A Focus on Retaining Journalists of Color—and Helping them Succeed

By Shannan Bowen

Executive Director, NC Local News Workshop

We need more journalists and leaders of color in North Carolina newsrooms.

This is not an opinion; it’s a fact that also applies beyond our state.

I know that many editors and reporters in North Carolina recognize this issue. Newsrooms have published diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, changed governance structures and launched other initiatives to diversify their staffs and operations. Participants in our first program of the NC Media Equity Project overall agreed that recruitment and retention of journalists of color are two of the most important focus areas for staff development.

But hiring more journalists of color is only one step.

During a session this spring at our NC News & Information Summit, three journalists of color — Eileen Rodriguez, Dante Miller and Laura Brache — shared their experiences working in local news and the challenges in developing their career paths. I told someone after that session that these are the women who should be leading newsrooms in North Carolina.

But we — collectively and individually — need to do more to ensure they get to those positions.

That’s why the Workshop, which exists to help our local news organizations tackle such challenges by providing resources and programs, has launched a leadership development program specifically for news professionals of color in our state. Six journalists from a range of organizations are participating in Upward:NC, a program designed and led by Emma Carew Grovum, the founder of media consultancy Kimbap Media.

“Local newsrooms are having a hard time hiring, especially when it comes to journalists who can help shift the demographics of a team and better reflect the lived experiences of a community. But they’re also struggling to keep talented journalists of color who are being courted by opportunities with remote work options and higher salaries,” Carew Grovum said. “Upward steps in to disrupt this narrative and says, ‘Let’s identify your future leaders, and let’s invest in them together.’”

Carew Grovum designed the Upward program as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow

“One of the biggest concerns I heard from journalists working in local news when I did the research component of my fellowship was the intense feeling of isolation in their news organizations and teams. ‘My bosses/colleagues just don’t understand where I am coming from’ was a common theme I heard from my interviews,” she said.

The cohort model of Upward creates a small, tight-knit community for the fellows. “The connections between the cohort simply cannot be understated in their journey: whom they turn to for wisdom and comfort, how they support and challenge one another. In the end, it’s our goal that each person feels less alone in their journey as a leader of color,” Carew Grovum said.

The participating journalists, nominated by their supervisors, include:

Lars Dolder, editor of The News & Observer’s Insider

Jamila Elder, assignment editor at WRAL

Kendrick Marshall, service journalism editor at The Charlotte Observer

Dante Miller, community engagement producer, WFAE

Sarah Mobley Smith, senior editor of WFAE’s race and equity team

Jade Packer, Director of Children’s Media & Education Engagement at PBS North Carolina

 

They will meet as a cohort for workshops on leadership development topics ranging from “how to manage up” to salary negotiation, which will include guest speakers from throughout the country. The participants also will receive one-on-one mentorship and coaching with Carew Grovum, and will participate in meetings with their supervisor and an executive sponsor from their organization.

When I talked with Carew Grovum about applying this program at a state level, she stressed that collaboration is key for the vitality of newsrooms in the future. “In order to best serve our communities, the best local journalism will come from connections and partnerships, the very kind we hope to build within Upward.”

My hope, from my perspective supporting our state’s news and information ecosystem, is that we see leaders of color in more newsrooms across our state. By doing so, we will ensure that communities of all types are included, represented and engaged by local news. And at the same time, we’ll transform the idea of what news leadership and representation looks like.

As Carew Grovum said, “Too many newsrooms and news communities are losing talented folks of color right now. There’s a lot of lip-service being paid around hiring journalists of color, which means folks may have increased options to move around. Retention really should be an ongoing game, but too many news leaders have back-burnered this work during the crisis of the pandemic.”

I know a leadership development program is only one approach of many that could and should happen. And as a woman who is white, I know I do not have all the answers. I’d appreciate and welcome any feedback or ideas from others in our ecosystem. My email and DMs on Twitter are open; I look forward to hearing from you!

The candidate questionnaire in 2022: Part of the core franchise, and maybe more

Even in a sea of political news, local candidate surveys (and other coverage) stand out in races and campaigns that often get little attention or news coverage — if they’re done right, and if people can find them

Low tech and high touch, questionnaires posted online can offer an on-demand answer when people go looking for information on local races and candidates. Especially when the questions address at least one or two specific local issues, the survey responses offer an “in their own words” response for voters to evaluate and compare with other candidates.

Yet there’s a cost. The questionnaires take time to construct, and are intensely local. Some candidates don’t return them; others need lots of reminding, and some don’t fill out their own responses. And they need to be easy to find, both on news websites and in search results.

