Rewarding, affirming, recharging: Why you should invest time in a women’s digital media leadership academy

It’s an easy, cliché thing to say, but it’s true: Without Poynter-ONA women’s leadership academy, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This is true in small ways, like that I’m writing this newsletter right now, and in big ways, like the job I have, the salary I negotiated and a sense of clarity about what I want.

The first time I applied, to the very first class in 2015, I wasn’t accepted. When the list of women who were accepted was published, I thought, “Of course I wasn’t accepted. Look at this list of amazing women!” These were the women who I thought would be leading the seminars, not participating in them. These were the women who I admired, looked up to and stalked on Twitter. It was hard for me to imagine that they also were seeking out guidance.

I applied again and was accepted in 2016. I didn’t really know what to expect, but every cheesy, stereotypical thing typical of leadership workshops truly worked that week. I still regularly think about my personality test results and how that affects how people might perceive me. I lean on the tips about managing different types of people; I’m far more apt to scan the room and make sure the introvert isn’t being left out of the conversation. There are a million small takeaways that have made me into a better journalist, a better leader and a better friend.

Every woman who has been through these programs will tell you that the people are the best part. These women were not only my biggest cheerleaders when I was laid off, but even those I didn’t know very well were connecting me with hiring managers, editing my résumé and setting me up for interviews. This group, lovingly called The Cohort and led by some incredible women, has birthed some of the coolest projects in our industry, like this newsletter and the free coaching initiative for women in journalism.

Omnia Shawkat (left) reacts as Antionette Isama looks on. Both were part of Poynter’s 2018 academy.

And our Cohort is growing. In 2015 and 2016, Poynter and ONA partnered to produce the academies, where each class had 28 women. Hundreds of women applied for each program, and starting in 2017, the organizations split to produce their own academies to provide opportunities for more women. Applications are now available for the 2019 classes of Poynter’s Leadership Academies for Women in Digital Media and ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator.

Both are due Nov. 30. Poynter is offering some tuition scholarships and travel support — thanks to funding from Knight Foundation — for journalists in local news, nonprofits and startups, as well as for women of color. ONA’s training is tuition-free, but participants cover their own travel and accommodation costs. Registration, travel and lodging to ONA’s yearly conference is also included. All are encouraged to apply.

Alumnae of the programs are invited into a private Facebook group and Slack channel, where the advice and inspiration is never ending. We abide by a cone of silence rule, meaning everything is off the record, creating a safe space for women to be real about what they are dealing with. My weeklong workshop was more than two years ago, but I connect with these women almost every day.

The women in the Cohort are the future of our industry. Some have big titles at big organizations. Some don’t have any direct reports. Some are solving the tough problems in local media. Some work in platforms and partnerships. Some have decades of experience. Some are just starting out. The academies have succeeded in fostering an environment where everyone is equal, everyone has their strengths and expertise, and everyone is eager to learn from each other.

If you are a female or non-binary journalist thinking about applying, do it. If you’re not, forward this to someone who should. And feel free to apply for both programs. The organizations work together to slate women in the most applicable class.

But don’t just take it from me. I asked alumnae of the programs to answer some of the most common questions we get about the programs. And if you’re still unsure after reading, email me. The gender inequality in the journalism industry is too big of a problem for you to count yourself out.

Is it worth it?

Think of it as self-care for your career. You probably spend dozens of hours each week focused on your work, so don’t you owe it to yourself to spend a week focused on how you work — as a leader, manager and journalist? The academy was like an energy boost to my professional system, and I have been enjoying the benefits ever since.

— Shira T. Center, politics editor for the Boston Globe, attended in 2017

More than two years after I participated in the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, I am still benefiting tremendously from that powerful week connecting with and learning from so many other brilliant women. Not only was the training itself rich, filled with activities and seminars that touch different aspects of your job, but the Facebook and Slack groups and in-person meet ups truly make it the gift that keeps on giving. If spending a few hours writing the application is the investment, then I can say the week at the academy and the lifetime relationships you’ll have with your cohort following it is just about the biggest ROI you can imagine.

— Tamerra Griffin, East Africa correspondent for BuzzFeed News, attended in 2016

What was your favorite part?

