Amanda Hess


Suicide reminds reporters how vulnerable their sources can be

Gretchen Molannen suffered in private for 16 years before her life story appeared on the Tampa Bay Times website on Friday, Nov. 30. In the piece, she described the persistent genital arousal disorder that forced her to “masturbate for hours for just a few minutes of relief.” She also told reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton about her condition’s other costs: The judge who denied her disability claims. The doctor who made a joke. The jobs that disintegrated. The boyfriends who left.

Five days later, Molannen appeared in another Tampa Bay Times story: “Woman featured in Times story about sexual disorder commits suicide.”

The suicide drew international attention to Molannen’s story — and to the reporter who told it. “I’m so sorry,” Anton wrote to me when she declined an interview for this piece. “I’ve been just so swamped by all the calls and emails and then I’ve also been reporting.”

A local blogger claimed the Poynter-owned paper had “blood on its hands” for running a “sensational story” with the consent of a “mentally unstable” source. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan countered that the causes of suicide are complex, and the paper is not to blame. “It’s impossible to tell” if the story contributed to Molannen’s death, Times managing editor Mike Wilson told Poynter’s Kelly McBride. He added: “While we’re upset and heartbroken about the awful decision she made, I think her legacy is that she stepped forward to tell a story that needed to be told and so I hope that in spite of the tragedy, some good comes of this.”

Molannen’s story speaks to a paradox of reporting on sex and sexuality. In discussing these deeply personal issues, we hope to lift stigma, improve public understanding and effect social change. But the individual subjects we choose to illustrate these issues do not always benefit from our work.

Journalists worked for decades to break taboos around AIDS, homosexuality and sexual assault before the Times told Molannen’s story. And still even private conversations around these issues remain fraught. Most victims of sexual assault still don’t call the police. Many gay men never come out. Some women even struggle for years to ask a boyfriend to just spank them in bed.

Sex and gender journalists ask our sources to bare highly personal details that others find painful to discuss even in private. Our subjects are not compensated when they tell us their stories. Instead, comments sections around the Web compile the most heinous reactions to their private lives, written by the world’s foremost anonymous bigots. Our story fades from the news, but it continues to hover over their Google search results, possibly forever. Their friends are free to constantly rewrite their online personalities with a new Facebook status update, but our subjects’ life stories are crystalized at a moment in time — and in someone else’s words. The reporter who lent them a sympathetic ear has shifted her focus to the next piece.

I’ve been that reporter, the one encouraging a source to sign up for all of the above. Sometimes — when a stranger emails me to thank me for a years-old piece I wrote on sexual assault, or a bewildered colleague asks me for a primer on what “transgender” means — I get the sense that my work is contributing, however modestly, to a broader social shift. But I’ve also watched as my reporting has shaken the private lives of my subjects.

In 2009, I profiled Devin, a transgender college student struggling to find his place in his school’s Greek system. Online, the comment box unspooled with the force of hundreds of sorority sisters, who branded him a “freak” and an “it.” I detailed the facial fractures a middle-aged gay man named Stanley sustained as the victim of a series of hate crimes in Washington, D.C. Long after the story came out, he kept ringing my office line, hoping to keep up the coffee dates we had throughout the reporting process; I quit my job soon after and decamped to L.A. I reported on the medical procedures that Suzanne, a transgender woman, had undertaken in the course of her transition to female. She liked the story, but hated the way her face looked in the accompanying photograph. She posted a new photo to her blog months later, her face still bandaged and swollen from a few more cosmetic surgery procedures.

It’s not easy for reporters to admit that talking to them could negatively affect a source’s life. It’s not convenient, either.

“When you’re reporting on sex and sexuality, you’re asking a person to make themselves incredibly vulnerable,” Poynter’s McBride told me. Making sure a source gives informed consent to the story at every stage — with the knowledge of all the consequences it might bring — is essential. “That’s really hard for some reporters, who are so desperate to get that ‘yes’ that they avoid those opportunities for the source to have second thoughts,” McBride says.

The Times reports that the paper gave Molannen several opportunities to back out of telling her story. She insisted on making it public, she told the Times, to “educate people that this is serious and really exists, and that other women who are suffering in silence will now have the courage to talk to a doctor about it.”

But even in its report on her death, the Times breathed life into an alternate narrative — one where the story could have helped Molannen as an individual, if only she had lived.