How can news and information providers get the most out of candidate questionnaires, for their audiences and for their missions and organization needs? We turned to three editors to share insights and advice: Jane Porter, editor in chief  of Triangle-based INDY Week; Jordan Schrader, state government and politics editor for The News & Observer/The Herald-Sun, and Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham News + Record.

Schrader says candidate surveys and information helps boost subscriptions, and web traffic shows their use by IndyWeek readers. Elsewhere in the country, a few organizations — such as KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio — have built audience numbers and financial support  around being essential for local elections information.

We’ll be talking about candidate questionnaires and other ways to both inform voters and strengthen the local news franchise through election coverage, next Wednesday during our “NC Election Prep: Focus on Democracy” event, sponsored by the NC Local News Workshop, at Elon University’s School of Communications. The event has reached capacity (there’s a waitlist), but we will be sharing out tips and resources afterward via the NC Local newsletter and other channels.

The NC Local News Workshop’s senior advisor Melanie Sill emailed a few questions to the North Carolina editors; here are their responses.

 

  1. What candidate questionnaires do you do, and how long has your publication been offering them?

Jane Porter, The INDY: We send candidate questionnaires to all candidates who run in all elections that take place in Durham, Orange, and Wake counties, including municipal, countywide, judicial, school board, NC Senate + House, NC council of state, federal/Congressional, and presidential. The Independent Weekly/the INDY has offered questionnaires for 35 years.

Bill Horner III, Chatham News+Record:: We provide questionnaires to candidates in all local contested races, from statewide on down. We did them in Sanford for as long as I can remember; we’ve been providing them at the News + Record from the start.

Jordan Schrader, The News & Observer/Herald-Sun: We’ve been doing voter guides for a long time, including for all of the big elections in the six-plus years since I’ve been here. But we’ve expanded the questionnaires beyond what they included even a few years ago. This year we are doing questionnaires in both the primary and general elections, asking issue and biographical questions and covering candidates for Triangle-area judicial, legislative, congressional and local positions as well as for statewide offices.

 

  1. With so much information out there, why produce questionnaires?

Porter: I feel there are several benefits to candidates and voters who take the time to answer/read questionnaires. They’re a fairly good way for candidates to share information about themselves, their policy positions, and their platforms with voters and a good way for voters to learn about candidates and help them decide who to vote for. There’s also an accountability aspect to having candidates put their positions in writing and, for the smaller races especially, to go on the record about controversial proposals if they so choose. We’re lucky in that the large majority of candidates do return completed questionnaires to us to offer for our readers.

Horner: Well, back before the web, candidates passed out cards or brochures (always so poorly done) with information and something about their platforms. They were usually either terribly brief, way too pitchy and slick, or shared too little about what made the candidate a viable choice. These days, I like providing questionnaires because as a voter you can cut to the chase and get the most pertinent information at a glance: mainly (for me), what track record does the candidate have when it comes to service, and second, what’s the endgame for them – how do they plan to leverage the public’s trust to make a difference within the group to which they’re elected and to the constituency? (Plus, I’m always curious about stuff like “last book read” or their personal political hero, questions I don’t often see these days on questionnaires.)

Schrader: There’s a lot of information about certain elections, but it’s not easy for voters to find basic, dependable information about the candidates on their ballot, especially near the bottom of their ballot. We see this as part of our mission of giving readers information they can use to make decisions. It also helps fulfill our mission of holding politicians accountable, since we can compare what they do once elected to their promises and positions while running for office.

 

  1. What do you know about how your audience or community uses this part of your election coverage?

Porter: The candidate questionnaires are one part of our elections coverage each cycle. We do our own reporting on many races and make endorsements in many races and we know we get the highest amount of traffic annually when there are elections going on. Our analytics indicate that people do read the candidate questionnaires in addition to our elections reporting, so we continue to send the questionnaires out and make them available to readers on our website (we don’t publish any questionnaires in print). 

Horner: We get comments about the questionnaires from readers, and our audience looks for them each election cycle. So do the candidates. That’s just anecdotal feedback, but it’s consistent.

Schrader: ​​The voter guides have brought new subscribers to the N&O, especially questionnaires for down-ballot candidates with limited information available elsewhere. That’s encouraging because it takes a great deal of our staff’s valuable time to produce the questionnaires.

 

  1. What’s the biggest challenge?

 

Porter: There are many. For our staff, the biggest challenges are logistical. Writing and sending the questionnaires out to candidates, keeping track of who returns them, formatting them for our CMS, uploading and posting them is labor intensive and time consuming. 

