“We’re all having these conversations and we’re putting in so much work. But at the end of the day, what are we dishing out?”
—Philadelphia Inquirer staffer on the Inquirer for All process
“I really want to believe this is forever, and that this is not trendy, but I haven’t really been given a reason to think that it’s not trendy.”
—WHYY staffer on WHYY’s DEI and community engagement efforts
It’s been over three years since news organizations around the U.S. pledged to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their newsrooms, and six years since I began talking with representatives of Philadelphia area newsrooms hoping to push their organizations towards greater equity and community engagement. The conversations I had along the way were frequently tinged with cynicism—would these initiatives make meaningful progress or merely be performative? And would they be sustained?
Scanning the U.S. journalism field today, it would seem skepticism was warranted. While news organizations have undertaken DEI efforts, researchers have found journalists of color were more likely to feel pessimistic about meaningful progress, and DEI workers were often grappling with complicated responsibilities without clearly defined expectations. Many of the media companies that announced DEI goals still hired mostly white people, particularly at the management level, and BIPOC and DEI staff have at times faced the brunt of layoffs. As one DEI worker told me, there is a sense that companies are attempting to “get back to normal,” without acknowledging that “normal” never served BIPOC journalists or communities well. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a Pew study of Black Americans’ perceptions of news coverage found a majority still feel representations of Black people are disproportionately negative and missing important information.
The challenges and precarity of this moment underlines the need to grapple with some of the key questions I explore in my new book, Antiracist Journalism: The Challenges of Building Equitable Local News. The book follows case studies of DEI and community engagement efforts at four Philadelphia area journalism organizations—two established majority white metro newsrooms, and two majority BIPOC startup nonprofits. First, I follow efforts at the public media station WHYY to track the diversity of their sources and institute a cultural competency and community engagement program. Their work began in 2017 but has faced ups and downs with staff turnover and resource constraints. I also follow The Philadelphia Inquirer from my time co-leading a diversity and inclusion audit following their publication of a racist headline in 2020. I explore their establishment of a large DEI initiative, Inquirer for All, which involved some 80 staffers on multiple committees, as well as critiques they have faced from external accountability groups such as the Philly Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network (JAWN). I then shift from the repair work of majority white organizations to the innovative work of two nonprofits, Resolve Philly and the hyperlocal news outlet Kensington Voice. I also looked at the role of foundations and DEI training and journalism support organizations involved in interventions attempting to make local news and information built environments more equitable.
Philadelphia is a city with a long history of collaboration and innovation in local journalism. It is also a city with one of the highest levels of philanthropic spending on journalism, at more than $50 per capita. This is particularly salient as the new Press Forward initiative has announced plans to invest $500 million into local journalism—noting that Philadelphia will be one of their local chapters. While some have high hopes that philanthropic investment will bolster local journalism, others have called on funders to center equity, and noted a track record among foundations of supporting intermediaries rather than directing operational dollars to BIPOC-led and owned organizations.
Press Forward has characterized Philadelphia as a place where “visionary funder collaboratives have created flourishing news ecosystems that provide a roadmap for others to follow.” While I would agree that Philadelphia is home to important innovations in the local journalism space, the way funding circulates in the system can be a double-edged sword, creating opportunities for experimentation and laying foundations for collaborative initiatives but also digging grooves that may be difficult to redirect or bubbles that artificially insulate problematic organizational behaviors. This combination complicates the idea of Philadelphia as a sort of “test kitchen” for local journalism innovation. In some ways it does function as an ideal site for reimagining local journalism practices, but the attention and resources it gets means things that work in Philadelphia may prove challenging elsewhere. At the same time, resources could protect some Philly news organizations in a way that shields them from needing to make transformative change.
The sections that follow, adapted from the conclusion to my book, focus on journalistic practices and power dynamics that could apply to a variety of local journalism organizations and systems. I offer some recommendations for journalists, newsroom management, journalism support organizations, funders, and journalism educators invested in making local journalism more equitable and antiracist.