The paper did not mention that Molannen’s story inspired a local blogger to  illustrate his media criticism with a tableau of dildos. Or that, though the newspaper disabled comments on the piece, 108 readers categorized her story as “LOL” by clicking on a mocking emoticon beneath the story. Or that commenters, after her death, would populate the Web with sentiments like, “She sounds like every mans dream. Constantly ready for action.”

The paper reported that it “received several offers to help Molannen” from lawyers, doctors and other women suffering from the same problem. But as Molannen’s boyfriend told the paper, even the story “won’t help her now.”

Related: Suicide by source: What do you do when a story is followed by the worst possible outcome? Read more


Binders full of Big Bird: The risk & benefits of reporting on memes

On the evening of Oct. 16, in the second presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney mentioned that as governor of Massachusetts, he had requested “binders full of women” to help recruit top female candidates to his cabinet. One minute later, 23-year-old social media manager Veronica De Souza registered and began furiously Photoshopping.

Soon, images of Christina Aguilera, Sandra Fluke and Dora the Explorer were all trapped within three-rings and posted on the site. Thirty minutes out, the blog had amassed 3,000 followers. The next day, @BarackObama released a binder-themed campaign ad attacking Romney’s policies on women’s rights. The National Republican Congressional Committee countered with its own submission, daring President Obama to fit his lengthy health care bill into a binder.

Forty-eight hours after the birth of the meme, De Souza sat in front of CNN’s cameras with Soledad O’Brien and former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to discuss her role in the electoral news cycle. “I really didn’t make this for any political reason,” she told them. “I just thought it was funny.”

De Souza may have done it for the lulz, but election-themed GIFs, hashtags, and Lolcat-style image macros now constitute serious news pegs on the campaign trail. As journalists chase down Google searches and trending hashtags, the trajectory of U.S. election coverage is unmoored from campaign headquarters and D.C. bureaus and placed into the hands of the loudest crowds and their swiftest microbloggers.

“The modern reporter, especially the embed, is constantly checking his smartphone, as is the aide,” Slate political reporter Dave Weigel told me in an instant message. “It’s hard not to be influenced.”

Memes through history

Political journalists have long riffed on sound bites and candid photos to skewer candidates’ positions and personas. After the first televised debate in 1960, commentators (and lazy pollsters) pushed the narrative that John F. Kennedy’s easy screen presence gave him the edge over a gruff, stubbly Richard Nixon; eight years later, Esquire manipulated a stock photograph of Tricky Dick to show a fleet of makeup artists applying powder, lipstick, mascara, and hairspray to his head.

These days, political parodies spawn and expire at a much more accelerated clip. Magazines are printed far too slowly to set the tone. Weigel sees the seeds of the political meme’s rise in the 2000 catchphrase “Sore-Loserman” — a parody of the Gore-Lieberman ticket’s refusal to concede in the drawn-out 2000 election that spread from car bumpers to political forums. Lefties countered with their own parody, “Bush-Cheated.”

In the 2004 Bush-Kerry debates, Weigel watched the mockery of Bush’s claim, “You forgot Poland,” spread even further, gaining traction with no “nudging” from either political campaign. The 2008 election brought mainstream attention to Mat Honan’s feel-good single-serving website “Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle,” the viral video “I Got a Crush on Obama,” and a Photoshopped image of Sarah Palin’s face on an American flag bikini body.

But this is the first presidential election where the endless riffing of the true Internet meme — a repeating, morphing, crowdsourced play off some minute detail — has taken hold of the campaign conversation, and directed it into some weird territory. As Brad Kim of Know Your Meme told the BBC, a meme by definition “changes in form or meaning” with each iteration, mutating further and further from the original point every time it’s shared.

From memes to messages

Some of these memes, like “Menacing Josh Romney” or “Eastwooding,” have remained in the realm of Internet inside joke. But others have evolved from crowdsourced meme to top-level campaign message, often stripping quotes of their wider context along the way. Take “You didn’t build that”: A selectively edited phrase from an Obama rally that portrayed the president as anti-business. “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase] was pretty minor, or nothing,” Weigel says. But online, “people went over the heads of the media and shared it amongst themselves.” Later, the Romney campaign “belatedly grabbed it after it was field-tested,” Weigel says. Obama’s gaffe birthed the Republican National Convention’s catchphrase “We Built It.” The media ended up covering four of Obama’s words for months.

