NextGen Convention Reflection: Michelle da Silva

After leaving the newsroom one evening this spring, I revealed to a colleague that while I dreamt of being an editor one day, I couldn’t really imagine doing it.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I don’t really see people who look like me getting leadership roles in media,” I replied. “Men become editors and publishers. Some women do the same – if they’re lucky. But to be a woman of color in the newsroom, I’m surprised I’m even here, to be honest.”

A recent NPR article looking at gender and color lines in American newsrooms found that only 37.7 percent of bylines were credited to female journalists in the past year. Furthermore, visible minorities comprised just 17 percent of newsrooms.

“Nationally, Hispanic, black and Asian women make up less than 5 percent of newsroom personnel at traditional print and online news publications,” the article stated.

Diversity numbers at alt weeklies aren’t any better. Newsrooms are typically small, with just one to two staff writers, so what’s the likelihood those people aren’t going to be white or male?

As a woman of color, I have been very lucky. I’ve also worked very hard at two of the largest alt weeklies in Canada. But when I look around me, especially at media industry events, I’m an anomaly. Employers are making efforts to increase diversity hiring, but most of the time, they aren’t for decision-making positions. We’re writers and copy editors, production and art department staff. While our bosses continue to mostly be white men.

I felt no different looking around the conference room at AAN. While there were maybe a dozen or so journalists of colour in attendance, not a single conference session was led by a racialized person. Not a single person of colour sat on panel discussions. I was one of three journalists of colour in a room listening to a speaker tell us how she, a white woman, accessed marginalized spaces.

The glimmer of hope, however, came to me at the Women in Leadership session with Susan Patterson Plank. A few weeks before going to AAN, I was promoted to online and social media manager at NOW Magazine, my first leadership position in a newsroom. I had been nervous in my new role, taking on more responsibility as a decision maker and learning to manage employees.

So it helped that the first thing Susan said to everyone at the session was to write down a statement of how we wanted to be described as leaders.

“If you write things down, you’re more likely to do it,” she said.

I wrote the words “confident,” “thoughtful,” and “inclusive” on a piece of paper, and then listened to a few attendees who volunteered to read their words aloud.

Susan spoke about her own challenges as executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, of how she learned to stop apologizing for everything and gain confidence in herself. She urged women, especially, to take credit for our work and to sit at the boardroom table during meetings.

“It’s not all going to come at once. It takes practice,” she said, encouraging us to leave the session focused on just three leadership aspects from the very long list of tips she provided.

The ones I chose to focus on were to start setting personal and business goals more often; to find an advisor or mentor, even outside of my place of employment; and to not be afraid to take risks.

“You don’t have to be 100 percent ready to do something,” Susan said. “Look at all the guys around you. They’re confident.”

The other session that left an impression on me was Transformative Journalism with Donna Ladd, who talked about her experience covering racial issues in Jackson, Mississippi. Donna stressed the importance of seeking out stories that aren’t typically covered by mainstream media, and entering sometime uncomfortable spaces to meet the people affected most by the issues.

Donna’s own experiences uncovering the political, judicial, and sociological inequalities that Black communities face in Jackson reinforced for me the importance of ensuring there is diversity in our newsrooms. The only way we’re going to tell these stories right is by inviting people from those communities to write about them. The media might also miss these stories or not account for blind spots without diverse representation in our newsrooms.

One thing that’s been on mind a lot since returning home from Washington is how now, in a leadership position in my newsroom, I’m going to implement some of these takeaways. I know leadership skills I learned from Susan have already benefited me in terms of being more fearless.

I have also made a concerted effort to employ freelance writers from more diverse backgrounds, but I know that simply trying is not enough. If newspapers, especially alternative media, is to survive the next decade, it’s in the stories we tell, and how much those issues resonate with the changing landscape of readers.

Da Silva, Online + Social Media Manager at NOW Magazine was a winner of the 2017 AAN Diversity / Next Generations Scholarship. She attended the Annual Convention in DC and reflects here on some impactful experiences from her time there.