Sally Buzbee previews her plans for The Washington Post
A new class of media executives who have taken top jobs at major publications in the US in the last year is much different than any that came before it. Notably, the class is not made up of predominantly White men.
In fact, the cohort includes many firsts. For the first time, there is a Black executive running a major American broadcast news network. The new leaders of ABC News and MSNBC are not only the first Black people in the top roles, but also the first women. The new CEO of The Associated Press is the first person of color and the first woman to lead the news agency. Black women now run Refinery29 and Bon Appétit, and Teen Vogue is led by a South Asian American woman for the first time. Also for the first time, the top editor of Entertainment Weekly is a person of color. She is also the outlet’s first female editor in chief. Reuters also named its first female editor in chief in its 170-year history. One of the biggest national newspapers, The Washington Post, had a first by appointing a woman as executive editor.
The change is also happening at other big daily newspapers. New appointments at The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle ushered in multiple firsts — the first woman and the first Black person to run the Dallas paper and the first person of color to lead the Chronicle. Nieman Lab recently analyzed the leadership of the 20 largest newspapers and found only seven are led by a White man while 12 are led by a woman, a person of color or both.
These new leaders bring much overdue change to the media industry. But HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, who is Black, told CNN Business in an interview recently that it’s going to take more than hiring a person of color for the top job to bring diversity into a newsroom.
“Diversity doesn’t stop with, like, Obama becomes president and somehow everyone is like, ‘Racism is over.’ That’s not how things work,” Belton said. “If you don’t fill in the reporter roles, the social editors, people who work in sales and audience, and all these other different roles within the news organization, if you don’t have diverse representation in those places, you don’t actually have a diverse newsroom.”
Of course, simply being a person of color or a woman at the top isn’t enough to effectively lead. Leaders, like Belton, are taking the helm at publications during a time of immense change and instability. Publishers are still adapting to the digital age, no longer able to rely on the news cycles created by print products or the revenue they generated. This new media landscape requires editorial and technological know-how as newsrooms create more digital products such as podcasts, films, paid newsletters and streaming services. These leaders also took on new roles amid a pandemic, a national fight for racial equality that also permeated newsrooms and at a time when burnout among journalists is high and public trust in the media is low.
‘I don’t want to be the only’
These new media leaders have been grappling with the distinction of being “the first.” Alessandra Galloni, who was named editor in chief of Reuters in April, said being the first woman in the top role “brings a huge responsibility… to ensure that newsrooms are not just paying lip service but really embracing diversity of all kinds.”
“You feel this 170-year history on top of you,” Galloni said. “You’re like, gosh, it’s been 170 years and this has been this remarkable institution and now I’m running it. I better not screw up.”
Mary Margaret, who Entertainment Weekly named its editor in chief in March, said the title of “first” is “heavy and complicated.” As a Filipina, she is the first woman and person of color to lead the 31-year-old magazine.
“For me, it’s really important and I have a responsibility to figure out a way to make sure that I am not the last,” Margaret told CNN Business. “My leadership and my perspective and my support, hopefully, it will be a big catalyst for the things that we want to do moving forward, but it takes a village just like anything.”
Many of these leaders are familiar with being the “only” in a room.
“As a woman of color, I’ve often been the only person who looks like me in a room,” said Leta Shy, who was appointed editor in chief of Condé Nast-owned Self in May. “To me, that means that there’s a diversity problem. There’s probably an inclusion problem as well… We might be encouraging young people of color to become journalists but then how come when I’m a middle manager, I’m the only person there?”
Shy, who is half-Black and half-Korean, said one of her strategies to improve diversity and inclusion in newsrooms is to “pay it forward” by being transparent about her career path.
For years, HuffPost’s union pressured its previous owner, Verizon Media Group, to commit to addressing its diversity problems. While HuffPost was led by a Black woman, Lydia Polgreen, the union argued there was not enough diversity throughout the rest of the newsroom. Then, when BuzzFeed’s acquisition of HuffPost was followed by deep staff cuts, CEO Jonah Peretti was criticized for not taking diversity into consideration during the layoffs. In March, when he announced Belton’s hiring, Peretti said he was committed to “immediately increasing the representation of Black and Latinx employees in the HuffPost newsroom” She was leading the Black news and culture site The Root before taking over at HuffPost.
“I don’t want to be the only person of color,” Belton said. “I want there to be a healthy balance and representation in our news organization that we can all be proud of, that will improve our coverage, that will make something that’s already great even greater and will fully enrich and better serve our audience.”
Rashida Jones, the first Black woman to run MSNBC, said a part of her leadership strategy involves building teams “where people feel comfortable being their whole selves and you don’t just look at one category.” That means taking into consideration geographical and educational backgrounds in addition to race and gender identities when it comes to staffing and coverage, she said.
“It is never lost on me every single day that just by being in the job that I’m in, by doing the work that I’m doing, not only was I a part of history, I’m also a part of setting the example for the next person who gets the next first, the next big opportunity,” Jones said. “Not who gets it, who earns it.”
Representatives for Kim Godwin, the first Black woman to run ABC News, and Sally Buzbee, the first woman to run The Washington Post after Marty Baron stepped down, declined CNN Business’ requests for interviews.
‘A leader with empathy’
Versha Sharma inherited a staff in turmoil because of leadership’s failures. Sharma took over at Teen Vogue in May, about two months after newly appointed editor in chief Alexi McCammond stepped down before she even started because of backlash from readers and staffers who noted her past racist and homophobic tweets.