Leveraging memes is a tricky move for presidential candidates — leaning too hard into Internet culture can make their campaigns seem frivolous, or else out of touch. At the Republican National Convention, speakers like Mia Love employed the “We Built It” refrain in contexts that made no sense. By the time the Obama campaign converted the Big Bird meme into a political ad, the joke was already a week old. (It could be worse: The National Republican Congressional Committee was three years late to the Kanye West VMAs interception meme).

No matter how the tactic hits, political reporters and commentators are covering every wrinkle, chasing a wild trajectory of phrases that would have previously gone unnoticed. Some of these memes don’t even begin as substantive critiques before they take off. I asked De Souza, via Tumblr, why the phrase “binders full of women” energized her in that minute after it left Romney’s mouth. Isn’t seeking out and hiring female candidates a good thing? “I would say he hired those women to fill a quota,” De Souza replied. “Politicians are all about status (especially if they’re running for president) so a cabinet full of women looks good for him.”

I’d argue that a cabinet full of women looks good because it is good. But in the narrow context of the 2012 election, “binders full of women” is a phrase worth mocking for one reason: Mitt Romney said it. The progressive women who fueled the binder meme already view Romney as a candidate with a robotic demeanor and a poor record on women’s rights. Hearing him mimic the language of affirmative action feels wrong to them, even if it’s right.

The meme devolved from there. Romney’s critics have since used “binders” to mount vaguely related personal attacks against the candidate, including the suggestion that he’s a horndog. (Of the feminist critiques leveled against Romney, a history of sexual harassment is not one). Other entries are even less substantive. What relevance does the pop song “Call Me Maybe” or a years-old upskirt photo of Britney Spears to this meme? At a certain point, the feeling fueling the meme gave way to Trapper Keeper free-association. Not only does the meme make no sense as a political critique at this point — it isn’t funny anymore, either.

I blame journalists like myself for beating the binders to death. Even when we’re not consciously gunning for SEO dominance, the way we report today — glued to Twitter, absorbing and articulating snap judgments simultaneously — makes it increasingly likely that we’ll sweat the small stuff. In The New Republic, Maria Konnikova offers a few studies on the brains of online multi-taskers that shine a light on how minute details can grow into lasting news pegs. Viewers who juggle multiple platforms during the debates– tweeters, Facebookers, Tumblr creators, live-bloggers, and journalists — are more likely to be distracted by “irrelevant stimuli” in the content they watch. The greatest multi-taskers “paid partial attention to a lot and complete attention to less.” During the debates, they can “notice the seemingly superficial stuff” but miss the gist.

Internet jokes are aimed at committed voters

The people obsessively live-tweeting these minute details are unlikely to be impartial spectators. The Internet’s “Dual viewers” — the 7 million Americans simultaneously watching and commenting on the debates — have largely made up their minds. In September, Ezra Klein reported that 43 percent of decided voters said they were following the election “very closely”; only 12 percent of undecided voters said the same. Undecided voters are those least likely to tune into election news, debates, ads, and memes.

“Most of the time, these things that go viral are spreading among people whose opinions are granite-set,” Weigel says. “You’re not seeing jokes that will make it into the campaign shorthand of the swing voter.”

So covering Internet memes can mean we’re serving up inane coverage to highly polarized groups of people. This is not necessarily a new concept in political reporting — a 24-hour news cycle online and on cable has expanded to reach the die-hard political junkies, not the blissfully unaware. But journalists on the meme beat don’t just amplify the nonsense — they also challenge and enrich the conversation.

When David S. Bernstein, the Boston Phoenix’s political reporter, heard Romney say “binders,” he used his years of experience reporting on Romney’s record in Massachusetts to drop some facts and context into the developing meme. Bernstein revealed that Romney’s “binders” actually originated with a bipartisan women’s group working to diversify political gigs in Massachusetts. Romney hadn’t requested them at all. The narrative around the binders began to pivot with the facts. (Maybe assembling binders of top-shelf female candidates isn’t so bad after all; only Romney is bad). Other commentators chimed in to add additional context. Almost a week after it was published, Bernstein’s “Mind the Binder” was still one of the the most-read stories on the Phoenix’s website. Like De Souza, Bernstein also appeared on CNN to discuss his work.

