June 26, 2020

In 2019, I became editor-in-chief of Florida A&M University’s award-winning student magazine, Journey. I was advised to staff the student-led publication with senior-level students who didn’t need much guidance.

I ultimately hired a 95% new and young staff. I knew this would mean more time walking through projects and responsibilities, more mistakes, more long nights and busy weekends helping my team. But it was worth it.

At the end of my year as editor-in-chief, I had a team that understood the fundamentals of good journalism and were able to lead once I left. Yes, I spent more time supporting and assisting them, but I wanted to be an editor-in-chief who made sure her team grew.

Stepping into that position meant more than a notch in my resume; it meant nurturing future reporters and editors who will come behind me.

I understood the original advice I was given on hiring a staff: It was meant to make my life easier. But I don’t want an easy life — I want a meaningful life, and for me that meant an investment in people.

I think back to the monumental moments in my budding journalism career, where someone took extra time out of their day to help me. If the editor-in-chief at my community college newspaper hadn’t sat me down and gone over my entire article line by line and critiqued me, where would I be? If an editor at Bustle didn’t sit down for coffee with me and in detail explain how to pitch, where would I be? If I didn’t have a professor who believed in my abilities and pushed me to apply to the Dow Jones News Fund internship program, where would I be?

Filling your newsroom with Black and brown journalists is going to mean putting in a little extra time to build up the future. Black and brown journalists are rarely granted the same opportunities as their White counterparts. Whether it’s lack of resources, mentorship or finance, many college journalists of color are striving toward an industry that is not prepared to help them grow.

Black and brown student journalists experience career setbacks at a disproportionate rate due to access — rather, lack of it. Unpaid internships are at the forefront of that access. For many young journalists of color, accepting an unpaid internship is completely unfeasible. Experience is vital in journalism, but the surrounding conflicts that come with taking an internship — especially out-of-state — are too much to bear.

Two years ago I accepted an unpaid internship with a startup publication in New York City. I begged my mother to let me go. I had no idea how I was going to survive, but I told her it would help my career. Luckily, I had a close family friend to live with for free all summer. I spent that summer experiencing my first ever fashion week, checking out beauty pop-ups, and going to every networking event possible. That summer made me fall more in love with journalism, but it also underscored how important connections are.

While my Instagram photos showed me having the time of my life, it did not document the nights I’d turn down hanging out with my friends because I only had $10 in my bank account.

My social media didn’t show the anxiety I carried when I called my mother, begging her to transfer money into my account so I could afford to take the subway. My non-Black friends who were also interning in NYC joked that we were all “broke college kids,” but there was a certain level of ease in their eyes, a comfort I’d never known.

I am a middle-class Black woman coming from a two-parent household and I struggled to make an unpaid internship work. Now imagine the hundreds of other Black student journalists who cannot dare to ask their parents to even consider letting them go. Not because it won’t be beneficial, but because it’s not in their budget.

This is how our White counterparts get ahead. Their networking, relationship-building, and newsroom guidance starts ahead of ours, when they can afford to take financial risks like unpaid internships and commit to low-paying student newspaper jobs because their safety nets are so much larger and deeper than ours.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Dear newsroom managers, journalists of color can’t do all the work

But the issue doesn’t stop at unpaid internships. The issue continues through highly selective, paid internships. You would think that diverse journalists are highly sought after, but I am one of the first students from my ACEJMC-accredited, historically Black university to receive the Dow Jones News Fund Internship program. I was introduced to this program at the Online News Association’s 2019 conference, where I met a sea of amazing industry professionals who gave me critical advice. The advice I received led to one of the most successful years I’ve had career-wise.

Imagine where other FAMU students throughout history might have landed, had they just been given the chance to attend ONA.

This connection I built with varying journalists is the type of mentorship all Black and brown student journalists need in an industry where they’re once again the minority. Mentorship can come in all shapes and sizes — it doesn’t necessarily take a constant relationship. Sometimes all it takes is responding to an email once, meeting up for coffee, looking out for the student journalists of color in your white-washed newsroom.

I felt mentored when a writer from Vulture took time out of her day to give me sound advice via email about pitching; I felt mentored when the beauty editor from Marie Claire grabbed coffee with me in New York City and explained how she got to where she is in life. It’s important to note that all of these minuscule gestures were made by other Black women, who are currently fighting their own newsroom battles as we speak. Journalists of color need current White newsroom leaders to also fight for their existence.

These simple gestures are probably footnotes in these women’s minds, but for a young, impressionable and passionate Black journalist, they stuck with me. Any ounce of information, knowledge and honesty I can get from someone in this business builds my confidence up, step by step, slowly closing the gap between me and my White counterparts.

Once you get to know Black and brown people in your newsroom, you start to see the possibilities in them, just like you do your White counterparts. You will start to look to them as real, natural contenders for jobs as producers, editors, publishers and CEOs.

But White journalists need to commit to taking those steps now. Look around. What have you done besides post on Twitter to support your Black colleagues, especially us younger ones?

In 20 years I’m going to run your newsroom. But it’s going to take real, inclusive mentorship to help me get there.

Aiyana Ishmael is a digital media intern at MediaWise through the Dow Jones News Fund. She is a rising senior at Florida A&M University and also is the student representative for the Online News Association’s Board of Directors. She can be reached at news@poynter.org or on Twitter, @aiyanaish

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