By Gaby Martinez-Stevenson
News Outlet C is a single-issue, nonprofit news organization covering communities across the United States. They have seven leadership team members and 18 staff members. Sixty-four percent of the news outlet identifies as white, and 44% 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 and June 2023, one for leadership and the second for news outlet staff. Each focus group lasted about 1.5 hours. The entire leadership team and 61% of staff members participated in the focus groups. The organizational assessment survey had a 64% 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 establishing a baseline of understanding — through lessons learned — around a more intentional approach to DEI.
The following summarizes News Outlet C’s experience with DEI, specifically in relation to the lessons learned around their DEI approach.
One of the purposes of these case studies is to understand how different organizations define diversity, equity and inclusion. According to a leadership team member, since they are a “journalistic organization, there’s a level of [DEI] that’s not just about our internal culture and processes, but about how we do our work” — an understanding they believe is amplified by the sensitive nature of the topic on which their organization focuses. Another leadership team member added that a key component to DEI work within their organization was recognizing the value of a diverse workforce, noting that part of that value is derived from the individuals on staff having agency in their work.
A staff member added that within a news outlet there is an additional layer added to DEI work. Specifically, this person noted DEI “means all of the normal workplace [issues] — things like making sure that everyone has opportunities and is included, but it is also a piece of how we interact with our audience.” That means the impact of DEI policies are felt both internally and externally. For example, a staff member noted an important part of their work is discussing the societal implications of a story and recognizing that their journalism can have political and social impact on the audience.
Across both leadership and staff, News Outlet C offered examples of initial successes for various DEI practices, including engaging more intentionally with DEI work with the help of consultants, engaging in internal conversation around best practices and metrics, and increasing the diversity of their staff. However, despite the progress News Outlet C has made in growing the understanding and application of DEI values, there was acknowledgement that there was still room for learning. Specifically, News Outlet C shared their experiences and lessons learned around hiring DEI consultants, hiring and retention practices, and building internal trust.
When building DEI practices and policies, it is often beneficial to hire outside consultants and evaluators to help with the work. Equity work requires expertise that often falls beyond the capabilities of newsroom leaders and staff. Perception plays a role, too: a significant minority of respondents to the organizational assessment survey expressed doubts that leadership was equipped to participate in internal and external conversations around race.
These challenges are also what led News Outlet C to seek out external consultants to help transform the outlet’s organizational structure. This work included an in-person retreat and a pay equity review —an issue that was brought to leadership’s attention by the consultants and prompted changes like ensuring that current and future staff receive equitable pay based on pre-established metrics. These efforts, among others, are ongoing. DEI work is complex and takes time to develop; hiring external consultants signals that this work is being taken seriously.
Not All DEI Experts Will Be A Good Fit For Your Organization
News Outlet C also highlighted that not every DEI consulting firm fulfills the needs of an organization, and despite the good intentions behind this work, if it is not a good fit, the partnership will not create lasting change. For example, in 2022, News Outlet C hired a DEI consultant that led workshops over zoom. A staff member noted that this workshop felt like they were “just getting lectured with a powerpoint” and it was more of a “lists of do’s and don’ts.” According to staff, the lack of interactivity of this approach did not really teach them how to engage with DEI work, foster an inclusive environment or build community.
In response to feedback, rather than host a virtual DEI training, News Outlet C hosted in 2023 a company retreat in which they were able to more intently engage in the work. One staff member noted that through one of the exercises they were surprised to learn how much in common they had with a co-worker they previously didn’t think they could relate to and that experience gave them the opportunity to learn from their colleagues in ways that they hadn’t before. However, despite the success of this retreat, staff members were quick to note that they believe this work needed to continue on a daily basis in order for it to have a meaningful and lasting impact within their news outlet. This was reflected in the organizational assessment survey, in which 81% of respondents were not aware of any specific DEI goals that stories need to meet before publishing. This indicated a need to factor in the external impact of your news organization’s work as you build DEI policies and systems.
News Outlet C is a single issue focused newsroom, which creates unique challenges around hiring and retention. A leadership team member noted that being a single issue news outlet doesn’t necessarily mean they only hire journalists with specific skill sets, but due to the sensitivity of the topic, they believe they need to provide more support than other news outlets for their staff — an issue they are currently working on.
