Media Startups Short On Diversity

Startups are reimagining online news, but they're being criticized for their lack of diversity. Tell Me More hears voices from Columbia Journalism School, the Maynard Institute and CNET en Espanol.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to finish up the program today talking about an old issue that's made its way to a new platform. New-media ventures like Vox, BuzzFeed and Politico are or trying to shake up the way people get their news and entertainment online. But critics say that behind the flashy interactives and innovative designs there's something missing. Journalism trend watchers say those newsrooms and leadership roles are overwhelmingly made up of white men. We wanted to talk about this lack of diversity, why it matters and if anything's being done about it so we called upon Richard Prince. He's with the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. And he writes Journal-isms, that's an online publication that focuses on media diversity. Welcome back, Richard Prince. Thanks for joining us.

RICHARD PRINCE: Thank you. Good to be back.

MARTIN: Laura Martinez is senior editor of CNET en Espanol. Laura Martinez, welcome to you.

LAURA MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Emily Bell is the digital - sorry - is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she's also a professor. And she recently wrote about this issue for The Guardian. Emily Bell, thank you for joining us.

EMILY BELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And let's start with you because you write that in the rush to revolutionize journalism, quote, protagonists are almost exclusively and increasingly male and white. Tell us about what kinds of companies you're talking about and why you think this matters?

BELL: Well, first of all, you know, it's one of those things where if you look at the high-profile launches that we've been really sort of seeing in the last couple of months and - I mean, Vox First Look, which is the new venture backed by Pierre Omidyar and Vox's Ezra Klein's business, FiveThirtyEight, which is Nate Silver who came out of The New York Times, Re/code, which is a technology blog, but had a very high-profile launch - came out of The Wall Street Journal. And then you look at - if you like sort of the coverage of this and also the composition of the staff, you see that actually, you know, that there are women in the mix. Re/code has a woman founder, Kara Swisher, it has a 50-50 staff ratio of male and female, but that's the exception rather than the rule. You know, you can find two other female founders in there - Laura Poitras of First Look and Melissa Bell at Vox.

But neither have the profile of their male cofounders, Glenn Greenwell and Ezra Klein. And I think that, you know, one of the things which is interesting is that when you look at BuzzFeed or courts.com or lots and lots of the other startups, which are high-profile and successful, the very top of those companies are nearly always male and none of them have 100 percent female leadership. There are exceptions to that, but I would say that they are exceptions rather than the rule. And here we are in 2014, thinking about, you know, a field - journalism is a field which actually has a majority of women going into it at entry-level. It has, you know, we see very good diversity figures at Columbia and other journalism schools, you know, we genuinely sort of have diverse student cohorts. And yet, this isn't sort of representative in where the money goes or the venture capital funding. And actually poking around on a couple of other sort of VC sites you see that, you know, the stats are borne out that really male-run businesses still overwhelmingly attract money.

MARTIN: And what does that matter? Tell me why that matters. And of course, obviously some might be thinking about Arianna Huffington - is the founder of the Huffington Post. But tell me why you think this is important?

BELL: Well, I think it's important because women are not even a minority of the population and that, you know, media does have an influence. And when people talk about doing journalism differently or doing it better than what went before, which is a statement that you see from each of these new startups, that actually one of the places to start with, well, who is it that we see leading the conversation here and how do we react to that, you know? So diversity is really important in visibility. It's really important in the voices that shape debate. And I do think that, you know, all the journalists involved in all of these enterprises are excellent, they're truly outstanding. And they do stand a very good chance of reshaping the field. For that reason, it would be great to see different voices and particularly, can I say, female representation for which there isn't really an excuse...

MARTIN: All right, let's hear some other voices here as well. Richard, what about you? Do you think this matters? I mean, you've been reporting on this as well. Emily's particular piece focused mainly on women. You also focus on diversity more broadly - ethnic diversity in particular, across ethnic groups. Do you think this matters?

PRINCE: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: This is obviously something you noticed.

PRINCE: Yes, yes, yes. Well, the files are just bulging with examples of cases in which people of color have been left out or misrepresented in stories and perspectives. And we don't want this to continue in these new startups as well, which is why you have the uproar from the people of color as well. One thing that is a little troubling is that these are young people starting these startups without very much diversity. And we've been at this for quite a while. And for this to be 2014 and still having problems this problem with the younger people is, as I said, is kind of troubling.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

PRINCE: I guess the diversity fatigue - as people have talked about - the fact that diversity is not a priority that it once was in these financial challenging times. But I will say this - while I was sitting here waiting to go on, Bill Keller - who was the former executive editor of The New York Times, has one of the startups about the criminal justice system - messaged me saying the criminal justice system, which will be the focus of our reporting, touches people of color disproportionately as is distressingly evident from the population of our overstuffed prisons, the profiles of the victims and the impact on families and communities. There is clear journalistic advantage in building a staff that understands and can get that story.

