grow into the next and more advanced phases of their work, is absolutely crucial. 

  • Several of the JOCs I spoke with mentioned having mentors externally – folks they had met along the way through their careers elsewhere, folks who were involved with AAJA/NABJ/NAHJ, etc. But very few said that they had found such a mentor internally at their news orgs.

If you can, pair staff with a mentor, ideally another journalist of color, internally. If you can’t find the right fit within your own newsroom, use your network externally to find someone who might be a good match. 

Managers need to make paths for JOCs to ascend into leadership roles and support them in their growth 

  • “I’ve definitely thought about it, because I wish that I had a manager of color,” one journalist of color said. “I wish I had someone in leadership who was a person of color, and I know I could probably be that person for other people someday.” Still, the prospect of being The Only Person of Color at the Table feels daunting, and the same JOC worried that ascending into management would only create a new level of emotional exhaustion from having to convince the others at the table of their positions on race or diversity.

It’s not enough to simply tell the journalist of color that you see them “someday” ascending into leadership. It’s time to take action: give them those stretch assignments, recruit other leaders of color so they’ll have peers and mentors, clear the way for new, exciting and flexible roles to be created with them in mind. 

Pay for journalists of color working in local news tends to be low, and folks are burning out fast. 

  • One journalist reported making $28,000 in a previous job, which they ended up having to leave for financial reasons. “I felt like I was doing good work, I felt like I deserved more, but there was really nowhere for me to go,” this journalist told me. And even though they’ve been in a newer and better paying job for almost two years, they still feel a lack of growth and opportunity. “I don’t know what the next step is,” they said. 

Seek to give raises and promotions internally when you can, especially for journalists who are likely to get poached by nationals or competitors.

Editors and managers of color can make a huge difference when it comes to retention.

  • The JOCs I spoke with were like most JOCs I know: Some had exclusively worked for white managers, and only a few had experienced working with a manager of color. 
  • In some situations, these JOCs reported having a better sense of alignment with their managers of color: “We’re totally on the same page, we can be honest about things, and we can talk to each other about things when we think something is wrong.” 

I asked everyone who interviewed with me what it would take, in terms of money and role/responsibilities, to keep them in their current local news market. 

But one JOC I spoke with summed it up best: 

“It would be respect,” they told me. “That’s it. Just have someone be respectful of the work that I do, and acknowledge how much effort I put into it. That’s what it would take to keep me in this current place.”

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