Diversity has to be intentional and other lessons from Feministing
Two white women started the popular feminist news and commentary site Feministing in 2004. Sisters Jessica and Vanessa Valenti started the site when they did a Google search for "young feminists" and found little more than a defunct NOW page. They believed that the intersection of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities was essential to their understanding of feminism, so they knew they needed a diverse group of writers. The Valenti sisters have moved on to other projects, but the site has grown to boast 6 million visitors annually and between 500,000 and 1 million monthly. It has also consciously and intentionally grown more diverse, said Executive Director Jos Truitt.
Small news organizations are the least diverse news organizations, according to the 2015 ASNE Census report. Feministing is in some ways a small news organization. It has only five behind-the-scenes editors/administrators, two people on the editorial team, and 17 semi-regular writers. Everyone who writes for or works for Feministing has freelancing gigs or does other full-time or part-time work. A deliberate strategy of recruiting diverse voices has allowed Feministing to avoid the diversity problem that shows up in the ASNE report.
Feministing’s executive director for partnerships, Lori Adelman, told me she believes it’s a mistake for news organizations to think of diversity as inclusion.
“People of color, queer people, trans people, refugees, immigrants: our stories are the news,” she said. “We don't owe mainstream media anything for telling our stories. They owe it to themselves to get the world right and figure out a way to dig more than skin deep when it comes to identity and journalism.”
To be intentional about diversity is not about tokenism, it’s about enlarging the universe of experiences that writers bring to the newsroom.
When the Feministing editors see a hole in their coverage, an identity or a community or a facet of feminist thought that’s being underrepresented on the site, Truitt said, they work to recruit someone to fill that void. Truitt said that while it may be tempting to tell someone that they’re not being recruited because of their identity, it’s important to acknowledge the role that background and identity play. Hiring a Latina woman because they realized that their coverage of issues facing Latina women was lacking is a good example, she said. It’s disingenuous to say that a person’s identity has nothing to do with why they were recruited, but it doesn’t have everything to do with why they were recruited.
“They are there because they have something valuable to say, coming from their own personal experience around identity,” she said. “That’s part of what makes them a valuable writer. That experience is valuable. They’re not there just because they’re a Latina woman, they’re being brought on because they’re brilliant.”
Bringing someone on staff whose background is not represented in the newsroom can be challenging. If you are the only person of color on staff, will you be expected to speak for all people of color? Cover only stories that center on race? Feministing tries to be deliberate about lessening this burden of representation, Executive Director for Editorial Maya Dusenbery said.
“I think that's lessened over the years as the team has grown and become increasingly more diverse; now that we have multiple black people and multiple trans people on our team, for example, the burden of representation doesn't fall on just one person's shoulders,” Dusenbery said. “But that continues to be one of the key reasons we feel like the work of building a more diverse crew is never really done.”
Writing about feminism on the internet is hard work, all three editors acknowledged. Writers are often harassed and criticized on social media, far beyond civil disagreement from readers. The editors believe that creating a supportive culture is key to the success of the team. Sometimes this means a supportive phone call or text, and sometimes it’s more strategic.
“When I was the target of an online race-based attack, Jos and Maya stepped up to help monitor my feeds and determine when and whether I needed to respond,” Adelman said.
For awhile, Truitt said, she tried to pretend that the online harassment didn’t matter. But now she acknowledges that just because harassment and personal attacks happen on Twitter or Facebook, doesn’t mean they don’t affect her or team. Sometimes writers need someone looking out for them, she said, acknowledging that being harassed on social media is hard, and it’s important for her that her writers know they’re “working with a team who is going to be supportive,” she said. When you’re the writer who is being attacked, she said, it’s hard not to think everyone on the Internet is against you.
“When you’ve got a small but angry and loud group on Twitter, it’s easy to forget that you’ve got thousands of people reading your work and not saying anything because they love it,” she said.
Feministing is a space for young feminist voices, so top management does work to mentor their young writers.
“It’s so much about supporting the individual writer’s voices, making sure they’re making those points they want to make in a way that is best communicated, making sure they don’t fall into the traps or have issues when they write about something they’re less knowledgeable about,” she said.
The writers have been recruited for their skills and voices, she said, so they don’t need a lot of hands-on coaching. They’re more likely to need help managing the daunting task of writing for a large audience about feminism on the Internet.
“A lot of work with someone who is new to the site is showing them how to figure out what they really want to say,” Truitt said.
The Feministing team has knit a supportive network together despite not having a physical newsroom.
“We support each other both emotionally and materially. As a community, we support each other's lives, celebrating life milestones together -- birthdays, anniversaries and the like -- and trading career and personal life advice,” Adelman said. “We also share tangible opportunities like paid writing gigs, media appearances and fellowships when applicable.”
They exchange ideas and joke around over email, talk often on G-chat and over the phone, and they meet up in person whenever possible. In this era, more and more managers are expected to manage a spread-out staff of freelancers and telecommuters. Just like diversity, a culture of support and mentorship does not appear by accident; it must be intentional and intrinsic to the fabric of the organization.
A supportive and diverse staff, though, isn’t just about being politically correct. It also makes the organization more fun to work for.
“I do think the diversity makes it more fun. I feel incredibly grateful to work with people who are at once so like me – so committed to the same movement, so interested in similar issues, so immersed in the same online community – but also so very unlike me in many ways,” Dusenbery said. “It means I’m constantly learning about new things – ideas, subcultures, books, music, etc. – just by interacting online with my coworkers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Maya Dusenbery's last name. It has been corrected.