So maybe you’ve noticed – there’s a lot of talk about women in journalism these days in the wake of Jill Abramson’s unplanned exit from the New York Times. Aside from being a woman and a journalist, I haven’t generally felt that I have much expertise to add to this conversation as it has played out. Until today.
In a column on the Washington Post’s new PostEverything site today, Nikki Usher added a new facet to the discussion:
Technology has made it harder for women to survive, and thrive, in journalism. … Sophisticated infographics, interactive storytelling, and data-crunching have become essential to online journalism. It’s part of a critical mission to keep web news profitable. And unlike many other parts of traditional newsrooms, these teams are still hiring. But they’re hiring programmers and techies, most of whom are male. Women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. According to Forbes, that number isn’t growing.
She’s right when she notes that the rising profile of digital skills in newsrooms hasn’t resulted in a growing number of women hired, but it isn’t fair to “blame the techies”, as the column’s deck suggests, for the diminished role for women in newsrooms. On the contrary, technology has largely been the answer to getting more women into newsrooms because it is getting more people with different skill sets than those valued in the past into newsrooms.
The rising importance of digital skills in newsrooms has made it possible for me to work my way up in this industry. If those technology and social media skills weren’t valuable and someone at the top wasn’t pushing for their inclusion in new hires, I wouldn’t have been able to work at any of the great places I’ve been. If “techies” hadn’t been put in charge somewhere along the way, I’d never have gotten the opportunity to grow my skills, never gotten into a leadership role, never in turn been able to hire more women to those sort of roles. Technology was my only leg up. But that’s just me.
Is it a problem that more women aren’t working in the highly prized journogrammer wings of elite newsrooms? Yes, absolutely. But it’s a far bigger problem that more women aren’t moving up the ranks across newsroom teams, a pre-existing culture problem which trickles down to those building these new tech teams.
There are lots of factors we can blame for women’s diminished role in newsroom leadership: Promotion culture focused on longevity over innovation, poor succession planning, closed social networks, legacy experience valued over digital experience, unfair expectations for female candidates, a lack of a farm system for qualified women, lack of flexible work options, fewer networking opportunities, etc.
Why do these things happen? How can we fix these issues? If I had all of the answers off the top of my head, I probably wouldn’t be unemployed.
Digital journalism and the people behind it aren’t what’s holding women back from newsroom leadership roles, but they are likely in the best position to solve that problem from within. These teams are already trying to change their cultures. They have increasing power and are generally recognized as the future of the industry – so what can we do to help them?
A few weeks back, I was tapped to stand in for my boss, Robyn Tomlin, in giving a leadership talk to college journalists in NYC. Not really knowing much about “talking about leadership”, the best I could offer at the time were lessons from my own career. Let’s face it, I’m no Robyn Tomlin.
Right before I was to give this talk, I heard the first inklings that my job – and the jobs of my staff – were in doubt. This worry hanging over my head undoubtedly influenced the advice I gave that day. At the time, I honestly sort of thought I was BSing a bit. Over the past couple of weeks, since the news of Thunderdome’s demise became public, I’ve found these off-the-cuff lessons to be truer than I had imagined:
You don’t need to have a plan mapped out to make a great career.
All our best laid plans often can’t stand up to the realities of the business. Everyone who joined Thunderdome had their reasons – and for many (myself included), that reason was a dedicated to the mission of making local news sustainable. We had plans – and none of them included an early shutdown. Now, they’re all rolling with the punches, sticking together and aggressively going after what they want to do next.
Take risks, because they are worth it even when they don’t work out.
Twice now I’ve taken risks – with my career and that of my spouse – to move to a new city to pursue a job that sounded awesome. Neither worked out, but I wouldn’t take either decision back. These risks changed my life and have given rewards beyond increments of time on my resume. I think most of my coworkers would agree – we are all far better for this experience.
Lead from where you are, no management title required.
The Thunderdome staff has never been short of leaders at every level – be it on projects, new products or in the newsroom. These past 10 days, I’ve seen so many people inside Thunderdome step up and be leaders in the midst of all the insanity. I’ve seen them take control not only of their own careers, but also helping support, guide and push their colleagues onto new paths. I couldn’t be prouder of how they’ve rallied together and kept high spirits in the face of a lot of public pain.
Relationships matter, so give all you can, all the time.
I can’t begin to describe how comforting it was to experience the outpouring of support for the Thunderdome staff in the hours and days following the news of our layoffs. Our web of former coworkers, friends, ONA buddies and journalists-we-know-from-Twitter was there to catch us when we fell. I’m still working on answering every email, tweet, Facebook message, text and phone call that offering support, drinking money, connections and job leads that made their way to me and my staff.
These networks don’t just materialize in times of trouble – creating relationships that matter lies in the little details of how we conduct our personal and professional lives when we aren’t in need. It’s filling in for people at the last second for professional obligations, Skyping with that class, helping with that project, listening to that bad-day rant, inviting that person to sit at your table – and following up, always following up. Being nice matters. Giving of yourself and your time matters. When it is your time to be in need, it all comes back around.
All in all, I don’t really know if I told those kids much about leadership, but I hope they took these few pieces of advice to heart. Thanks, everyone, for all you’ve done for us.
Here are my (absolutely horribly designed) slides from that leadership talk. It doesn’t make as much sense without the notes, but you can see those on the slide files if you are so inclined.
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