A more diverse student newsroom will make your publication stronger. Here’s how to get started.

Looking at your own newsroom’s makeup will help you realize where your coverage is lacking and how you can improve. 

June 17, 2020

The Lead is a weekly newsletter that provides resources and connections for student journalists in both college and high school. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday morning.

Your journalism can’t be complete if your newsroom doesn’t represent the community you’re covering. Recent protests over racial injustice have put the journalism industry’s lack of diversity under a microscope, but it’s not a new issue. In 1979, the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) acknowledged that newspapers needed to do better in representing the populations they serve, and in 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review found that not much progress had been made since then.

Student newsrooms are a pipeline into the industry, but there are unique factors that limit the accessibility of student journalism. Unpaid internships are only realistic for students from privileged backgrounds, and working at a student paper for little to no pay is a considerable hardship for students supporting themselves through college. Past missteps may have harmed relationships with marginalized communities or created grudges against your publication.

Looking inward at your own newsroom’s makeup will help you realize where your coverage is lacking and how you can improve.

Public examples of this introspection are (disappointingly) hard to find in professional journalism, but there are some exceptional student examples: The Daily Northwestern has published a diversity report each year since 2018, based on an internal staff survey. The Minnesota Daily created a Content Diversity Board and spent a year tracking its coverage. Verde Magazine at Palo Alto High School analyzed its sourcing in a 2018 diversity audit.

And for professional newsrooms, ProPublica’s annual report clearly lays out the ways the newsroom is investing in recruiting and retaining journalists from underrepresented communities. The New York Times also publishes an annual report with staff demographics and plans for progress.

Here are some steps you can take to apply these examples to your own publication.

First, have a conversation with editors and staff about the importance of diversity and why you might like to conduct an audit. Set specific goals. Do you want to examine your internal staff diversity, or the sources used in your stories, or the representation in your visual journalism? There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and you should tailor the “diversity report” to the needs of your newsroom.

Next, identify a small group to analyze results and create a report. Limiting the raw data and responses to a small group will help students feel more comfortable submitting personal information. If you have someone with data analysis skills, that will help immensely in pulling trends out of the raw data.

Build a survey for your staff with demographic information and open-ended questions. Consider separating these two parts into separate forms to build in further anonymity. Depending on the size of your staff, examining staff makeup in sections or departments can be revealing. Is your sports staff almost entirely male? Are all of your opinion writers White?

Factors to consider including on a demographic survey:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • First-generation students
  • Financial aid status
  • Residence (in-state, out-of-state, international)
  • Major/department of study

Potential open-ended questions:

  • How could the newsroom’s coverage be more inclusive?
  • How would you describe the newsroom culture?
  • What stories on campus are we missing?

Find your school’s demographic data, which most colleges and universities should have available online. This will help you compare your staff information to your school at large and examine how closely the representation matches, not just in race/ethnicity, but in gender, in-state/out-of-state residence, and other factors. Also consider comparing your staff’s demographics to your city/town/community at large.

Gather outside feedback from student and faculty leaders. Talk with them about what your newsroom can do better and where you’ve gone wrong in the past. Showing a willingness to learn and improve can go a long way toward building future relationships.

Find a concrete, quantitative way to track diversity in your coverage. The Minnesota Daily’s incredibly thorough “coverage tracker” examines sources, visuals, corrections, and keywords across each section’s stories. It’s an excellent template other newsrooms can follow.

After gathering this information, think about how you can improve and communicate those steps to readers. Be honest and reflective. “Our predominantly white, cis, straight, abled staff can hurt our coverage,” The Daily Northwestern wrote. “Across desks, Daily staffers were hesitant to cover communities they did not belong to.”

“The Content Diversity Board was created in recognition that living up to this responsibility will require tough, in-depth conversations about the role of news in the lives of marginalized communities,” The Minnesota Daily wrote. “Our work lies in pushing for institutional improvement and challenging the norms of how news has always been told.”

The first year will be a baseline if you haven’t collected this data before. Encourage future newsroom leaders to continue this practice so they can compare year to year, which will yield more information on changes and improvements.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But taking these steps will make your journalism stronger and more representative of your community. Student newsrooms can be leaders in this area and can push their future employers to be more transparent in releasing information publicly.

Calling guest writers

I’m looking for student contributors to guest write for The Lead! No one knows student journalism better than student journalists, and I want to hear how you’ve solved problems, innovated or tackled complex subjects at your student publication. All students will be paid for their writing, thanks to The Lead’s partnership with The Poynter Institute.

A few things to consider: What has your publication tried that’s new and different (even if it didn’t work as expected)? How has your reporting affected your school or community? What lessons could other student newsrooms learn from your experience?

Much of the work highlighted in The Lead has been from large public universities. I want to continue to broaden the scope, so I’m especially interested in hearing from student journalists at liberal arts colleges, community colleges and high schools.

Send pitches to blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com. No need to send a full draft — I’m looking for a paragraph explaining your idea. (To get an idea of what topics The Lead has covered in the past 71 issues, take a look at the full newsletter archives.)

One tool we love

Worried about communicating securely with a source, or want to ensure sensitive conversations stay private? Try Signal, a free messaging app many investigative journalists swear by because it uses end-to-end encryption for secure communication. Download the app or use it on your desktop — here’s a guide from the Freedom of the Press Foundation to get you started.

What’s your favorite tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.

One story worth reading

Systemic change in newsrooms takes time. What can you do right now to make your journalism more inclusive? Here are five concrete suggestions from journalists of color at The Philadelphia Inquirer, who took a “sick and tired” day two weeks ago after the newspaper published a column with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” Auditing your own sources, learning about the racial history of your beat and broadening your social media news sources are good starting points.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Most recent newsletter: Student journalist resources for covering protests safely and sensitively

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.