Knock It Down:Journalism's Barrier-Breaking Leaders of Color on the Past, Present, and Future of the Whitewashed Industry

Headshots of the three journalists featured in the article, collaged together in front of a red and blue background.
This article was published in Touch Issue #93 | Spring 2022
The year 2020 revealed several uncomfortable and enraging truths, one of which was the fact that many U.S. newsrooms do not reflect the demographics and issues that they cover. The gatekeepers who have controlled our national narratives and conversations for decades remain overwhelmingly white, perpetuating cycles of harm particularly for Black and Brown communities whose voices are too often ignored and misrepresented. Media joins the ranks of industries that are long overdue for an overhaul, if not outright transformation. But what hopes remain for lethargic, predominantly white institutions? Are they beyond repair or are they yet another system we should defund and rebuild? 
 
Bitch asked three industry leaders in different parts of their careers to reflect on the sluggish improvements, lack of accountability, and their outlooks for the future. Maria Hinojosa, the innovative audio reporter, producer, and anchor who founded her own outfit more than a decade ago to address the gap she saw in news for Latinx audiences, talks about journalism’s essential work for democracy; Kevin Merida, the Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper veteran who recently became executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, opens up about the emotional impact of being a “first” in a newsroom while standing on the shoulders of those who came before him; and Lauren Williams, Vox’s former editor in chief who started the new Black-focused news organization Capital B, sheds light on the difficulties and rewards of creating a media start-up.
Jubilee: A Black Feminist Homecoming
Maria Hinojosa
Founder, Futuro Media, Radio Anchor, and Producer
 
 
The News Leaders Association set a goal to have media workforces reflect the diversity of the nation by the year 2025. It’s a goal that has not yet been met since the first pledge was made in 1978. And data shows that goal will likely not be met, which isn’t surprising, given that many news orgs refuse to share data on their own staffs. It’s pretty bleak. But we’re all still here. What keeps you here? Where are you seeing movement that feels promising? What are your hopes for our business?
 
It’s a gut punch. What a profoundly dark cloud on our profession. The best kind of journalism you can do is representative. I’ve been talking about this for my [entire] career. If your newsroom is not representative in any way, shape, or form, you cannot be practicing excellence in journalism. End of discussion. White men who own media properties respond very well to, “I’m better than you and I know it.” One hundred percent I’m better than you, and my data shows it, the awards show it. Look at our newsroom, look at yours. You cannot be practicing excellence in journalism. 
 
Mainstream media is overwhelmingly owned [and] controlled by straight white cis men of privilege. We have a structural issue that is going to take a long time to take down, so that’s why I’m sad to see those numbers. But I’m not going anywhere. The fight is still very much alive in me because this is not just saving journalism, [it’s about] our democracy. I take that really, really seriously; I do not give up.
 
You and your peers have often landed the complex distinction of being historic “firsts.” What are some of the challenges and rewards of being “first”? And how, as we move away from lauding what can sometimes feel like tokenism, can “firsts” help to not become “last” or “only”?
 
When my book [Once I Was You] came out, people [realized that I was] the first in every newsroom I worked in. [They’d ask], “What was that like?” And I was like “Well, I was really happy to have the job.” I was not walking around like, oh my god, I’m the first and this is incredible. I was like, “Jesus Christ, I’m going to be able to pay my bills. I’m no longer going to have to wait tables to pay my rent.”
 
As far as I know, I am the only Latina, maybe the first, to be running her own English-language investigative unit in the United States that is primarily focused on Latino and Latina issues. When you’re first, you have to understand your privilege, obviously, but then you’re like “What’s this privilege about?” Responsibility. Right now, I’m about using this privilege, legacy, [and] age to do the most deep accountability journalism that I can. That’s what the responsibility of a first is: to push. How are you giving back next? For me, it was investigative accountability journalism. Like, I’m 60 Minutes now, motherfuckers, and I’m competing with you. I also want to be as creative as fuck because why not? Because you cannot hold me back. That’s in part why I created Futuro Media and why [it’s] not Maria Hinojosa’s Media Company. We are growing the next generation. I have been able to pass the baton several times and it’s a beautiful feeling.

“I’m not going anywhere. The fight is still very much alive in me because this is not just saving journalism, [it’s about] our democracy.”

You’re a champion for Latinx voices and storytelling. This vast umbrella identity remains undercovered and misunderstood (see: the increase in Latinx voters for Donald Trump that apparently surprised many newsrooms), despite being one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. How do you see Latinx media changing or growing in the next few years? What do you think Latinx audiences—both English- and Spanish-speaking—need? 
 
We need so much more than just Univision or Telemundo. I still feel like given that Latinos and Latinas are the second-largest voting cohort and one of the fastest-growing demographics in terms of voter participation [rates], we’re still invisible from much of the mainstream networks. That’s worrisome—not because I’m Latina, because of democracy. 
 
