Looking to add diverse voices? Here’s how a newsroom takeover could help

Plus getting up to speed on reparations and the history of separate news and opinion sections

June 28, 2020

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Last week, Chalkbeat hosted a student takeover. The education watchdog journalists dedicated a portion of their site to student writing (along with some artwork and poetry), soliciting pieces by using their vast reporting network.

Might I humbly suggest something similar for your college media organization?

As fall 2020 looms, our journalism education community feels an urgency not just to add diverse voices to our news streams but also truly listen to those who’ve been marginalized by a largely White, mainstream press.

What better way to provide ourselves and our audiences unfettered insight than by breaking down the gates we keep and handing off our publication?

I’m not advocating a total abandonment of our journalistic principles, especially as they pertain to law and accuracy. And I’m certainly not suggesting that a takeover is an answer for the lack of diversity that tarnishes American newsrooms. You should still be working hard to find ways to recruit and retain Black, brown and other diverse students.

But those who have influence over a publication, whether it’s a college newspaper, a university website or even a mainstream publication, should consider making it easier to highlight the challenges and realities of marginalized people.

I talked to Kary Perez, Chalkbeat’s senior marketing manager and a driving force behind the effort. She said serious deadlines, a structured prompt and empowering their staff to recruit writers were the keys to their effort.

“That we can amplify student voices by using these platforms felt authentic to our mission,” she said.

So how can your newsroom do something similar?

  • Decide who needs your platform right now. America’s current racial reckoning might mean it’s the perfect time to start a discussion with Black students about a takeover (consider outreach to Black student groups like the NAACP, Afro-Am or even a local campus chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists).
  • What about DACA, international and trans students, all of whom are in the news right now?
  • Maybe the takeover shouldn’t be limited to students. Consider people near campus experiencing homelessness, or campus workers like adjuncts or contract laborers who perhaps need better working conditions or pay.
  • Start a conversation with stakeholders in that group. Would they be interested in writing opinion columns? Hosting a series of podcasts? Doing solo documentaries about themselves? Some combination of all that? Look at all the opportunities within your platforms and offer them to others.
  • Envision what you want the end product to look like, then work backward.
  • Look out for other examples for inspiration, like the recent  #ShareTheMic campaign (though I encourage you to think beyond a simple social media takeover).

Here’s my other unsolicited advice:

  • As per Perez, set deadlines and stick to them.
  • Announce and publicize the effort wisely, empowering everyone on staff to help spread the word. Hint: Your usual channels won’t be enough. You’ll need to really consider the stakeholders and engage in personal outreach.
  • Give your contributors specific guidelines about what you’re looking for. Offer them advice, for example, on what makes a good opinion column. Don’t tell them what to write, but offer suggestions on how to write. (An engaging lead, show don’t tell, etc.)
  • Set a minimum number of contributions. If you don’t reach it, redouble your efforts to get people involved.
  • Edit with an eye toward grammar, AP style and avoiding defamation. Be careful not to trod on voice or intent. If you find yourself thinking, “This isn’t how I would write this,” that means you’re doing it right.
  • Clearly label the content. Make it easy for people to engage and respond. Consider hashtags. Make sure you pass positive feedback along to the participants.

Here’s how I know this works: Years ago, I was what we called a teen editor for a youth section. I assembled a citywide group of high school students who took over the features section of the Tulsa World each week. I gave the students some basic journalistic training and edited them for grammar (and you know, libel) but I got out of their way and let them report on the issues important to them. I wasn’t alone — there were teen sections scattered all over the country. The idea was multi-faceted (attract teen readers! Replace dwindling high school newspapers!) but it taught everyone involved that giving up some of our control actually led to better insight and information about this segment of the city’s population.

Chalkbeat’s takeover reminded me of the significant voices that can be heard when you remove that gatekeeping yoke.

In my opinion …

Here’s some helpful background from The Conversation on the evolution of the historical separation of news and editorial pages: Journalists believe news and opinion are separate, but readers can’t tell the difference. It doesn’t offer fixes for the problem, but does spell out that readers don’t differentiate — an important reminder for students as the lines between journalism and punditry continue to blur.

What we can do right now

I loved this column from Poynter intern Aiyana Ishmael about how important mentoring is as we continue to attempt to diversify America’s newsroom. “I think back to the monumental moments in my budding journalism career, where someone took extra time out of their day to help me,” she writes.

ICYMI

There was a lot of conversation this week around the idea of objectivity — the word, its varied meanings and many implications. Wesley Lowery, formerly of The Washington Post and now working with CBS, wrote the first-person A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists. Then Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute and author (along with Bill Kovach) of the classic “The Elements of Journalism,” offered an informative Twitter thread about the history of the word and its application. Journalism Twitter naturally had lots to say, which leads me to believe there’s room in your fall syllabus for conversations around “objectivity” as student journalists start to solidify their identities.

Discussion questions:

  • What does objectivity mean to you?
  • Do you think journalists should be objective? Why or why not?
  • Do you think journalism organizations should be objective?
  • What is the difference between personal objectivity and institutional objectivity?
  • Finish this sentence and explain: “When doing journalism, I try to be _____.”

One last thought

You’re going to start hearing more about reparations. It’s going to be a divisive topic and I recommend reading up on it so that when it’s time for your students to report on it, you’re well-versed on its history if you aren’t right now.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations from the Atlantic in 2014 is considered the seminal piece on this topic. (The Atlantic also offered a pseudo-companion piece, The Impossibility of Reparations, that same year.) This week’s What is Owed by 1619 Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones makes another incredibly powerful argument. And a simple Google search will show you just how much talk there is of reparations in the news and among policymakers.

Note: I usually write the bulk of this newsletter on Fridays, after collecting thoughts and links all week. Poynter will be closed on Friday, July 3, in celebration of Independence Day, so I’ll be back in your inboxes on Sunday, July 12. Please let me hear from you in the meantime about what you need help with as fall approaches. We are all in this together.

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_

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