Standardize Community-Centered Journalism Processes
Many of the struggles Philadelphia newsrooms like the Inquirer and WHYY had over the course of my observation stemmed from a lack of infrastructure to integrate an antiracist and community-centered orientation throughout the cycle of reporting, editing, and circulating coverage. Community-centered journalism practices that prioritize an ethic of care are critical to building trust and sharing narratives with and for BIPOC and marginalized communities in particular. But while relational community engagement has been a prerequisite for equitable journalism, engaged journalism practices at these organizations were often siloed off as something special teams did, rather than integrated as a core reporting competency. If news organizations want to commit to equitable journalism, all reporters and editors will need to integrate skills such as community organizing and outreach into their reporting practices. This will require revised production timeframes to allow reporters to build relationships when they are not on deadline seeking to extract a quote.
These organizations were doing some special projects that could be adopted at broader scale. For example, if reporters for the Inquirer’s communities and engagement desk are genuinely being allotted time to hold community office hours and/or attend community meetings (not for a story), this may be a practice all reporters could benefit from. Going further, the experiences of hyperlocal projects that involve community members throughout the journalism process, like Kensington Voice or Resolve Philly’s Germantown Info Hub, offer insights into the relationship building required to do nonextractive community-centered work over time.
Reallocating time resources will require tradeoffs about what is and is not covered. But editors have always made such choices—with many historically prioritizing, even if unintentionally, the information needs and interests of whiter, wealthier constituencies. If organizations are genuine about moving toward more equitable journalism, building deeper relationships with BIPOC and other marginalized communities offers an opportunity to recalibrate coverage priorities.
Internal Accountability Infrastructure for Equitable Journalism
The newsroom cases I’ve followed show that equitable and antiracist journalism cannot hinge on good intentions. Accountability infrastructure is critical to encouraging reflexivity among management and staff about the choices they make in the journalistic process, particularly in majority-white news organizations. I define accountability infrastructure as systems, structures, or programs that facilitate a process of holding stakeholders with more power (e.g. news organizations, editors, CEOs) responsible for listening to and addressing the needs and concerns of those with less (e.g. BIPOC journalists and community members). This infrastructure will ideally take a wholistic approach, as quick fixes are unlikely to be meaningful.
Tools for tracking source demographics, for example, show the complications that arise from trying to quantify how white supremacy and anti-Black racism are ingrained in newsroom culture and practice. Yes, there was value in attempting to track who was and was not represented in coverage. But value mostly came from actively engaging reporters and editors in the process (as WHYY did) because this encouraged them to be mindful of whose voices they were showcasing (for this reason, I am less interested in automated source tracking systems that don’t directly involve the reporters/editors). The data produced by this exercise were interesting but incomplete. For example, raw data might suggest that a Black woman was represented by a Black reporter—but it will not reveal a racist framing used to construct a narrative as part of crime coverage. That said, quantification still offers value as a way to measure recognizable performance metrics against DEI goals.
Other DEI infrastructure showed promise for assessing more nuanced issues, such as how whiteness influenced the framing and style of stories, but they came with additional limitations. The Inquirer’s “content consult” Slack channel offered a space to explore and learn as reporters and editors discussed potentially sensitive stories ahead of publication. But the channel hinged on who opted in, and many noted concerns that it felt like a fraught or harmful space and was seen as a “cover-your-ass” operation. The Inquirer’s proposed post-publication “retrospective” process, where staff would discuss stories that have already run, was billed as a space to discuss successes and areas for improvement, though the extent to which it would meaningfully tackle issues around whiteness and antiracism was not clear. Finally, the Inquirer’s ”antiracist reporting guide” offered a more holistic intervention by offering questions to be asked of staffers in various roles at various points in the production cycle—for example, “Who am I centering in this story?” or “Do I need to ask my manager for more time so I am culturally competent enough to tell this story?” However, many expressed dismay that the guide’s implementation was not incentivized. These examples suggest there may be value in creating dedicated performance metrics relating to participation in equitable journalism systems and processes. This of course is not so simple. For example, the Inquirer did try to note participation in Inquirer for All committees in performance reviews. But that committee work was optional. In addition, requiring a Black reporter to take part in a (potentially retraumatizing) antiracism intervention, is not the same as requiring participation from a white reporter, for whom it could present a valuable opportunity for growth. Future performance metrics could be developed in a way that is not race blind but instead adapts to a staffer’s intersectional positionality. For example, just as staffers may create personal development plans for craft or leadership skills in a performance review process, so too could they create a development plan to work on cultural fluency with marginalized communities with which they do not identify (which may include identity categories such as a gender, disability, class, etc. in addition to race/ethnicity).
