Why journalism startups should look past traditional talent pools
The launch of Nate Silver's new, ESPN-funded version of FiveThirtyEight is here, with its data-centric approach to journalism that could reinvent news for the digital age -- or at least make it better. And while Silver's brand of journalism may look different, the people producing it look at lot like the people producing "conventional" journalism: white men.
FiveThirtyEight isn't the only exciting new journalism site with a predominantly white male staff. As Emily Bell pointed out in the Guardian, we've also got Vox and First Look Media, among several others.
"It's impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively – and increasingly – male and white," Bell wrote.
Recent studies have shown that the percentages of minorities and women in newsrooms are significantly lower than in the general population and, alarmingly, that those numbers have remained largely unchanged over the last decade. An upward trend would suggest that things are on their way to getting better. Instead, it seems that most newsrooms are happy to keep things as they are, which isn't nearly good enough.
That's why it's so disappointing to see that trend might be continuing at these new sites. They have a chance to build everything from the ground up, free of the history of discrimination at legacy outlets where social minorities -- women as well as other minority groups -- have had to sue to get the same jobs as their white male co-workers. The Internet is a place where anyone has a chance to make his or her voice heard. So why are these digitally focused news sites hiring the same voices that dominated the kind of journalism they're meant to replace?
Glenn Greenwald, who founded First Look's first magazine, The Intercept, with Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras, says diversity is very important to him, and we'll see much more of it as the Pierre Omidyar-funded digital magazine continues to fill out its staff.
"When Laura, Jeremy and I first decided that we were going to form this organization – even before we talked to Pierre and once we did – we put as literally one of top goals that we were going to be more diverse than every other media organization of similar size and stature," Greenwald says.
The first wave of hires didn't reflect this desire, Greenwald acknowledges. The Intercept ended up launching a few months earlier than originally intended – Greenwald and company wanted to get more reporting on those NSA documents out there – before it was fully staffed, and the staff it did have happened to be mostly white men.
"I was so disappointed, and I think – I know that Laura and Jeremy were, too -- that at launch we just did not have the diversity that we intended to have and that we will have, because I felt like that was a really important opportunity to send the opposite message," Greenwald says. "Ideally we would've launched, in a perfect world, in like May or June and been vastly more diverse. But we will be, and shortly."
A few days after we spoke, The Intercept announced three new hires. Two are people of color and one is a woman. That may not seem like much, but The Intercept's newsroom is still quite small, so any new staffer changes its ratios significantly. (On Wednesday, The Intercept hired another woman, Jordan Smith, to cover criminal justice.)
As for Vox, Ezra Klein said he was too busy building the new site to comment, but he did discuss it a bit in a Facebook message to Maynard Institute columnist Richard Prince, as described by Washington Post's Erik Wemple. Klein said there was diversity in Vox's newsroom "but certainly not enough" and asked for suggestions on "the top few young candidates of color we should be talking to." (Apparently Klein is not interested in talking to old candidates of color, which … isn't great.)
Klein also spoke with the American Prospect's Gabriel Arana about the recent controversial hire of Brandon Ambrosino, who is gay, as a writing fellow, saying that he was "struggling to find racial minorities" for his staff but also prized "ideological diversity" as well as racial diversity. Co-founder Melissa Bell weighed in to point out that she has been referred to as Klein's "hire," thus minimizing her role in the new company. It's a fair point, but Klein is the person whose name made all the headlines when the venture was first announced, Klein is the person who regularly appears on MSNBC and Klein is the brand Vox is being built around.
As for FiveThirtyEight, a spokeswoman for ESPN says: "as we've hired staff for FiveThirtyEight we've sought to assemble varied viewpoints and continue to make diversity a priority as we move forward." And it's worth pointing out that FiveThirtyEight and Grantland, another ESPN boutique journalism site run by a white man, are now under the umbrella of "Exit 31," which will be led by Marie Donoghue, a woman. But Silver, too, seems to be struggling to find diverse hires. He told New York Magazine that 85 percent of FiveThirtyEight's applications come from men.
Could it be that there just aren't that many people of color or women who work in those particular fields, so the diverse staff isn't there for Silver or Klein to hire? (Foreign Policy recently published a chart that showed how skewed certain subject areas are toward male bylines.)
"I think there are enough journalists of color who would be suitable candidates for such sites," Prince emailed me. And the National Association of Black Journalists has also written a guide for employers looking to build a diverse staff. Its title: "Never Say 'We Can't Find Talented Journalists of Color' Again."
BuzzFeed deputy editor-in-chief Shani Hilton wrote an essay recently that touches on another dimension to this issue: "The network — on both ends of the equation — is the problem," Hilton wrote. She continues:
The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA. Call it the Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox: Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement.
"The reality is with small efforts you can put together a top-notch staff that's diverse," Greenwald says. "If all you're going to do is say, 'I'm looking at the New York Times and the Washington Post and AP and the Wall Street Journal and NBC,' you're going to end up thinking, oh my god, there's a dearth of good women national security reporters because all those places are predominantly male."
Greenwald's solution is to look elsewhere (his recent hires have written for sites like Alternet, Salon and Al Jazeera, for example) though it's a harder and slower process to reach out to new places and people than it is to, say, grab a bunch of people from your last job. Hiring the same talent from the same pool will only perpetuate the lack of diversity.
"You need to diversify the places where you look and then you'll automatically be diversifying who you're finding," Greenwald says.
First Look Media's executive editor Eric Bates also spoke to me about the diversity in the company, which plans to launch several more digital magazines in the future. Bates says that while the outlet's first high-profile hires have been nearly all white men, that will soon change.
"People are seeing the first 15 hires and thinking that's representative, and it's not," Bates says. Bates, Andy Carvin, Bill Gannon, Michael Rosen and Jay Rosen are white men, but Lynn Oberlander recently joined as general counsel, and Lynn Dombek will serve as First Look's research director.
"Startups have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to diversity," Bates says. "There are opportunities and challenges. The opportunity is, you're starting fresh, you don't have the legacy structure or staff to deal with. And that's really great. The challenge is, there's a whole lot of ambiguity at the start."
That's why, Bates says, First Look Media's progress has been slow – he and his team are trying to get as much input from a diversity of sources as possible, rather than relying on their own networks. Bates is particularly keen to hire women and people of color for leadership positions, an area that tends to be even less diverse than the newsroom.
"If you really want to take the time and make sure that you're looking at the entire landscape, then you slow down and you try to get it right," Bates says.
Finally, there's Re/Code, the new site from Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. The site, which grew out of All Things D, has an almost even ratio of men and women on staff and several journalists of color, despite its relatively small size and the fact that the majority of tech writers (and the people they write about) are white men.
"Walt and I try very hard to think about that when we are doing hiring at any level," Swisher told me in an email.
Mossberg followed that up by pointing out that Kenneth Li, who is Asian-American, is the site's managing editor and the highest-ranking editorial employee after Swisher and Mossberg.
"Of course," Mossberg wrote, "we are always on the lookout for more diversity."
Mossberg's point is an important one. Diversity should come from the top down, and that's an area that is seriously lacking in female and minority voices. Case in point: The Marshall Project, which could be the next exciting journalism startup. It will cover criminal justice and says it plans to "recruit a diverse staff." But its first hire and editor in chief is a white man.
These new sites have a real chance to change journalism -- both the way it's written and the people who write it. There won't and can't be one without the other. It's great that the people these sites are often built around are saying that diversity is important to them, but it's unfortunate that the vast majority of those people are white men. That needs to change as well as the diversity of the newsrooms they run.