I wish there was a whole lot of money out there so that creative people could [create] a progressive [network for a] self-loving, politically engaged [audience]. Telenovelas, for sure, but smart ones; Black Latinos being super present throughout; crazy great dance programs, make it fully bilingual—I just created a network. [But] that takes gazillions of dollars. Latinos and Latinas need this positive affirmation [and] visibility—because the opposite has led us to Latinos and Latinas who [voted for] Trump. [They’re like,] “I’m voting for Trump because I’m an anticommunist” or “because I want him to build a wall and keep more immigrants out.” All of those are manifestations of conservative politics. There is something much deeper here. [We don’t] go deeper to understand these voters because in mainstream news organizations, the surface is enough. Data shows that you have Latinos voting at higher numbers for Trump. Okay, they’re conservative Cubans in Miami and a few on the border, next. It’s much more complex.
 
What do we urgently need to cover this year?
 
I’m in a state of panic [because] we’re living through a perpetual state of an attempted coup d’état. [We need stories about] political accountability, empowerment, the midterms. Most days are difficult to wake up and look at what’s happening in our country, so I just say, “What am I doing today? How am I going to help?” The other big story is not only the deep racism and white supremacy [in our structures], but the increasing inequality. [Two years into the pandemic,] there are people who [built] a life and there were people who forever lost what they had. That’s part of who we are: The United States [is] not an easy place to live. Yet, [we must take advantage] of the privilege and the possibilities that we do have to keep on fighting. 
 
 
Maria Hinojosa created the independent, nonprofit newsroom Futuro Media in 2010. She is the anchor and executive producer of the Peabody Award–winning show Latino USA and cohost of the political podcast In the Thick. She has reported for PBS, CBS, WNBC, CNN, and NPR. Hinojosa was the first Latina to anchor a PBS FRONTLINE report: “Lost in Detention,” in October 2011.
 
Lauren Williams
Cofounder and CEO, Capital B
 
 
The news industry is a discouraging place for many of us. Diversity statistics aren’t even available for most organizations, but we know that they’re not great, that goals set have been missed by huge margins. But you’re still here, and you’ve just launched a new organization, Capital B, in January. What keeps you here and are there any promising signs for the future?
 
What keeps me here is the fear of what would happen if we all left. But staying in the business doesn’t have to mean remaining in newsrooms that refuse to diversify their leadership or modernize their traditions. What we’ve done with Capital B shows that there are new ways to reach people and new models to try. That’s what feels promising to me: the options. The mainstream media is never going to get there. So we just have to stop relying on it to do so. 
 
Predominantly white legacy publications and media organizations struggle to retain and promote journalists of color, especially amid culture clashes in their newsrooms. What should executives do to keep these talented journalists?
 
Lots of industries have legacy companies with toxic cultures. This isn’t excusing journalism. However, journalism has an added layer of asking its employees to do the emotionally intense labor of telling some of the world’s most upsetting and horrible stories, and to do so relentlessly, and to act like it’s a privilege. There isn’t even a word to describe the drain. People are exhausted and, especially during the pandemic, they can’t do much more. So we have to fix our cultural issues and also force our newsrooms to become workplaces that acknowledge the toll that high-quality reporting can have on the people doing the reporting, particularly folks from the marginalized groups that are often bearing the brunt of the worst societal ills. When newsrooms were filled with white men, no one thought anything of this. If diversity matters, the stress of this job has to matter, too.
 
Anytime people start to have these conversations, one inevitable response is that we should start our own newsrooms. Certainly that’s part of the solution: You did it a few months ago. But founding a new media organization can bring a host of other obstacles. How do you see these two sides of the coin? 
 
Starting a business is hard. (Ask me how I know.) It’s not for everyone. And raising money as a non-white male is even harder. It’s so patronizing to say to anyone dissatisfied with their newsroom that they should just start their own business. And it’s a cop-out! Fix the newsrooms that exist! At the same time, there are so many new media businesses that you don’t hear about as often as the flashy start-ups that have amazing benefits [and] empathetic cultures, and are doing journalism that deeply resonates with the communities they serve. There are real options out there for journalists who want to make a real impact, as long as you’re willing to let go of the idea that traditional media is the only pathway to success. 
 
Lauren Williams is cofounder and CEO of Capital B. She was SVP and editor in chief of  Vox. Prior to becoming the top editor at Vox, Williams was executive editor and managing editor. Williams was also an editor at Mother Jones and deputy editor of the Root.
 
 
Kevin Merida
executive editor, Los Angeles Times
 
 
Retention is a huge issue in media organizations. There are pay gaps, microaggressions, cultural clashes, and competition, and newsrooms—like all legacy and predominantly white institutions—have struggled to rid themselves of patriarchal and sexist norms, driving talented journalists to brighter opportunities in different industries. What do you think can and should be done to staunch the flow of people away from traditional newsrooms?
 