MARTIN: So...

PRINCE: So he's one of the old school people and he's much more forceful on this issue than the new people.

MARTIN: He's saying it's priority.

PRINCE: Right.

MARTIN: Laura Martinez, what about you? In a number of - in recent years, we've seen a number of established primarily English-language media companies launch Spanish-speaking or joint venture opportunities and I wondered if - or Latino-focused ventures - and I just wanted to ask, do you, as a person who's kind of in that stream, is diversity a priority for you? Or - how are you having these conversations?

MARTINEZ: In my case, or in the Latino case, it's totally - I would say - totally different because there is two things - first of all, there is a language issue. I do believe that there is still, like, a huge segregation when it comes to Spanish-language media and English-language media. It's almost as if they were two separate entities. And then you have a bunch of people whose skills or expertise is to speak Spanish then we are qualified and recruited to launch Spanish-language spinoff. And let me just give you a couple of examples. I have worked in the past with Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur magazine en Espanol, The Wall Street Journal en Espanol.

And I always tend to joke, you know, saying it's great that I work for the Latino Wall Street Journal, but how about an opportunity to work for the regular Wall Street Journal. And that gets a little tougher. And also real quick, to talk a little bit about what Emily and Richard were saying - when it comes to the figures of the underrepresentation of Latinos, I mean, it's really amazing. The last figure I saw, it was under 3 percent of reporters writing front-page stories in major newspapers are actually of Latino origins. When you think about Latinos are almost 17 percent of tje population - I mean, to me that's outrageous and I kind of have my theories as to why that happens but...

MARTIN: Yeah, let's hear that. Let's hear it. What is your theory?

MARTINEZ: Well, one of the - and it is not really a theory - but I have seen many, many ventures start and then shut down really quickly because merely there was a business decision and the argument being, OK, so where was the trillion dollar opportunity that Latinos are supposed to represent this country? So we didn't make a trillion dollars in two years so let's shut this down because it's not happening. This has happened a couple of times to me personally and I do think that the rationale is, OK, so there is 15 million-plus Latinos in this country, we're going to create something to cater to them and then we're going to make tons of money. So the expectations are really, really high, but then these ventures are not given, like, the time or enough time to happen or to develop. So I think that's one of the reasons that I've...

MARTIN: Interesting. If you're just joining us, we're talking about this whole question of diversity or the lack there of in new media startups. We're talking with Laura Martinez of CNET en Espanol - that's who was speaking just now. Also with us - Emily Bell of Columbia University and Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute. He's the author of Journal-isms, it's an online publication that focuses on diversity in media. You know, Emily, in your piece in The Guardian, you quoted Nate Silver who, as you mentioned, left The New York Times to have his own venture with ESPN, saying, quote, clubhouse chemistry is important. And what does that mean?

BELL: Well, I'm not sure. Obviously having a clubhouse is obviously, you know, a bad thing because it suggests something that's exclusive. What he means is it's right to have the right staff. Now feel bad in a way that I possibly so disproportionally picked on Nate here, but he did make - he was interviewed in Time about how rigorous his hiring process is and he actually has a grid where he sites staff, but, you know, as a statistician he'll be familiar with the concept of the third axis and he should really have a third axis for diversity because - you know, this is important because it's not just about doing the right thing by society. In fact, it's not about that at all. It's about a business problem as well. You know, women are interested in politics. They are very interested in sport. They are participants in both.

There isn't really - you're cutting off or alienating yourself from a significant proportion of your audience if you don't take these challenges to proper representation in your coverage sort of seriously. I mean, I led - I was board diversity champion at The Guardian for a couple of years when I worked there and I was a board director, and these things are hard. They're hard and they're expensive and perhaps it's unfair to expect new ventures to get these right, but at the same time, I think, in a way they have a bigger opportunity because they have, you know, new staff that they're building from the ground. And if you can make this a priority out the gate, I think it attracts a very different type of applicant. Nate Silver complained that he gets 15 percent of applications from women, but if you talk about a clubhouse - I don't think that's necessarily particularly surprising, I think you do have to make positive efforts in the market to signal that you're a diverse hire.

