By Gaby Martinez-Stevenson
News Outlet A is a nonprofit news organization based in the Northeast. They have four leadership team members and 17 staff members. Seventy-one percent of their news outlet identifies as white, and 52% are women.
This case study was developed using the following: (1) information from INN’s 2023 Index data, (2) a DEI organizational assessment survey — given to the organization after it was selected as a case study — that used theory and scales from Washington Race Equity & Justice Initiative’s (REJI) Organizational Assessment as well as resources from Race Forward and (3) focus groups with leadership and staff.
The INN 2023 Index data was used to select the news outlets for these case studies as well as the focus group questions.
The DEI organizational assessment was sent to all staff and leadership at the news outlet. This survey was completed after the focus group. The survey focused on the different ways DEI values shape day-to-day operations and assessed the impact of those policies.
We held two focus groups in May 2023, one for leadership and the second for staff. Each focus group lasted around 1.5 hours. One hundred percent of leadership and 94% of staff members participated in the focus groups. The DEI organizational assessment survey had a 62% response rate.
These case studies were developed as a means to understand how news outlets navigate and use diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) values within their organization. The goal is to move beyond survey data to establish a baseline understanding — through lessons learned — of a more intentional approach to DEI.
The following summarizes News Outlet A’s experience with DEI, specifically in relation to internal and external community building and recruitment.
DEI work often starts with defining what the acronym means for the organization. Both leadership and staff at News Outlet A generally agreed that the concept of diversity was easier to work toward; whereas, equity and inclusion are goals that the industry as a whole struggles with achieving.
It’s about really … trying to understand and embrace and operationalize perspectives other than my own, that have been suppressed, both consciously by individuals and either consciously or less consciously by systems and trying to be intentional about … achieving equitable opportunity and … authentic belonging for everybody.Leadership Team Member
This observation, which was acknowledged across the organization, reflects current DEI research that there is a need to move beyond diversity and focus on the more structural goals reflected in equity and inclusion initiatives. This means, in part, setting DEI goals and then benchmarking those goals while gathering input about these metrics across the organization. Others echoed this sentiment throughout the focus group and noted the need to codify policies so that everyone has the same understanding of the news outlet’s approach to DEI. This was also articulated in the open-ended responses to the DEI assessment survey where 54% of the respondents indicated they would like to see more actionable items tied to explicit guidelines and DEI policies.
For News Outlet A, developing DEI policies and metrics is still a work in progress. The organization found that it needed to hire a consultant to develop DEI policies and strategies to ensure that staff and leadership followed through. They believe that if staff have a say in internal policies, they will be more likely to follow them. Thus, to increase transparency and give more power to their staff, the leadership team is in the process of creating a DEI committee that would discuss measurable goals.
While more than half of respondents say there is still a need to tie their DEI work to more tangible goals, 92% believe News Outlet A is committed to DEI (See Fig A) and 83% believe that leadership participates in and supports conversations about DEI internally, which was further reflected in the staff focus group.
Strategic Considerations: Developing a DEI System
🢂 Create a DEI policy and make sharing and discussing this policy a part of your office culture.
🢂 Tie DEI goals/policies to measurable metrics, including internal staff and external audience goals and inclusive guidelines for reporting. Discuss these metrics across your organization.
Across both leadership and staff, News Outlet A shared examples of initial successes for various DEI practices, including internal and external community building and recruitment.
In 2020, News Outlet A established an internal mentorship system, which was developed by leadership after conversations with staff. Those conversations surfaced a need to diversify the leadership and editing team — which became a priority and a goal that was met — so that it reflected the diversity of the staff. To ensure the mentorship program succeeded, News Outlet A did not approach it as a top-down initiative but rather created a more informal process that emphasized the individual needs of each journalist.
The mentorship program evolved over time:
According to a leadership team member, each staff member is assigned a mentor. This process is informal and happens within a few weeks of employment. To date, no one has declined to be a mentor; however, News Outlet A allows each mentor to structure their time with their mentee in the way that works best for them. This also allows mentees to match with mentors that reflect their working style, which facilitates more organic relationships and helps establish trust across the organization.
