Gabriel Arana has a long piece in the American Prospect today on a subject that has become depressing in its familiarity even as the need to say it remains: the overwhelming whiteness of publications and organizations that claim to value diversity. One of the things that I appreciate about the piece is that it moves beyond the pie charts that have become so familiar to us from the Vida Count, a census of who is reviewing books in prestigious literary publications, to offer actual solutions on how to move those particular needles.
Among the suggestions: pay interns a living wage so that you can attract people from a broader range of backgrounds into your candidate pool, look beyond your usual sources of talent and make diversity an actual firm priority in your hiring process. I wanted to offer a few more process ideas that seem to have been effective at improving racial, ethnic and gender diversity at organizations where I have worked.
1. Do not hold yourself to an arbitrary timeline: Arana writes that “the people we know — professionally and personally — tend to have similar backgrounds, and so when editors cast the net to build up the applicant pool for a position, they are largely recruiting people who look and think like themselves.”
But one of the reasons we rely so heavily on those networks is that when journalism organizations have an opportunity to make a new hire, whether because someone has left or because they received funding for a new position, they often want to do it quickly. Relying on your network is a way to speed up the hiring process. You can discard résumés that do not come backed by personal recommendations, or skip reading résumés altogether and just start talking with candidates who have been identified for you.
If organizations could remove time pressure from the hiring process, that network would become less necessary. Hiring managers and editors could take the time to read résumés, cover letters and clips from a much larger pool of applicants. If someone promising does not come in during the initial wave of applications, the publication can repost or revise the job ad and reach out to more potential sources of candidates. When an organization is more focused on the quality of the hire than an urgent need to fill a slot to get work done or to take advantage of a budgetary approval, the publication can wait until it has found the person who meets its needs — on every level — rather than compromising for the sake of speed.
2. Be prepared to train entry-level employees — and all employees: Shani Hilton, deputy editor in chief at BuzzFeed, who has written on diversity hiring issues, told Arana that “the pitfall many managers fall into is thinking that the most qualified candidate is the one with the most experience,” saying she and her colleagues focus on social media prowess and newsroom chemistry as well. But this is worth expanding on, in relation to my first point about timing.
A great deal of hiring focuses on finding someone who can essentially plug into a new organization immediately and start doing the work at hand right away. But even with experienced employees, this is something of a delusion. Every new job requires adjustment, even if it is not enormous — here at the Post, I am still learning to adjust my syntax to avoid the contractions that I used so frequently in my writing. And many jobs in journalism change with the person who has them: A job description may shift with a writer’s interests or strengths, or an editor may take on new responsibilities in response to new technologies.
It is much harder to hire for growth than it is to hire to a specific set of qualifications. But if journalism organizations could realign their thinking to acknowledge that anyone they bring on board is going to need to learn a great deal, they might be able to be more expansive in their thinking about qualifications. Maybe a candidate does not have a series of impressive internships, but reveals a sharp read on the product and the newsroom in an interview. Maybe a writer does not have a long list of clips but brings other professional experience that he or she can learn to express in crisply-written ledes. A willingness to spend actual time training a new hire may slow down the onboarding process, but it also means that publications can be more expansive about what constitutes a good fit.
3. Consider transitioning employees from different fields: I last worked at ThinkProgress, a liberal publication based out of the Center for American Progress. During my tenure there, ThinkProgress became much more dedicated to reporting, shifting away from its prior focus on policy analysis and fact-checking. But the fact that it was housed in a think tank gave ThinkProgress a valuable legacy: a willingness to bring in reporters and editors from other fields, including advocacy and research.
Normally, such thinking is anathema to journalistic organizations. When an experienced writer or editor leaves for a nonprofit or for an industry such as public relations, it seems like a final goodbye. But looking outside reporting and writing altogether for job candidates can be a valuable way to find new perspectives and new kinds of expertise.
This may not work for all organizations, or for candidates from all sorts of other fields. I do not know that the New York Times or The Washington Post could easily transition advocates into reporting jobs in their newsrooms. But many publications act as though subject matter expertise, rather than writing, is something you learn on the job. If magazines and newspapers were willing to flip that formula, they would find themselves with a broader pool of potential applicants and recruits.