“After the Alexi thing happened, regardless of whether that had happened or not, I was interested in this role… I know it’s a great team,” Sharma told CNN Business in an interview.
But stepping into the role in the aftermath of the McCammond debacle, Sharma, who is Indian American, knew she had to be more than just another person of color in charge. Sharma took over for Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who was Condé Nast’s third African-American editor.
“The most important thing for me coming into this was knowing the state of the team: How are they feeling? How are they doing?” Sharma said. “I pride myself on being a leader with empathy. Despite the fact that our job is storytelling, a lot of newsroom leaders don’t value that or prioritize that.”
"I pride myself on being a leader with empathy. Despite the fact that our job is storytelling, a lot of newsroom leaders don't value that or prioritize that."
Versha Sharma, editor in chief of Teen Vogue
The task ahead at Teen Vogue is even more difficult because of other things that had happened at its parent company Condé Nast even before McCammond’s failed hiring.
As protests over the death of George Floyd swept the nation last summer, longtime Vogue editor Anna Wintour reflected on diversity at the fashion magazine and admitted in a memo to staff that they had not done enough to “elevate and give space to Black” creators and published images and stories that were “hurtful or intolerant.” Wintour, who also serves as Condé Nast’s global chief content officer, made commitments to “listen” and make the staff and its editorial mandates more inclusive.
Days after Wintour’s memo, Adam Rapoport, a top editor at another Condé Nast brand, Bon Appétit, resigned over accusations he oversaw a discriminatory workplace culture. He apologized for his “failings.”
To replace Rapoport, Condé Nast hired Dawn Davis, an executive in the book publishing industry and the first Black woman to lead Bon Appétit. More people of color also were brought on board. Sonia Chopra, formerly the director of editorial strategy at Eater, joined as executive editor. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson was appointed an advisor to the brand and served as a guest editor.
But even these changes were not without issues. In December, a month after Davis started, readers accused Samuelsson of cultural appropriation over his take on a Haitian recipe. The magazine updated the name of the dish, and Samuelsson apologized.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael, an editor and consultant who has worked in leadership positions at The Texas Tribune, BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times, told CNN Business that she viewed the McCammond controversy at Teen Vogue as a “failure of management.”
“How do you surveil a landscape of a known-to-be-fractious newsroom with very specific things that they have said that they want and very specific things that they are mandated to care about and bring in somebody who on paper doesn’t have the instincts to be able to manage through that?” Ishmael said about the progressive publication. “Then, you layer on top of that underestimating the feelings… of how reporters who are charged with a mandate of equity and representation are going to react to someone who they see as having not lived up to that in their past.”
Condé Nast is far from the only media company that began to reckon with its own diversity issues last year. At Refinery29, staffers outed members of its leadership team for workplace microaggressions and racism — allegations that prompted Refinery29’s co-founder and global editor in chief, as well as its global president and chief content officer, to step down last summer.
“That was a lot for them to go through,” Simone Oliver, who was appointed as the Refinery29’s new global editor in chief last September. “I came in and really thought about how I need to establish myself as an empathetic leader and I need to build trust with the team.”
Accountability and trust
Newsroom executives are not only dealing with restoring trust with employees but also with audiences. The US ranked last in media trust in a survey of 92,000 news consumers in 46 countries shared in Reuters Institute’s latest digital news report.
Ishmael said she has noticed this new cohort of leaders acknowledge the challenge, pointing to Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida’s recent interview on the “Reliable Sources” podcast and a recent blog post from the new editor in chief of gaming site Kotaku.
“That isn’t going to be easy, but they are showing a willingness that other editors did not have,” Ishmael said. “Just that rhetorical awareness about how we have not served our audiences, or we have not served them sufficiently, is progress.”
"… they are showing a willingness that other editors did not have. Just that rhetorical awareness about how we have not served our audiences, or we have not served them sufficiently, is progress."
Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editor and consultant
Merida, who started his new role in June, is leading a newsroom that has publicly reckoned with its “failures on race,” as the Times editorial board said last September, when it came to staffing its newsroom and in its news coverage. Last year, the Times published a series of stories scrutinizing its own racist history. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire and owner of the Times, committed to creating “meaningful change” at the company.
In that episode of the “Reliable Sources” podcast, Merida said he plans to “continue to build a diverse media company.”
“That’s been part of what I’ve been involved in my entire career,” Merida told host Brian Stelter. “We do have, I believe, 100 Latino journalists, which is bigger than some newsrooms. But again, it’s not enough… It’s very important to be able to have people in decision-making positions.”
Galloni and Oliver both said they have prioritized analyzing the way stories are reported to be more inclusive. An initiative Galloni started called Back to the Source encourages reporters to revisit the people they interview “with an eye to seeking out diversity of voices and thought,” she said. Oliver said Connie Wang, Refinery29’s executive editor, hosts workshops during edit meetings in which they dissect each part of the story process to “hold ourselves accountable.”
Belton’s goal for HuffPost is “maximizing stories around what’s really going on in America” and “create a news organization that is a reflection of American society.”
“Far too often, there’s this tendency to treat the stories of people of color as niche when Black culture is fairly mainstream in America. Everyone listens to hip-hop. I’m not buying all those records. ‘Black Panther’ was a billion-dollar film,” Belton said. “I don’t know anything that makes a billion dollars that’s niche.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the first Black executive editor of the Los Angeles Times.
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