Everyone is very open to hearing stories and what you’re working on. … Most of the staffers, especially the younger members, are very open, if you need anything. … [They’ll say], ‘Hey, did you hear this story idea? Do you want to talk through it?’ And I think that helps develop that trust, because I’ve worked in other news outlets where the younger staff members are like the children in the news outlet and no one is working through those ideas. I think that helps develop trust when you see your co-workers … believe in your work, and they’re encouraging you as well.Staff Team Member
Studies have shown the importance of mentorship and the positive impact that it has on an employee’s career.* Most staff members at News Outlet A shared positive experiences with tangible results as a result of the mentorship program.
A staff member also noted the powerful effects of having an assigned mentor with dedicated time. “They already have someone kind of built in that they can turn to and they don’t have to be wondering if this person is going to have time for me,” this staff member added.
Strategic Considerations: Internal Community Building
🢂 Create mentorship opportunities for your staff and leadership. These can be internal or external mentors, depending on the goals.
🢂 Focus on internal trust strategies, which include transparency, support networks and communication.
In addition to the importance of internal community building, News Outlet A also emphasized the need to simultaneously build trust with their external communities.
Only 31% of survey respondents believe that their news outlet reflects their intended audience in terms of racial and ethnic composition. Yet, the majority of respondents (62%) state that their organization is currently working on ensuring that their audience is reflective of the communities they serve (see Fig B) and is implementing various strategies to diversify the audience. These strategies include: diversifying news outlet staff, thinking more broadly about social media (i.e. experimenting with different platforms), working with community leaders, holding community town halls, implementing community surveys, developing targeted newsletters and tracking sources.
An important initiative identified by leadership was the development of a source tracker. However, in their initial implementation of this new tool they realized that they were developing the database without a real company-wide understanding as to why they were doing this. Once leadership identified this issue, rather than abandon the project, they regrouped and determined that they needed to expand their leadership team and hire someone that had more expertise with DEI goals and initiatives. A leadership team member noted, “We do actually have someone now leading an effort to kick us into gear and get us to continue filling that out, which I need to do. So that it can be analyzed, so that it can be presented to the board and so that we will be holding ourselves accountable for this data.”
This example highlights not only the importance of developing strategies for community building but also emphasizes the need to establish clear goals around new initiatives. While developing the source tracker was a good first step, without a clear policy or understanding of how the data will be used, staff may not prioritize the work.
Listening Sessions with the Community
News Outlet A overwhelmingly acknowledged the need to build trust with its audience and that one of the ways to build trust is to listen to the communities they serve. Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents were not sure whether or not they thought that their news outlet reflected the audience it intended to serve, however 62% of respondents also believed that their newsroom was currently working to ensure that their news outlet is reflective of the community it serves. A leadership team member noted, “I think external trust in particular in communities of color or from low income backgrounds, when we go out and have these … community conversations or listening sessions … [we make sure] something that was mentioned inside of the listening session is translated back into the reporting to some degree.” For example, the organization had a conversation with a focus group at a Black church in their community, which helped illustrate that issues like water safety were a priority for them.
In another example, a staff member described efforts to get information to children that may have experienced eviction. This staffer worked with an artist to create an educational coloring book that explains the eviction process and shares stories from children in the community. News Outlet A has plans to partner with a local library to distribute the information.
I think it is the respect in the reporting that we put out. … It is listening to what the communities are telling us and showing that we’re listening by producing content that says that we’re listening, that reflects the conversations that we have been having.Staff Team Member
Strategic Considerations: External Community Building
🢂 Ensure that you are building internal trust through joining existing conversations and spaces in your community.
🢂 Tie activities to measurable outcomes. Think about the community impact and the reach you want your stories to have. Develop metrics that will allow your news outlet to determine if your current activities are helping you reach your goals.
🢂 Routinely devote team meeting time to discuss your metrics and whether goals are being reached. This will allow you to quickly identify and pivot from strategies that are not working.
🢂 Ensure that your news stories are reflective of community voices.
News Outlet A set very explicit goals around recruiting, and it was reflected in their staff. A staff member noted, “This is one of the most diverse news outlets I’ve ever been in —and not only in terms of ethnicity. … The good thing that I’ve seen in the time that I’ve been here … [is that] they’re actually trying to make a difference and look at the representation within the content and the sourcing … which not a lot of news outlets do.” Leadership explained that on the staff side, they had historically been relatively diverse; however, they realized that they needed that diversity to also be reflected in their leadership team. With that intentionality, they expanded the leadership team to align with their DEI goals. One leadership team member noted that these efforts started prior to the pandemic, but the organization struggled to diversify the leadership team at first.