MARTIN: Richard, what about that? This is an interesting kind of push and pull effect here 'cause on the one hand, I mean, Laura talked about that - kind of the financial instability of some of these startups. And you wonder, well, could it be that these are seen as more risky and that African-Americans and Latinos, who may not have a deep, you know, bench of, you know, family members to support them should the venture fails, might be less inclined to apply.

On the other hand, you know, Shani Hilton, who is African-American, she's the deputy editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed, wrote a very kind of complete picture piece about this and she said that part of the issue is that people of color are not networking with the right men who are tapped to run these companies because they're focused working hard rather than rubbing elbows. And she calls it the - call it the twice as hard half as good paradox. Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed, we don't do the networking that seems like - I'll edit here - BS, but it's actually a key part of career advancement. What are your thoughts about this?

PRINCE: She's right, she's absolutely right. But there's another piece of this and that is that you don't have to work hard so much to be integrated with the established, quote-unquote, white dudes. There's a strong strain of thought among particularly journalists of color that we should be starting our own and doing this data driven journalism, this investigative journalism on our own African-American sites. But the African-American sites we have are basically committed to celebrity gossip, opinion and not really investigative reporting.

MARTIN: And is that because they don't get the funding, Laura Martinez? Or because the ideas aren't there? What's the story behind that?

MARTINEZ: No, I mean, I really don't know, but it's very interesting. Some of the research that I've been doing - a lot of the - on of the - I'm sorry, I read recently actually - and it makes sense with what Richard was saying and the BuzzFeed editor was saying - there was a study in 2012 that actually showed that Latinos in the newsrooms were the most likely to accept the buyouts offered by the newspapers when the newspapers or - in this case, was newspapers, was print - and it was that particular reason, you know, it was the uncertainty, like, am I going to be next, am I going to lose my job and just, you know, be in the street without a job? And they were, like, overwhelmingly taking buyouts. I think that can explain also one of the reasons why they didn't or they're not more represented.

MARTIN: What thoughts do we have in the time that we have left? We only have about sort of two and a half minutes left. What thoughts do we have about whether this is something just to observe or something to fix or to change? And if so, how? Richard, do you want to start?

PRINCE: Agitate, agitate, agitate.

MARTIN: OK.

MARTINEZ: I wanted to say...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Laura.

MARTINEZ: Something real quick, Michel.

MARTIN: Sure.

MARTINEZ: The thing is that I think when it comes to politics, Latinos particularly are not seen like experts in that, right, like, maybe we can write about immigration, maybe we can write about food, maybe we can write about families. But why are we being pigeonholed to certain subjects? I mean, we can have a perspective to write about politics, to write about culture, to write about anything, just from our prospective. It doesn't have to be a Latino issue for us to write about Latino issues, that's...

MARTIN: That's certainly something that's been debated endlessly in newsrooms about, like, why certain beats are identified with certain ethnic groups or not. And also women from matter, Emily Bell - remember the women's pages?

BELL: I do.

MARTIN: I think none of us here is old enough to remember the women's pages, but we know that they existed? Emily Bell, do you want to take a final thought here about - what are your thoughts about this?

BELL: I think this is right the way up the sort of pipeline. So I think J schools have a real opportunity and a real duty to push diversity, to train their students in the right kind of skills. That's where my job kicks in, if you like. I think we've all got a responsibility, particularly those of us who don't want a job from any of these organizations, to call out what we see as being, you know, practiced, which is replicating itself. And maybe, you know, something, which I haven't done - which maybe I should do more of - is highlight good practice where there are women founders and editors who are doing great work. And when you're being interviewed as a male founder then, you know, meticulously mentioning and promoting your female cofounders, even if they don't seek the limelight, is also a very positive signal. These things have a huge impact on how young journalists view the places where they want to go and work. You know, they...

MARTIN: Emily, can I just ask - I noted that you have a particular focus on women as opposed to people of color, I was curious why that is? Is it...

BELL: Only because I'm an expert because I am one and because I was a senior woman in that and because it's - in my experience in saying that and actually having worked in sort of - in looking at how you build newsroom diversity across the piece. It tends to be that if places don't get the gender balance right, they don't get anything else right either.

So it's not sort of - it's not - as I say, it speaks more to my particular experience, somebody like Richard is, you know, such an eloquent expert and has the figures etc. - I've spent more time, I suppose, talking to one young women and young women of - it has to be said - every background. You know, diverse young women are a particular sort of, I think, you know, kind of group that we want to promote and see in senior positions.

MARTIN: Emily Bell is the director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with us from our bureau in New York along with Laura Martinez, who is the senior editor of CNET en Espanol. Richard Prince writes the online publication Journal-isms. He was with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PRINCE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTINEZ: Thank you.

BELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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