Questionnaires also tend to be very dense; it’s hard to make them visually appealing online and some voters just aren’t prepared to read a bunch of long questionnaires to help them decide who to vote for. Some readers may prefer to watch videotaped interviews with candidates, for example.

We also don’t want the questionnaires to stand in for actual reporting—interviewing candidates in person, tracking records of incumbents, speaking to sources about candidates running for political office, seeing what information about candidates is publicly available is all important. Anyone can write anything on a questionnaire. So while they’re an informative tool—and ours are, as they’re free, accessible online, and most candidates tend to respond to them and respond to them thoughtfully—we don’t want to rely on them too heavily to inform our coverage or our endorsements. We want to do our due diligence as journalists in addition to offering readers/voters this resource.

Finally, writing questionnaires for some of the smaller races—for municipal races in suburban Wake County, as an example—it’s hard to know how best to tailor the questions since we don’t have the staffing capacity to do much in-depth coverage of these areas. But we know our readers live in these municipalities and we want to give them some information about candidates who are running for office in their towns. 

Horner: Increasingly, it’s candidates who either don’t return them by the deadline or just ignore them. How much do you hound the candidates about getting them returned? If you set an early deadline but don’t begin publishing them until a few weeks later, what about the straggler who misses the deadline but gets the questionnaire in a few days before publication? 

But really the larger issue is how often the responses get massaged by the local party leadership – so it’s not their individual voice, but largely influenced by the local party head, who rewrites bad responses. I’m sure we’ve published lots of responses over the years the candidates didn’t write themselves  Sometimes it’s painfully obvious because they come back so polished. (And other times, when they’re rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, that’s painful, too. We always publish them as we get them.)

Schrader: Carving out the time to write, send, collect, edit, publish and promote these questionnaires is a big enough challenge already, but that’s compounded when we have to repeatedly remind candidates who haven’t responded.

 

  1. If an outlet wants to offer questionnaires, what are your two most important tips or lessons?

 

Porter: 1. I would say do the research to ensure the questions target the issues that are most meaningful to or consequential for voters, and also for your audience. Be very specific and intentional with your questions. 2. And send the questionnaires out as early as possible, so the candidates have time to complete them and so you have time to figure out how you’re going to present them!

Horner: First, think hard about the content in your questionnaires. Brainstorm it, be intentional. Make it relevant and useful and digestible. Be thoughtful about things like what biographical information to include, word limit for responses, etc., and make the questionnaire work for the voters. (For example, consider providing a hybrid questionnaire – one for print, the other, with some additional questions and more room for responses, for online.)

Second, plan them out well and stick to whatever guidelines/deadlines you create, and tell the candidates you’re doing that. Get confirmation they received the questionnaires. If the word limit is 50, cut the responses off at the 50th word. If the deadline is Sept. 30, then send out a reminder the day before and reinforce: if we don’t get your responses, we’ll publish each of the questions under your name with a “did not respond” in the answer line.

Schrader: 1. Be sure people can find them. We’d like to think voters are going to visit our homepage to read our full voter guide, but they’re more likely to Google a candidate’s name or position while trying to fill out their ballot. Our questionnaires need to show up in their search result. 2. Err on the side of fewer questions, and consider imposing character limits. Voters have limited time and may want to quickly read a series of these questionnaires at a glance.

The NC Diversity Audit: How Everyone Can Get Involved

All readers in North Carolina who are looking for high-quality information should feel reflected, respected and represented by coverage in their area.

But how do we measure progress towards this goal? There are national diversity surveys that seek to understand the staff makeup of newspapers or broadcast organizations, but no one was measuring diversity, equity and inclusion at a statewide level — and, as organizations that support local newsrooms in the state, that data is critical in helping us provide programming reflective of our community needs.

The North Carolina Local News Workshop reached out to UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media to partner on an ambitious effort: a statewide diversity survey that aims to learn about the staff of each news organization—regardless of type or size—in every community of our state.

Our goal is to reach all the news organizations and all the journalists in North Carolina, regardless of whether they work in print, digital or broadcast. And we hope that the strong relationships among the state’s well-networked news ecosystem, where journalists collaborate on projects regularly, will create desire to participate.

The diversity audit includes two surveys, an organizational survey is meant for news executives to provide overall data about their organization. And an individual survey.