“I have to do my work thinking that it can change minds,” Bernstein told me over the phone when I asked him if dissecting memes like this can reach the undecided set. “I don’t really think that it does.”

Bernstein watched his piece blow up thanks to social sharing from mammoth liberal voices like Arianna Huffington and Markos Mouslitsas — people who already “think Romney is a horrible person.” But Bernstein’s work helped make the liberal critique against Romney more informed, and forced progressives to talk about women in political office, which was not otherwise on the agenda in an election season with four male candidates flanking the stage. Thanks to some quick and dirty Photoshopping, a niche issue became big news — even to those people who aren’t obsessively checking Tumblr (or even know what it is).

Messages, memes and meaning

The campaigns can capitalize on memes to cut through the traditional news cycle, no fact-checking necessary. But journalists are faster than flacks. By following and researching and translating memes, they can key into the issues and values relevant to at least some segments American voters — including those, like women, whose issues are sometimes neglected. If they push the meme far enough, it can even translate to cable TV segments and op-ed sections around the country, where undecided voters are more likely to take a look. My own piece on binders got play in opinion sections in Dallas, Miami and Long Island.

But co-opting the meme also tends to undermine its initial purpose: the lulz. Memes like Romney’s binders or Clint Eastwood’s chair are a form of catharsis for political news creators and consumers, a break from the endless election cycle we all must endure every four years. Reporting out the meme takes the fun out of it; explaining a joke is never funny.

Last night, Romney set off the foreign policy debate bracing for gaffes, joking that the debate would be a platform for the candidates to “say funny things not on purpose.” When the night brought few gaffes to riff on, viewers and reporters hungry for a new viral meme fixated on a deliberate joke instead: Obama’s use of the phrase “horses and bayonets” to burn Romney’s outdated military policies. The obligatory Twitter hashtag, Photoshop Tumblr, and Reuters wrap-up quickly surfaced.

It didn’t feel right. This was a catchphrase crafted in campaign HQ, not some 23-year-old’s apartment. The message-makers can pre-manufacture memes, and reporters can herald the “latest debate catchphrase.” But without even a few minutes to live on its own, free of media scrutiny, even President Obama riding a unicorn isn’t very much fun. Read more


Debate over new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reveals divide between women in media and tech

When Yahoo named Marissa Mayer its new president and CEO last week, she became one of the most powerful women in media and technology overnight. The media side had a question for her: Is she a feminist?

Journalists swiftly exhumed videotape of Mayer addressing the term. “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist,” Mayer told an interviewer during her time as a Google exec. “I don’t have the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.”

Cue the commentary. Marissa Mayer is a feminist. Maybe just a trickle-down feminist. Or else a nightmare. Or a disappointment. Or a mommy warrior. Does it even matter? Leave Marissa Mayer alone! No, leave feminism alone! Let’s all stop talking about it (starting now)! I did my part — I pitched a piece to Poynter about feminist identification among top female journalists. Then, I started talking to women in the tech world, and began to understand the limits of my perspective.

“I’m not surprised at all that Marissa Mayer doesn’t ID as feminist,” says Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist and founder of Tech Ladymafia, a collective for women in technology. “What constantly surprises me is when a woman breaks through the glass ceiling in her field and feminists automatically assume she’s one of them.” Even if that woman “is known for being a connector of women and a great mentor to women in tech,” as Mayer is.

The divide speaks to a cultural clash between the fields of technology and journalism — now stumbling toward coexistence as multinational conglomerates acquire assets in both sectors. Take Yahoo: It started as a Web directory, grew into a search engine, then a media platform, and is now snapping up top-level editorial talent to beef up its original news offerings. These journalists will not just gather news and pen commentary, but also come to define Yahoo as a brand. Meanwhile, tech prodigies like Mayer are now expected to be public faces, too. It would help if they could all get on the same page, especially on something as important as changing the ratio in the male-dominated fields of technology and media.

Women in these sectors know that our fields are extraordinarily male-dominated. But how we deal with that often depends on which side of the conglomerate’s ladder we’re climbing. Every journalist I spoke to for this piece — a magazine editor, an alt-weekly publisher, a national politics reporter, The New York Times’ incoming public editor — readily identified as a feminist. Women on the tech side are more likely to voice support for feminist actions — like mentoring women and supporting progressive work-life balance policies — than taking up the mantle.

