August 17, 2017

The Cohort is Poynter’s bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

What a week. It’s a good time to revisit this Cohort about supporting your colleagues of color. Like that edition, this issue draws on the advice of several digital women leaders. Unlike that edition, this issue isn’t about current events. If you need a breather, this will hopefully serve as a safe space and welcome distraction. Take care of yourself, friends.

You’ve got butterflies in your stomach. You barely slept the night before. You checked and rechecked directions, just like you checked and rechecked your outfit in the mirror. Your hands are sweaty as you walk in the door.

We’ve all experienced the first day of a new job — the nerves, the excitement, the uncertainty. If you’re low(er) down in a workplace, the first days and weeks are generally a straightforward mix of orientations to attend, new tasks and systems to learn, new teammates to meet and new meetings to frequent. That’s if you’re lucky. Many times, we’re thrown into jobs with little option but to figure things out on your own.

When you’re entering a leadership role or a position in a less structured organization, the first days, weeks and months can be even less straightforward and far more daunting. If you don’t get specific onboarding instructions, what’s the best approach? How do you make a solid first impression? What pitfalls should you avoid?

Blythe Terrell found herself in this spot last week as she started a new job as an editor at Gimlet Media. She went to a private Facebook group — made up of members of past Leadership Academies for Women in Digital Media and ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator — to ask for help. “I’d love to hear any advice y’all have on transitioning to a leadership role in a new organization (or transitioning to a new job generally),” she wrote. “Things you’re really glad you did in the first few weeks of a new job, for example, or things you wish you’d done.”

The response was fantastic. I asked to share some of the best replies here, because we could all use this thoughtful guidance at some point in our careers.

Meet people

The number one piece of advice was to use the first crucial weeks on a job to meet as many people and soak up as much internal knowledge as possible. “Meet people before your calendar gets filled up with too many meetings. It was really helpful for me,” Dhiya Kuriakose offered. “I found my allies early on because I told people who I was and what I wanted to do.”

Kim Bui suggested setting up one-on-ones thoughtfully and to be present — i.e. make eye contact! — during those meetings. “Be honest about what you want to do and what your job is, she added. “I dislike new people who come in and immediately play politics. It’s about learning, not gleaning points for one side or another.”

Don’t solely meet with higher ups, Bui added. Spending time getting to know assistants, IT technicians and other staff will benefit you down the road when you need to book a conference room or get your laptop fixed. The important stuff.

And Terrell chimed in with advice she received from Jennifer Mizgata. “I’ve been asking people what they’re working on that they’re excited about. It’s a great window into the passions of new colleagues.”

Be humble

A common mistake new leaders can make is pretending like they have all the answers or trying to make changes too quickly.

“Resist the urge right out the gate to prove yourself and be an immediate rockstar,” said Kari Cobham. “Listen a lot. Learn about your team, the people you work with and the company’s culture. Developing those relationships will show you respect and value them, and help you build buy-in and support for new initiatives.”

“Instead of trying to change big things early, I took it slow,” said Meena Thiruvengadam. “I observed, learned, then focused on making incremental changes that wouldn’t feel like big overhauls but would ultimately have a significant impact.”

Take notes

Make the most of your one-on-ones by writing things down. “Keep notes!” urged Rachel Schallom. “If you only have to book a huge training room a few times a year, you’ll want something to refer back to.”

Those notes can also benefit others, added Chao Li. “Many times smaller companies don’t have a super complete onboarding process so I just created my own onboarding process,” she explained. “I wrote all the stuff down that we can do to make the onboarding better. That ended up being my first project while I waited for my engineer to start.”

Read this book

Several of the women leaders recommended “The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter.” “It made me ask the culture questions as I started (no phones or laptops in meetings), have lots of one-on-ones and ask ‘what would you do if you were in my role?’” said Sarah Marshall.

Last but not least, find a trusted online space or group of friends to ask for advice like Terrell did. Binders Full of Digital Journalists and Riot Grrrls of Journalism are two of my favorites. (Sorry dudes, ladies only. But here’s a great list of other hidden journalism groups.) There’s nothing I love much more than badass women in journalism supporting other badass women in journalism.


Tomorrow is the deadline to apply to Poynter and NABJ’s Leadership Academy for Diversity in Digital Media. Do it!

Things worth reading
I am such a fan of the work Julia Carpenter is producing on her new women + work beat at CNN Money. Her article about how to research company culture before accepting a gig was especially great. I can’t stop thinking about this article about job hopping culture and what it’s doing to our workplaces. Mark your calendars: Femsplain is celebrating Internet Self-Care Day on Aug. 21. FFS, Wired.

Meet LaSharah
I was excited to see the announcement that LaSharah Bunting is Knight’s new director of journalism. Bunting, 39, comes from The New York Times, where she worked as a senior editor for digital transition. She’s on top of journalism trends, a champion for diversity and passionate about the news industry. In short, she’s a badass.

Bunting answered a few questions about the transition to her new gig at Knight. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on the new position! What made you want to take this job?