Be Aware of the Needs of Current and Future Staff
A leadership team member noted that while they have been able to diversify demographically, they also have focused on hiring staff that have different work and lived experiences. While this helps to bring a wide range of expertise and lenses to their work, it creates additional challenges in terms of the support their staff may need. It also requires additional time to create the systems that will ensure their new employees succeed. Despite this challenge, they emphasized, “One exciting thing about working here is that we do have the capacity, in some cases, to take bets on people and bring them up. … That range of hiring ability is, in part, what makes this work so exciting and fulfilling and creates a longer term pipeline of journalists and journalists of color who are equipped to cover this challenging issue.”
Acknowledge and Work Against the Impacts of Burnout
Staff members expressed the positives of working in a space that is actively recruiting to help diversify the stories being written while also acknowledging some barriers persist despite the increased diversity. Staff identified four main barriers:
Given that their organization focuses on a single issue, staff members also highlighted the need for them to be experts on their topic, which requires on-the-job training to succeed in this space. News Outlet C is, therefore, not only juggling the need to recruit staff that is willing to build an expertise on a single issue, but it must also build a support system that protects its staff from the negative consequences of only focusing on one potentially traumatic topic. A staff member highlighted the “sweet spot” between DEI training and professional development, noting that for them, DEI training should help boost their understanding of the topic they cover. DEI training, the staff member added, should also provide a foundation for a support system that is “both communal and maybe on an individual level, that would allow people to find some support and relief from the tensions and the burdens that sometimes come with this coverage and the work. It would also ensure that those same experiences inform that person’s future work and the organization’s future work as they stay on.”
While building internal trust is critical to the development of all news outlets, News Outlet C’s experience highlights the need to intentionally incorporate internal trust-building metrics within a news outlet.
Trust within an organization is critical to create an inclusive environment. As News Outlet C continues this work, leadership acknowledged the challenges that exist in rebuilding trust within an organization. A leadership team member noted:
There is a big emphasis on building internal trust. I mean, I think we certainly went through a period as an organization, I think it was 2020, maybe spring 2021, where we first had some conversations after George Floyd about our coverage [and] which sources we were relying on [and] how to cover police … [and] other forms … of violence kind of more core to our mission. … So we had those conversations. … I faced some criticism, questions about my management, and whether we were building an organization where everyone was valued equally, or the people could bring forward concerns and complaints, whether it was fair and equitable, which we believed it was, but we hadn’t scrutinized through an outside objective expert.
This lack of trust was echoed by staff members. Some noted that the hierarchical structure of their organization created power dynamics that were not conducive to trust building. For example, while staff were appreciative of performance reviews, they noted that performance reviews were only top-down. Staff members did not feel like they had an opportunity to reflect on management or contribute ideas on how to improve the internal culture. This sentiment was reflected in the organizational assessment: 46% of respondents did not believe their organization was working on evaluating staff and leadership on anti-racism and pro-equity skills.
Other staff members noted that due to the structure of the newsroom, it was often difficult to transfer lessons learned in DEI trainings because they did not believe they had the power within their organization to have that sort of impact. One staff member noted, “There’s rarely a chance for people who aren’t in leadership to weigh in on things like, what we as an organization should be trying to do or focusing on. … It feels like there are directives, and there’s not an opportunity to contribute, unless you’re at the top.”
Other staff members noted the importance of transparency and acknowledging the barriers that exist in developing trust. Without trust, staff members felt that it makes it more difficult to know who you can turn to when you need help. One staff member explained that these lessons are important because understanding the history of your news outlet is how you facilitate change within an organization.
Through these experiences, News Outlet C has started to work on rebuilding the trust within the organization. One way News Outlet C has introduced more transparency is by inviting all staff members to board meetings, sharing meeting notes and discussing job descriptions. While this is just a first step, these changes have helped to create a space for staff members to understand what is happening from an organizational standpoint, which helps to create a sense of belonging within the organization.
🢂 Acknowledge that journalism as an industry is DEI work and that DEI values should be guiding your organization.
🢂 Don’t be afraid of feedback. DEI work is about growth — acknowledging the areas of weakness within your organization is an important first step in this work.
🢂 Ensure that outside consultants are a good fit for your organization. Do this by relying on your staff to inform you of the supports and needs they have identified as high priority.
🢂 Focus on transparency and trust building, understanding that you can’t have one without the other.
🢂 Don’t be afraid of incorporating 360 reviews in your performance reviews. This will not only support trust building activities, but it provides invaluable information and data for leadership and managers.
🢂 Acknowledge that DEI work should be continuous and the goals around this work should be routinely discussed. As on staff member noted, it’s important to have “goals that we set and to have those conversations maybe quarterly, because we have a lot of new hires … and if you start mid year … a lot of staffers may not be aware of what the goals are.”