Philadelphia Media Network is adding six fellows to engage diverse audiences that they are 'simply not reaching'

Two years ago, staffers at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com worked together to map out a plan for their future. In the opening of their 29-page report, they included this:

We are now in danger of losing what we’ve spent 187 years building — our audience. Our readers are increasingly moving online, and we are failing to capture their attention. We need to do a much better job of engaging readers in the digital realm — particularly younger readers, minorities, and new immigrant communities. We are simply not reaching them.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia Media Network announced a program to help change that.

Six journalists are part of the first class of the Lenfest Journalism Fellowship who will help “broaden PMN’s coverage of the region, provide added digital storytelling capability, and engage new and more diverse audiences. In addition to their full-time assignments as journalists, they will all have mentors, participate in regular seminars and work on a fellows-only product development project designed to bring more younger readers to PMN’s news platforms,” according to a press release.

The six fellows are Kristen Balderas, Jesenia De Moya Correa, TyLisa Johnson, Heather Khalifa, Aneri Pattani and DeArbea Walker. Lenfest, the nonprofit owner of PMN, gave PMN a $650,000 grant for the two-year program. (Disclosure: Lenfest also supports Poynter.)

Newsroom diversity is a concept that’s been talked about for decades with little real progress. Yes, we’re downsizing and laying off and there are fewer jobs, the Tampa Bay Times’ Maria Carrillo wrote for Poynter in October.

“But let’s be honest: We’re still hiring, we’re still promoting people, and we’re still doing it the old-fashioned way. Which means that many times, it’s not only what you know but who you know.”

In 2015, BuzzFeed News tried to start changing that with a one-year investigative fellowship aimed at diversifying the pool of investigative journalists. Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, told Poynter in an email that he hasn't cracked the code, but his main view on hiring is "you need everyone in the newsroom bought in on the importance of diversity — not in the sense of a box-checking top-down mandate, but genuinely persuaded — because so little hiring goes through formal recruiting channels, and so much through desk editors and personal networks. And that, conversely, in a diverse newsroom personal networks are one powerful way to perpetuate that."

In 2015, Melissa Segura moved from Sports Illustrated into BuzzFeed's investigative fellowship, which became a full-time position.

She isn’t sure how representative her experience is, but often there’s a sense that newsrooms are taking one for the team or building good karma by hiring people of color, she said.

Segura’s reporting won a Polk Award and was named a Goldsmith finalist, and she hopes those awards and the impact of having seven men exonerated because of her reporting shows that newsrooms aren’t getting talent that can’t fairly compete. What they're getting instead are journalists that enrich their newsrooms and their journalism. 

“It’s a way of accessing talent through alternate channels and reaching into communities who might not have those built-in networks,” she said.

Segura brought with her a different perspective and found stories that had been around for decades but no one had ever covered.

“The ultimate end benefit for newsrooms is being able not only to tap into talent within their own newsroom," she said, "but then that talent taps into stories in those communities that are vital that are not being covered."

I asked Stan Wischnowski, PMN’s executive editor, how the two-year fellows help diversity long-term.

“These six journalists are bringing unique skillsets to our newsroom that will not only broaden our audience reach but, just as importantly, accelerate our digital transformation,” he said via email. “We recruited with the idea that these six have an opportunity to enhance our journalism well beyond the two-year fellowship period.”

Last fall, PMN announced a buyout offer aimed at cutting between 30 and 35 from the newsroom. Since then, and counting the fellows, PMN has hired 22 journalists, Wischnowski said. Of those 14 are journalists of color and 16 are women. PMN plans to hire 10 more journalists in May.

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