The individual survey has powerful potential:

  • It gives individual journalists the power in choosing how they want to identify and whether they want to participate, regardless of their newsroom’s decision to participate. The survey is anonymous, and individual data points will be protected.
  • Because each question in the individual survey is voluntary, we can cover more ground than the organizational survey can, with questions about sexual orientation and disability, for example.
  • The survey covers the growing number of journalists who do not work full-time in a newsroom, and would allow us to learn more about this important demographic.

We need as many responses as possible to the individual survey to provide the clearest picture we’ve ever had about the journalists who work in our state.

Why us? Both centers are focused on creating long-lasting local newsrooms. The NC Local News Workshop, based at Elon University, focuses specifically on North Carolina. UNC CISLM has a broader local news focus, but as part of UNC, has a mandate to serve the state. And we both believe that for local newsrooms to be sustainable, they must be more equitable and they must both reflect and serve the communities they cover.

And at a time when many organizations need scarce grant funding, it made sense for our two organizations to tackle this project with the research and staff capacity that we already had, in the spirit of Design-Do (a concept from the Table Stakes initiative). 

But the two of us in our respective leadership positions—we’re both white women working at predominantly white organizations—also recognize that we must broaden and diversify the team that will be looking at survey results and providing recommendations. We are recruiting a panel of Diversity Audit Analysts to provide expertise, analysis and recommendations based on the results of the audit. Here is more information on the panel, including participation details and how to apply. Please reach out if you have questions. 

We want to be as transparent as possible, both as we launched the survey, and about our methods and goals. And we want help. In that spirit, we have an ask: Please take our surveys, and help us spread the word.

  • Here is the link to the organization-wide survey. A newsroom leader, or someone in HR, with access to EEOC data should take the survey. Please note that we are not asking newsroom leaders to make assumptions about the identities of their staff:  https://unc.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6qURQ0QLsBzZiYK

 

  • Take the individual survey yourself, and share your experience with journalism colleagues and friends. Those who complete the survey can enter into a drawing to win a $50 gift card. Let your colleagues and staff know they are free to take the survey if they choose. The link is here: https://unc.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_7ODn1lw8AJvWWjA

 

  • Share the audit with any journalism organizations, listservs or social media groups you belong to.

How best to use our capital

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from June 29 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

It’s one of the distinctive skills that good journalists have — the ability (even the imperative) to always follow an objective process in their work, while acknowledging that their own experiences are formative.

That skill is an ever-so-rare application of discipline and ethics, one that even the media-literate among the general public don’t fully understand. But despite that superpower, journalists are human, with strong emotions and a sharp sense of right and wrong, honed by years of alert and empathetic observation.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, overturning Roe, has tested that tension like nothing before. It surely has amplified the debate over how journalists should express their humanity without compromising their work, and their colleagues’ work.

Read moreHow best to use our capital

‘Young women having opinions really makes people angry.’ A chat with McClatchy opinion writers Sara Pequeño and Paige Masten.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

It’s an understatement to say these are challenging times for opinion writers. 

Sara Pequeño
Sara Pequeño

Obviously, our society has rarely been this polarized. The internet has blurred the perceived lines between opinion and news content, which were never clear anyway to much of the audience. Misinformation is trusted by millions; solidly reported perspectives are dismissed as media propaganda. The supposed motives of mainstream media, always challenged, are questioned daily, perhaps more than ever.

Paige Masten
Paige Masten

Inside newsrooms, the definitions and rules of objectivity are changing. Much of the news reporting is becoming more interpretive. Threats are rife against those who report the news — let alone against those who bring provocative opinions and perspectives to the table — while social media make them more vulnerable. 

And many news outlets are scaling back their production of opinion content. (See Gannett’s recent moves).

Given all of that, what’s it like to be a woman in her early to mid-20s, not long out of college, writing opinion content for daily metro newsrooms that are trying some new approaches? 

That very small club includes Sara Pequeño and Paige Masten, members since last year of McClatchy’s North Carolina opinion team — Pequeño based at The News & Observer in Raleigh, and Masten at The Charlotte Observer. 

I had the privilege of a frank chat with them the other day about what they do, and about their challenges.

Read more‘Young women having opinions really makes people angry.’ A chat with McClatchy opinion writers Sara Pequeño and Paige Masten.

Swelter in place

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from June 15 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

With the possible exception of your investment portfolio (especially if you built it on the financial acumen of Matt Damon), everything this week is core-meltdown hot.

Let’s see if we can find some relief in a few cool things I’ve come across …

Dive into something deep

You’ll remember the Security for Sale series, a deep report by the McClatchy newsrooms in May on how corporate landlords were buying up single-family rental properties in North Carolina, to the detriment of renters.