In an effort to fix this, a leadership team member devoted their time to developing their network and building trust within the journalist community. This type of work included visiting job fairs, college campuses, and developing relationships with professional associations — all initiatives that take time to show results. The outlet is also developing policies aimed at helping retention. This includes 401K matches, half-day Fridays, mental health days, salary equity and other measures.
Other staff members noted that recruitment with diversity as a goal seemed to be helping with diversifying the types of news stories the outlet has been publishing because often journalists from different backgrounds are the ones that provide fresh insight for how to approach stories. There also needs to be space for diversity of opinion within the newsroom. A leadership team member reflected, “It’s been a real journey for us as an organization. … It’s brought a diversity of voices and opinions into the workplace that have helped us to think differently about work and to talk differently about these issues and engage in conversations that we might not have engaged in before.”
Despite achieving some recruiting success, News Outlet A acknowledged that it will continue to be challenging. It’s “just a continual work in progress that has to happen all the time … versus this is something that I’m going to fix, and I’m going to fix it once and for all, and then we’re done and I get to move on,” said one leadership team member
Despite achieving some success in various areas of diversity, the overall consensus among both leadership and staff was that there was still work to be done. This does not diminish the accomplishments of News Outlet A, but rather reinforces the need to continuously evaluate internal structures, reflect on progress and grow from mistakes — while remembering to celebrate the small wins along the way. Across the organization, it was noted that News Outlet A is willing to take risks and explore different initiatives.
While their source tracker has been an achievement, it also provided a learning opportunity (as noted above) and resulted in realizing there is a need to tie metrics and benchmarks to the database. Another lesson was the need to streamline the work involved in updating the source tracker since staff often felt that it was a big lift, especially in conjunction with the other initiatives that were being piloted. News Outlet A is still working through both of these challenges, and leadership has started to engage in one-on-one discussions with staff members to learn what the impediments have been.
Another person noted that a few DEI initiatives didn’t work at first but rather than abandon them (for example, the source tracker), the organization reflected and realized that the wrong person was leading them, so they re-assessed how to approach these strategies and are continuing to move forward. News Outlet A also launched a Community Editorial Board, which led to valuable engagement with community organizations. But, News Outlet A found that it also needed to develop strategies for sustained engagement. Therefore, in the second year of the project, the news outlet has been relying on the expertise of their team to guide the work of making the Community Editorial Board more sustainable. As one leadership team member stated, “There were kind of two objectives to the community editorial board. One … is to engage more voices and strengthen the quality of our opinion section. The second was really for the community editorial board to be the eyes and the ears of the news outlet to communities. And I don’t think we did that.”
Throughout the conversations with leadership and staff, it was clear that there was trust amongst both groups and that has allowed them to experiment, despite feeling at times that the organization tends to default to traditional strategies. There is an understanding that progress is not linear and failure is part of process. A news outlet leader explained, “I would also describe it as willing to engage in some trial and error to sort of see what sticks, and not in a haphazard way, but in a let’s try the thing that has some proven success in other places and apply [it] here to see if we can replicate that success.”
Both leadership and staff expressed the need for transparency. One leadership team member described their approach as radical transparency: “Transparency would be the things that are ‘need-to-know. … But radical transparency is a pre-emptive. … [It] may impact you or may not impact you, but here is information that would be helpful to know.” The realization that their approach to transparency needs to expand reflects the findings from the survey, which suggests that in general there are different understandings of the internal strategies and operations related to DEI at News Outlet A. This reinforces the need to center DEI values in business operations to ensure that everyone from the top executives to the newest junior staff member has the same understanding of your organization’s initiatives and goals.
Strategic Considerations: Reflect on Lessons Learned
🢂 Don’t be afraid of failure. View missteps as opportunities for growth and understanding.
🢂 Ensure that policies are standardized and understood across your organization even if your office is a supportive, safe space — this is especially important as your organization grows.
🢂 Don’t try to do everything at once. Because News Outlet A tried multiple strategies at once — tracking sources, community outreach, implementing new hiring practices — it didn’t surprise some members of leadership that some of their initiatives stalled. It can be hard to tackle multiple changes all at the same time.
* The more you can get the better: mentoring constellations and intrinsic career successI J Hetty van Emmerik.Career Development International; Bradford Vol. 9, Iss. 6/7, (2004): 578-594. DOI:10.1108/13620430410559160Back to top