In the last few years, I noticed that Knight Foundation was supporting many of the interesting and impactful journalism projects — everything from the mobile innovation lab at the Guardian U.S. to bots and artificial intelligence at Quartz. I was particularly interested in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative program, which strengthens local journalism through its teaching of digital and cultural transformation. That initiative seemed like the perfect way to help local news organizations grapple with the challenges of driving change; and, given my role at The Times, I was interested in seeing how that played out. And when the director of journalism role opened up, it felt like the perfect fit. Knight Foundation checked off two important boxes for me: it’s an organization with a strong sense of mission and a true commitment to quality journalism. And I wanted to be in a position to help the entire industry. So, after nearly 14 years at The New York Times, this felt like an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

Today’s newsletter addressed how to make the most of the “honeymoon period” at a new job. How are you planning on approaching your first few months at Knight?

Right now, I’m in the listen and observe phase. I’m coming in with deep knowledge of journalism, but there’s still so much to learn about Knight, its Journalism program and the grantees we serve. This will help me as I strategize how to move forward, prioritize and set goals for the coming months.

I’ve been preparing in a few other ways as well. I have an excellent executive coach, LaVonne Dorsey, who has guided me through other professional transitions. I’m also a huge fan of the book, “The First 90 Days,” which I read whenever I’m transitioning into a new role. I also have the great fortune of being in the current class of the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University. That program takes a performance-driven approach to professional challenges and goals, and that will be key as I navigate the early months.

You probably saw your share of new people come into The New York Times during your career there. Did you observe ways that people who were already established helped newcomers settle in?

Yes, many of us would connect with newcomers early and often to help get them up to speed and immerse themselves in the environment. It’s not always easy to make time for those interactions, but even a welcome email or a quick coffee means so much to someone new coming in. And it’s important to be consistent; as time goes on, and as people get more familiar with the organization, they will need that extra support even more. I would make it a point to reach out to some of the women of color who joined The Times to help them get familiar with the culture and introduce them to others in the newsroom.

Between layoffs, burnout and diminishing audience trust, journalists today face a lot of stressors. And yet your career has followed a path focused on digital transformation and the future of journalism. What advice do you have for others in the industry who are feeling uneasy?

It’s important to acknowledge that we’ll never be back in that settled state again, and that’s a good thing. To be successful, you must be willing to be the person in your organization who is open to trying something new. For the readers, make it a priority to become more adept at listening to what’s out there, offering rich storytelling experiences and meeting people where they are. Also, it’s important to invest in yourself by seeking out training and other professional development opportunities. Know what’s going on in the industry, so that the change doesn’t feel so scary. And that might include subscribing to industry newsletters, attending conferences and participating in ONA Local events or other meetups in your area.

What kinds of projects and initiatives are Knight currently supporting? What are you looking to fund?

Knight Foundation is focused on supporting ideas and initiatives that advance journalism excellence, accelerate innovation and preserve First Amendment rights in the digital age. A few recent examples include a grant to the Maynard Institute for diversity training and the Journalism 360 Challenge, which awarded $285,000 to 11 projects that advance the use of virtual reality and other immersive storytelling. Related to advancing journalism excellence, we are also continuing our work to promote greater trust in news and address problems with misinformation. We recently announced the winners of the Knight Prototype Fund on accurate information and are continuing our commitment to trusted, local nonprofit and investigate news organizations through our Newsmatch Initiative, in partnership with Democracy Fund. We have several other projects in the works in the area of trust in news.

In my role, I will be focused on the talent and learning portfolio within the Journalism program, which includes, among other things, our work with Poynter, the Online News Association and universities around the country. I will be exploring issues related to diversity in newsrooms as well.

In terms of the journalism industry, what keeps you up at night?

I’m most concerned about the lack of diversity in the industry, especially among senior leadership in newsrooms. The world is changing, but many newsrooms are not keeping pace. It’s important to build a broad, engaged audience, and that can be difficult to pull off when the newsroom staff doesn’t reflect the community it covers. And, as a result, there are many stories that go uncovered or are covered poorly or without nuance. But many people of color in the industry are working hard to change that. The Ida B. Wells Society, which is focused on increasing the number of reporters and editors of color in investigative journalism, has emerged as a leader in this space. By building the ranks of qualified journalists of color, they are pushing against the timeworn excuse that there aren’t enough qualified diverse candidates.

And what makes you feel optimistic?

I’m always encouraged and motivated by local news organizations (many with much fewer resources) doing amazing work. I’m inspired by newsrooms like the Portland Press Herald in Maine, which earlier this year published a 10-part series on the heroin crisis, and the East Bay Times, which won a Pulitzer this year for its local reporting on the fire that killed 36 at a warehouse party in Oakland. In this moment of significant change, it’s refreshing to see quality journalism prevail. A strong local press can help build strong, informed communities. And that gives me hope.

Enjoy this newsletter? Tell your friends and coworkers.

The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Thanks to Kristen Hare, who has her own A+ newsletter, for her edits and insight.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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