“Your deliverables are different,” Sow told me in a phone and email interview. (For the record, she identifies as “a feminist — an old-school, bell hooks style feminist”). A reporter’s role is to start conversations, define problems, provoke. A tech exec’s is to manage a company, build a team, set internal policies. We talk, they strategize.

Consider these two approaches to combatting sexism in the workplace. First, from the tech side: Katherine Losse’s memoir on her stint as a “woman in the Facebook frat house” aired an interesting nugget from COO Sheryl Sandberg’s anti-sexist playbook. When Losse informed Sandberg of a senior manager who “had been known to proposition women in the company for threesomes,” Sandberg arranged to have him quietly demoted. Losse never even heard about it. “I’m so good that I make things happen, and no one even knows about it,” Sandberg told Losse later.

Now, for the journalistic approach: Her first week at her first journalism gig, Ann Friedman decided to hit “send” on “a company-wide email about our dismal byline gender ratio.” An older, female staff writer told Friedman to “cool it with the ‘feminist stuff.’” But “I’m happy to report that I don’t feel my career has suffered because I chose to ignore her advice,” Friedman told me. She went on to edit GOOD Magazine, where she achieved gender parity in the publication’s bylines.

GOOD — where I worked under Friedman — is another of those outlets straddling media platform and tech startup culture. After I left my job there, I started hearing details about the company’s newly-appointed COO, Laura Goldberg, a Harvard MBA who had previously served as general manager of NFL Online and COO of Napster — mainly, that she was a top-of-her-game badass. I emailed her asking if she was also a feminist. She called me up. “I do not identify with that term, and your email got me thinking about why,” she told me.

Goldberg recognizes that she came up through the “extraordinarily male dominated cultures” of technology and finance, but she’s always perceived the feminist movement “as something very aggressive and revolutionary.” Female journalists might have “that female professor” or “a few people at the organization who were mentors, or at least women who had made it” — a community to pin a movement on. Women like Goldberg were on their own, just “trying to get to where everyone else was fighting to get to.” It didn’t feel like a revolution so much as it did an individual grind.

But it’s not just a numbers game, and seeing more women like Mayer in top tech spots certainly won’t inspire a rush of feminist identification in the field. “It’s the tools you have,” Goldberg told me. Journalists “can get an article published that’s read by a lot of women,” she told me. “For a senior manager, or a COO, or a general manager, your platform is what you do every day. All I can do is get ahead by myself, and then create an environment that will help foster the women there. It’s super important, but it doesn’t feel like something huge.”

So when Marissa Mayer is asked about fortifying the numbers of women in tech, she emphasizes the “amazing opportunities all over the world for women.” She says she’s “less worried about adjusting the percentage than about growing the overall pie.” She fears that “just asking the question can handicap progress.” Growing up as something of a computer prodigy, she was “always very gender-blind” — and she credits her selective vision as an asset in climbing the ranks among men. And yet, at Google, she was known as an excellent mentor who cultivated a flexible “finding your rhythm” corporate culture that supports healthy work-life balance, particularly for new parents. As Amanda Marcotte noted at Slate, “Mayer disavowed the word even while upholding every single value of feminism.”

Meanwhile, journalists are sometimes afflicted by the opposite problem. Fox News commentator Sarah Palin identifies as a conservative feminist, a movement she has described as “the mama grizzlies, they rise up.” In 1973, Arianna Huffington wrote the feminist movement was out “not to emancipate women, but to destroy society.” Now one of the most powerful women in media, Huffington is free to chart her own, declawed version of the feminist lifestyle: “The next feminist issue is sleep,” she announced in a blog post on her site in 2010. (Through a publicist, Huffington declined to comment on this piece, citing scheduling conflicts).

Clearly, calling yourself a feminist and acting like one are not always the same. Building a shared community — and language — between the women of tech and journalism, Sow says, will happen “through personal relationships,” and with the help of women who cross over — Change the Ratio’s Rachel Sklar; the outspoken women of the Tech Ladymafia; Sandberg, who has become a media darling with her TED talks on women; and tech entrepreneur and public speaker Cindy Gallop.

