May 2, 2016

If there is a more revered and beloved online authority than Sree Sreenivasan, I do not know who it would be. He is the former Columbia University chief digital officer and now is chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That’s why, when he posted this Facebook post a week ago, I sat up and noticed. He launched a one-man “mini-movement” against a hot-button topic in journalism circles; all-male panels at conferences. Sreenivasan says he is done with them and wants you to be done with them, too.

Sreenivasan told me that this whole issue has been bugging him for a long time and he decided to take a stand.

“I have been saying no all-male panels for me and talked myself out of several appearances as a result,” he told Poynter. “I have decided the only way to do something is to call out the organizers who put these on. I call them out privately, but I am trying to make a point.”

This week, the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media is meeting at Poynter. Organizer and Poynter faculty member Katie Hawkins-Gaar said, “we hear it a lot from this group, women are not represented on conference panels and worse, sometimes are asked to moderate an all-male panel to give the appearance of diversity without really accomplishing it.”

Jane McDonnell, the executive director of the Online News Association, said five or six years ago ONA started making a focused effort to include more diverse voices on panels and “it was like a domino effect. One great speaker led us to another that we didn’t know about.”

Trevor Knoblich, ONA’s digital director, said when ONA began putting more emphasis on attracting women speakers and presenters, it also started mining new topics that women cared about deeply.

“Last year we included a session about the online harassment that women who work in social media face as a daily part of doing their job.” Knoblich added, “that is the kind of conversation we would not have dreamed of if we had not had lots of women in our events.”

“Journalists are not shy,” McDonnell said.  When members of minority journalist organizations came to ONA conferences, ONA began to hear from them. “They told me they didn’t see people like them in the room. That hurts to hear. But instead of trying the usual things, which is let’s just find people who are in our immediate network, we opened it up to finding people who were very much outside our network. We needed to pay more attention to that. And we have.”

McDonnell said ONA started to hit its stride in connecting with women when the group began reaching out of the usual network of contacts. Sreenivasan urges event planners and convention organizers to go onto Facebook and ask for help. He organized a Facebook group he calls “Sree’s Advanced Social Media Course” that includes highly placed online and social media journalists around the globe. Another group called “Diverse Social Media Editors and Digital Journalists”  was started in 2014 by NBC social media editor Sarah Glover (who is the current President of the National Association of Black Journalists) as a way to identify and support talented digital journalists and social media editors of color.

Sreenivasan says he won’t participate on a male-only panel and he is also boycotting any all-male panels. He stresses that he is not interested in having women as place-holders or to meet a quota. He is pushing journalists to do what journalists are supposed to do, work sources and find a wide range of views from qualified great presenters. And don’t just ask people of color to speak about diversity issues or women to speak on panels focused on issues women face, he said.

“Don’t stop by just inviting one woman,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a token.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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