Now the reporters behind that series and the Pulitzer Center, which helped fund the work, are sharing a toolkit that can help others investigate corporate rental ownership in their communities. They’ve included tutorials and are offering to help other reporters as they use the tools. 

News & Observer investigative reporter Tyler Dukes, who led the effort, told me that for media in our state, “probably the best use would be to pull our North Carolina data and look for local stories. Which neighborhoods are seeing particularly active corporate buyers? How is that impacting renting and buying?

Read moreSwelter in place

A conversation with Dean Rochelle Ford as she leaves the Elon School of Communications

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Rochelle Ford

Rochelle Ford, who led a transformation of the School of Communications at Elon University as its dean for the past four years, has left that post to become president of Dillard University in New Orleans. She starts at Dillard on July 1.

Ford, who had been a distinguished faculty member at Howard and Syracuse universities before coming to North Carolina, worked with the faculty and staff to build a new departmental structure at Elon, creating six undergraduate programs in cinema and television arts, communication design, journalism, media analytics, sports management and strategic communication. She and the school have won several prestigious awards in these four years.

I had the privilege of catching up with her a few days ago during her last week at Elon (which, as you know, is the home of the Workshop and the NC Local newsletter). Naturally, we talked a little about gun violence — “we’ve got to deal with the crisis of racism, with the crisis of people lacking conflict resolution skills, and get back to the humanity, seeing each other as real people,” she said — before we discussed her tenure as dean, her views on journalism education, and the reasons for her optimism.

Read moreA conversation with Dean Rochelle Ford as she leaves the Elon School of Communications

A conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick | Photo by Christine Rucker

Phoebe Zerwick is a longtime investigative journalist who is now director of the journalism program and professor of the practice at Wake Forest University. Her book, “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt,” is the story of the remarkable life of a Black man and his wrongful conviction of a 1984 rape and murder in Winston-Salem, his exoneration after nearly two brutal decades in prison, and the consequences that followed, both heroic and tragic.

I had the privilege of speaking with Zerwick recently about the book and the case, and about the roles, approaches and limitations of local journalists in reporting on the criminal justice system and the people who find themselves in it. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

EF: You wrote about the Darryl Hunt case for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003. Talk about what you found then that surprised you, what the media may have missed.

PZ: I was assigned to take a deep, fresh look at Darryl Hunt’s case in 2003, right after he filed a motion for a new round of DNA testing so that the DNA profile could be run against what was then a new thing — databases of DNA of convicted offenders. And it was a case that, of course, had been covered by my newspaper regularly for 19 years. So I and all of our readers knew many of the facts of the case, including the fact that he claimed he was railroaded, that he claimed he was innocent, and that there were many holes in the case against him. That’s important because a lot of these cases have been neglected, going on without public scrutiny, and that was not the situation here. 

Read moreA conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

It’s not quite time to shrug

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 11 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

COVID found me on Friday.  

I’m slowly getting better, but I’m still not well. My testimony: This pandemic is far from over, the variants are real and not a political ploy, and even if you’re healthy and have been pretty smart about this virus, it can still pack a punch. I had two vaccinations and a booster, and I’m glad I did — they’ve made this more like a bout of flu than the deadly terror it has been for too many. 

What amazes me, frankly, is how many of my acquaintances also have it. (Non-contact acquaintances, that is — I’m not “patient zero” here.) Cases are rising again in North Carolina and elsewhere — and probably more than the state dashboard shows because some people, using only home tests, may not be reporting their results. And some aren’t even testing. Fortunately, most of the cases seem mild to moderate, but people are definitely sick.

Read moreIt’s not quite time to shrug

Building Better Newsrooms

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 4 for more from the Workshop, including more on the 2022 Diversity Audit, industry news and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Shannan Bowen, Executive Director

The Workshop is partnering with UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media on a series of workshops, conversations and events about workplace resilience. We hope to convene people around ideas for improving newsroom jobs, policies and structures. I agree with CISLM director Erica Perel that sustainability isn’t just about business models. As Erica said so eloquently, “Making local journalism jobs themselves more sustainable—better pay, hours, working conditions and opportunities for growth across media and ownership types—is also important to the future of local news.”

We’re calling this series “Workplace Resilience: Building Better Newsrooms.” We kicked it off in March at our NC News & Information Summit with a session titled “The Care and Feeding of Early-Career Journalists.”

Read moreBuilding Better Newsrooms