I truly enjoyed and benefited from the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. Like a lot of you, I’ve done a lot of these types of assessments in the past, with varying degrees of usefulness. But this felt different: more personal, more tailored to my personal and professional goals, and immediately actionable. I made a few small but crucial changes to the way I plan my workday based on what I learned from my assessment, and it made a big, positive difference.

— Tasneem Raja, executive editor for The Tyler Loop, attended in 2018

I attribute so much positive change to that fateful week in 2017. My favorite part about being a part of the Cohort is how I’ve been able to carry the experience I had with me as I journey ahead in my career. The women I met now make up the advisory board that lives in my pocket — literally, because they’re just a text away. While the skills you gain in the program are essential, it’s these relationships, and the brilliant brains that come along with them, that make the leadership academies so transformative.

— Julia B. Chan, director of audience for Mother Jones, attended in 2017

 

How do I know if I’m qualified?

This is a trick question! In my opinion, if you’re a woman who’s passionate about digital journalism, and have a challenge keeping you from your full potential, you’re qualified for ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator. Even after getting accepted into the program this February, I was quite anxious about meeting the rest of the group because I’m not a manager. I quickly learned this program is actually about building community, self-esteem and problem-solving skills that are applicable in a variety of situations. So go ahead and apply — I promise, it’s worth it.

— Neeti Upadhye, video journalist for The New York Times, attended in 2018

 

What’s the difference between the two programs?

Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media is a transformative experience that offers hands-on sessions, feedback from bosses and peers, one-on-one mentoring, and powerful off-the-record discussions. Participants end the weeklong program by presenting their personal development plans, which creates a springboard for future career steps (and sometimes goes viral). We’re hosting three academies in 2019, each available to 30 women. While the academies all include the same core leadership training — sessions on negotiation, handling difficult conversations, managing change, and ethics — each cohort is unique, thanks to new instructors, tailored presentations and a diverse mix of participants. The academy is located at The Poynter Institute in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, and features local activities like shuffleboard, mural tours and plenty of opportunities for group selfies.

— Katie Hawkins-Gaar, the lead at the Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and the founder of this newsletter

ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator is a year-long, intensive program that supercharges the leadership and management skills of women pushing innovation in digital media, including freelancers, entrepreneurs and independent journalists. Participants focus on a challenge specific to their careers, whether an obstacle to overcome or an aspirational goal to achieve, and learn leadership skills and tools for navigating change. The tuition-free Accelerator kicks off in February with an intensive week in Los Angeles featuring mentoring, discussion and learning from some of the top minds in digital media. The program provides support and coaching to participants throughout the year and culminates with a workshop at ONA’s annual conference (ONA19) in September in New Orleans; women in the Accelerator receive an all-expenses paid trip to ONA19 and complimentary registration to attend the full conference.

— Jennifer Mizgata, director of programs for ONA, running the Women’s Leadership Accelerator

How do I convince my organization to cover the costs? (The programs have varying fees, but even if the instruction is free, there may be some travel or meals expenses.)

I hope you don’t have to convince your boss to do this. Most employers do have discretionary funds to help with employee growth. Talk to your employer honestly about what you’re trying to get. If they want to grow you, they will find a way to cover it.

— Meghann Farnsworth, director of social media for WIRED, attended in 2015

Links Worth Clicking

Do Your Homework

Apply to the leadership academies or encourage someone you love to (preferably five someones). They may need a push. Give the pep talk. Edit the application. Watch them click the apply button. And if they don’t get in, encourage them to try again next year.

Focus On The Work

When Jessica Weiss was laid off, she thought a lot about what was next.

“I’ve always been attracted to content that feels deep, thoughtful and boundary breaking,” she said. “And I really wanted to produce something specifically for women — something that would feel useful, entertaining and fresh, and that could create a sense of connection in divisive times.”

She teamed up with a friend who is a health coach, and together they learned how to launch and produce a podcast. The result is The Flow Down, a biweekly podcast that’s all about periods: the shame, products, activism, food, PMS, self-care and more. Their first guest on the show was Kiran Gandhi, the former MIA drummer who went viral when she chose to “free bleed” the London Marathon.

“I am truly proud to be producing content that breaks stigma and is directed at women, and that touches on such a universal experience that we don’t talk nearly enough about,” Weiss said.

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