Retention is the issue of our time in newsrooms. We have to pay attention to our staffs, understand them as individuals. Everyone wants to be seen and treated as a singular human being. We can’t lose track of people in our own newsrooms. We’re reprioritizing this year at the Los Angeles Times, staying close to our journalists, and helping them pursue and fulfill their dreams. We have to build a culture where people want to rep us wherever they are. As in: “The L.A. Times is my house.”
 

One of the biggest, least discussed facets of our profession is privilege. Newsrooms are disproportionately staffed by people from wealthier backgrounds, and who went to private school, which reproduces issues of wealth inequality among staffers. How does that impact the profession, the stories that are covered, and the people who can afford to stay in the business long-term?
 
I always get excited when I learn about nontraditional experiences and alternative paths to our profession. Journalism largely adheres to convention. We need to be a greater part of the innovative, disruptive culture, and reflective of the times we’re living in. Diversifying newsrooms should also mean diversifying by class and life experiences.
 
A huge trend in media over the past few years involves the consolidation (and monopolization) of independent organizations getting swallowed by large corporations, creating large conglomerates. What we tend to lose in this is local news, with a progression toward national-oriented coverage. What is your perspective on this?
 
Great local news coverage is essential. We should all support that. I do. New models are developing. Mississippi Today. Baltimore Banner. We also are better equipped than ever to collaborate. Nonprofit media outlets have played a big role in driving journalistic partnerships. We need to join with each other more often.
 
A number of enterprising journalists have left legacy publications to create their own news start-ups and expand into podcasting and film/television. Media start-ups are a difficult investment, and the American notion of a start-up tends to be inherently toxic. How do you reconcile that tension? What (if anything) brings you hope for the future? 
 
For me, it’s not an either/or. No reason why we shouldn’t run the Walt Disney Company, Netflix, the Wall Street Journal, and also start Capital B, Revolt, Black Women Unmuted, the 19th. We’re still in the midst of a digital revolution. Entrepreneurs and prospective entrepreneurs have more confidence now.
 
Additional reporting by Rosa Cartagena and Laura June.
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Many journalists of color, yourself included, wind up becoming “firsts” in their newsrooms. How have you been “first” in your career, and what did it mean to you?
 
Well, I have been the “first” in more jobs than I can literally remember. I don’t take comfort or celebration in that. Sometimes I was just in the right place at the right time, accidentally first. But it’s what you do with the opportunity that matters. I remember being named managing editor of the Washington Post, the first African American to hold that position. I was busy, news was busy that day, and hadn’t really let it process. But as I got home and started checking my texts and social media DMs, it started to sink in. I was particularly moved by a message from Simeon Booker, the first Black reporter at the Washington Post, who spent much of his career in the Black press, who covered the Emmett Till murder and many other civil rights–era stories. He talked about how proud he was of me, and other decorated Post alums did as well, and it just made me cry. The emotion of the moment was overwhelming—it meant something to many others that I was this “first.” I knew that so many others could’ve been in my place—they just needed opportunity they didn’t get. We have to make it easier for the young journalists entering the profession to aspire to the highest levels, to be fearless in their pursuit. Confident and brave. That’s on us. But once you get there, be your authentic self. Be a change agent.
 
What are the most important stories that need to be told in 2022?
 
At the Los Angeles Times, we’re embarking on a major examination of mental health, perhaps the least understood, least covered—[but] important—topic of our time. I also think the challenges to American democracy, the limitations of government, the public trust in government (or lack thereof), and the fractured state of the country are all worthy of our gaze. And of course, the state of covid-19 and what comes next are central to how we live and who we are. What is the future of work? Should we declare an end to the pandemic and move on? Is there a next-generation vaccine cure or equivalent? We must be rigorous in interrogating these questions, and others.
 
Kevin Merida was appointed executive editor of the Los Angeles Times in June 2021. Before that, he was a senior vice president at ESPN and editor in chief of the Undefeated. He was at the Washington Post for 22 years as a congressional correspondent, national political reporter, longform feature writer, magazine columnist, and senior editor. During his tenure as managing editor, he helped lead the Post to four Pulitzer Prizes.  
 
 
Media organizations strive for a reporting staff that reflects the demographics of the various communities that they cover. Here is the current state of diversity in three major newsrooms compared to the makeup of the United States.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2021; the Washington Post, 2021; 
Vox Media, February 18, 2022; NPR, 2019
Editor’s Note: NPR has more updated demographic data from 2021 here.
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Additional reporting by Rosa Cartagena and Laura June.

 

Jenna is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and co-host of the podcast ‘Still Processing,’ the proud editor of the visual anthology Black Futures, and is also working on a book about the body and dissociation for Penguin Press. Jenna mostly lives and works on stolen Munsee Lenape land, now known as Brooklyn, New York, and is committed to decolonization as a way of life.