But it will also require journalists — who are often biased by the particular feedback loop of our industry — to expand our vocabulary. “It’s more feminism’s problem that Marissa Mayer thinks that feminism is wrong than it is her problem,” Sow says. She’s a digital strategist, so she’s got her own solution for the problem: “I think grassroots feminism needs a rebrand.” Read more

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Why 88% of books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors

Last week, The Rumpus published a piece by Roxane Gay titled “Where Things Stand,” in which Gay reported that nearly 90 percent of books reviewed in The New York Times are written by whites. Gay researched the racial background of every author critiqued by the paper in 2011. She yielded predictably striking results: 31 black authors, 655 white ones. Eighty-one reviewed books in all by writers of color. “I don’t know how to solve this problem or what to do with this information,” wrote Gay, who is black. Still. “I like knowing where things stand.”

Two days after Gay’s count hit, a writer at Poynter called me, looking to commission a piece on the subject. We are both white. We first worked together several years ago, at a newspaper edited by a white man, then again at a website edited by the same white man. When we left, we both recommended each other to different white female editors, who would later hire us in newsrooms staffed with mostly white writers and editors. This is the grim reality of the mainstream journalism network. But as I navigated a series of publications helmed by white men stacked all the way to the top, the success of a white female writer like me seemed like some kind of demographic victory.

Roxane Gay: “It’s an easy out—oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing.”

Gay’s count comes on the heels of widespread media concern over the lack of representation of women in literary journalism. VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, has assessed the gender breakdown of major literary publications for two years running. In March, GOOD Magazine, where I worked until recently, published my own gender count of the bylines at publications targeting young readers. When white author Jonathan Franzen published his novel “Freedom” to fawning reviews in 2010, white author Jodi Picoult questioned the media’s outsized veneration of male writers. On NPR, white author Jennifer Weiner debated the issue with The New York Times Book Review’s white editor Sam Tanenhaus.

A similar conversation has not emerged over literary journalism’s extreme whiteness. “Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later,” Gay wrote in her post. (And in fact I never got around to executing a byline count by race at GOOD.)

This is partly a matter of logistics. Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse. The 50-50 gender ratio is easy to quantify, but the racial breakdown of the U.S. population is complex. It took Gay, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, 14 weeks to complete her research, employing a student for 16 hours a week to mine authors’ ethnic backgrounds. They couldn’t confirm the race of six authors. Gay plans to execute a similar count for the bylines of The Times’ book reviewers, when she gets the time. And that’s just one publication.

Gay’s numbers are more difficult to process in a much larger sense. While racial inequality in the United States runs deep throughout a writer’s development, from preschooler to New York Times book editor, the same can not be said for women, who make up 73 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates and likely a healthy proportion of MFA holders, too.

The whiteness of The New York Times Book Review represents the structural inequality of elite journalism stacked on the structural inequality of elite publishing stacked on the structural inequality of income and education in this country. But for women, the system is breaking down at an advanced stage of the game. When female graduates don’t end up in newsrooms, female MFA program stars don’t get book deals, or female editors are not promoted up the chain, publications can be held accountable for that problem. When writers of color are disenfranchised at every stage of the process, everyone is to blame, so no one is.

“It’s an easy out — oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing,” Gay told me over the phone. “People will always say, ‘It’s not a situational problem, it’s a historical problem.’ ” Yes, journalism’s race problem is the product of historical injustice. But it’s also the product of a busy editor’s mental pathway, which must flip quickly through its virtual Rolodex to find the first acceptable writer to turn a piece around by deadline. When that Rolodex is stocked with whites — and most of the time, it is — the byline count perpetuates itself.

White editors grow comfortable in their relationships with white writers. They read books written by white people. Writers of color look elsewhere. “I’ve heard of writers of color who do stop pitching certain organizations,” Gay says. “You start to think, ‘Why should I bother?’ ”

Gay says that her own “Benetton-like” network was formed over “a series of small steps that’s taken years.” Last year, Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus’ white editor, reached out to Gay to commission a piece on white author Blake Butler. Gay turned around and pitched an essay critiquing the way The New York Times covered the sexual assault of a young girl. She’s since written 20 more pieces for the publication. “[T]he topics [Gay] covers are ones in which The Rumpus has vast room for improvement,” an editor’s note appended to Gay’s piece last week reads. “We strive to better ourselves every day.”

Correction: This post originally said the victim of a sexual assault was black; while a New York Times report identified her as someone “whose parents are immigrants from Mexico” it offered no identification of her race.

Related: Why women don’t contribute to opinion pages as often as men & what we can do about it | National Magazine Awards to honor men this year Read more