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    ONA15: Taking Diversity Seriously

    by Paul Voakes
    October 1, 2015
    Photo by George A. Spiva Center for the Arts on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Think of a talented young person in your field. You can easily see this person, 10 or 15 years from now, as a leader in the field: a highly decorated journalist or perhaps an award-winning teacher or researcher.

    But the path to that achievement is anything but easy, especially if that talented young person comes from a population that is traditionally underrepresented in media or higher education. There may be a gap between the qualifications needed for the hire or promotion, and the qualification that young person now possesses.

    "Not seeing how a non-traditional hire can help a news organization is a failure of imagination." - Latoya Peterson
    DiversityONA

    Tunde Akanni, Imaeyen Ibanga and Sebastian Espino Collazo take a group selfie during a Snapchat workshop on Sept. 25 at ONA15. Diversity for this conference was significantly higher than at previous conferences. Photo by Kate Nash Cunningham.

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    So here’s the challenge to each one of us who is a bit further along the career trajectory: What one or two things can I do to help this person to close that gap?

    And there you have it: The ultimate challenge of the “Diversity 2.0 Workshop” at the Online News Association conference last week. The interactive workshop, subtitled “Getting in Here From Out There,” was designed not just to inspire, but also to elicit specific steps each participant would take soon to confront the excuses for a lack of diversity in journalism.

    As one of a handful of educators in the room, I felt a certain resonance. This isn’t just a newsroom problem.

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    The New Face of ONA

    The workshop was the hands-on complement to one of the biggest stories of ONA15: This was a remarkably diverse conference. After hearing, for example, the discouraging news earlier this year that ethnic minorities represent about 13 percent of newspapers’ newsrooms — yet again after several years at that level – people who believe that diversity is essential to good journalism needed some better news. At ONA15, 36 percent of the presenters were persons of color; 52 percent of the presenters were women, and 8 percent of the speakers were international.

    These numbers matter to ONA because it is best known for its conference. Even five years ago, when I attended my first ONA conference, the culture then seemed very white and very male. What a difference five years makes. The board and the staff, starting with Executive Director Jane McDonnell and Deputy Director Irving Washington, have obviously worked hard to change the conference culture. This year a diverse Student Newsroom and the HBCU Digital Media Fellows covered the conference activities each day. The MJ Bear Fellows and Women’s Leadership Academy led sessions. The CNN Diversity Fellows did one-on-one mentoring; ProPublica and Mashable hosted a Diversity Mentorship Program; and NBC sponsored a diversity reception before the conference-closing banquet and awards ceremony.

    Think: One Way to Help One Person

    But the workshop got down to the work — one person at a time, one step at a time. Co-facilitator LaToya Peterson of Fusion’s Voices said we’re still hearing the excuse that persons of color lack the qualifications that today’s journalism needs. She calls that a “failure of imagination” in not seeing how a non-traditional hire might actually help an organization. She challenged each participant to think of specific ways we could help a young person strengthen the resume in ways that would obviate the “just not qualified” excuse. For editors and managers, that might include pointing that young colleague to specific digital media training opportunities; perhaps pointing that young person to an efficient path to a college degree. Sometimes it means simply helping a young person focus on what that ideal job would be and then on what steps are necessary to get there.

    What would that mean for journalism educators? We didn’t address that specifically in the workshop, but it’s not hard to see implications:

    • make sure the diverse graduate student is getting significant classroom teaching experience, as well as research training, before he or she hits the job market
    • help the diverse graduate student register for tech-training workshops so that he or she can teach cutting-edge media courses as well as conceptual courses
    • scan the horizon for post-doc opportunities that seem welcoming to diverse students

    But how do diverse students get to graduate schools in the first place? If we have diverse undergraduates, or if we know diverse journalists who are adjunct instructors, and who seem well suited to what we do, why not share graduate admissions strategies and perhaps guide them to a GRE prep course?

    Check Your Network

    The workshop issued two other specific challenges: Check your network and check your own work environment. Too often managers make recruiting decisions on the basis of a personal network that is not as diverse as it could be. If there are people in our field whom we admire but who are not yet people we can reach out to personally and informally, why not reach out to them now? Not quite there yet? There are online networks to tap into as well. ONA supplied this list of suggestions:

    And what makes a work environment conducive to diverse applicants and then, more importantly, retention of diverse employees (who then are able to help recruit for more diversity)? One participant observed that some organizations “hire for diversity but reward for conformity.” One way to help young colleagues break through the ceiling, Peterson suggested, is to become a sponsor to a young colleague. A mentor, she explained, is a passive friend at work who will have coffee now and then. A sponsor is a colleague who assumes the role of an active, constant advocate for that younger employee. People who have achieved a great deal professionally.

    Peterson and her co-facilitator, Doug Mitchell of NPR, said this couldn’t be just another feel-good diversity workshop whose message is tucked away by the time everyone gets home. Mitchell asked for four volunteers to declare what they would do specifically to further diversity journalism diversity the following Monday, and he asked for their email addresses — so he could follow up with them Tuesday.

    Also read: ONA15: The Generational Shift Comes to Digital Journalism, by Ryan Thornburg

    Paul Voakes is a professor and chair of the Department of Journalism in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado – Boulder. His research and teaching specializations are in media law and ethics, digital innovations in journalism, news writing, reporting and editing, and math/statistics for journalism.

    Tagged: diversity ethnicity media diversity minorities ona ona15 race workshop

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