DEI workers cannot offer a one-size-fits-all framework to implement internal accountability infrastructure. However, as the American Press Institute’s Letrell Crittenden has recommended, while it may not be possible to address every component in an institution at once, doing an initial assessment of needs and assets may aid a news organization in prioritizing infrastructure needs. When organizations accept that this work needs to be part of core operations and not a special project, they can begin to create supports for more equitably assessing information needs, developing sources, editing stories, and engaging communities in the content that is produced.
Internal Accountability Infrastructure for Equitable Workplace Cultures
There is overlap between the infrastructure needed to push journalism processes toward antiracism and that needed to create more equitable workplace cultures. It is unlikely that the former can be sustained without the latter. It is therefore critical that news organizations have investment not only within newsrooms but also across organizations. The shape and form this takes will likely depend on an institution’s needs. For established institutions, the need for repair of historical harms complicates the work of building trust within workplaces. This may necessitate ongoing infrastructures akin to Inquirer for All committees, taking care to ensure that participation does not fall disproportionately on BIPOC staff while holding white staffers accountable to BIPOC staffers as they set priorities and move toward goals. But as the Inquirer’s experience suggests, voluntary structures alone may not be enough to repair toxic cultures or create spaces that encourage retention if they are not paired with meaningful adjustments to who holds power and how people are compensated. While it may be challenging to fully adopt in a large, unionized organization, some of the approaches of smaller start-ups like Kensington Voice offer compelling alternative practices, such as budget and pay transparency and participatory budgeting.
In addition to addressing issues like pay equity, HR systems need to be synced across organizations to ensure more equitable recruitment. This will mean rethinking hiring practices and channels, and questioning common criteria that may favor white and wealthier applicants. This may also mean standardizing requirements for cultural competency so all applicants enter the workplace with an understanding of DEI issues and antiracism goals. Even when an organization is performing well (e.g. when under the leadership of a BIPOC manager attuned to issues of equity), it is critical to put infrastructure in place so progress can be sustained and institutionalized.
Organizational Governance and Transitional Leadership
As these Philadelphia cases illustrate, an organization’s leadership and accountability to organizational governance structures can have a major influence on its capacity for progress. For both WHYY and the Inquirer, as with many mainstream media organizations, top leaders reported to governing boards with no accountability to the public or to staff. In the case of WHYY, the board’s relationship with the CEO stretched back over twenty-five years. The Inquirers’ CEO was relatively new, but her response to external critics like Philly JAWN (who called for greater transparency on DEI goals) suggests she may not be open to dialogue with independent accountability groups. Given the structures in which these executives operated, it would not be surprising if such leaders prioritize news outlets’ bottom lines rather than goals around equity or community engagement.
The approaches of these leaders (who both identified as white) of established majority white news organizations stand in contrast with those of the smaller start-ups profiled that were comparatively less white. Resolve Philly’s founding co–executive directors, one who identified as Black and one who identified as white, followed a co-leadership model and worked to cultivate a work culture with a relatively flat hierarchy where staff with a diverse range of intersectional identities and lived experiences could directly engage them in accountability conversations. Kensington Voice had been led by a founder who identified as white, but she transitioned to a support role, hired and promoted editors who identified as Latinx/e to leadership roles, and created a board consisting entirely of Black and Latinx/e community members. This community-led board was not an advisory board, but rather the governing board with the power to approve budgets and provide oversight to management.
I recognize that the organizational complexity of large established news organizations means what works for Kensington Voice may not work for the Inquirer. At the same time, leaders of larger organizations may adapt transferable elements from these start-ups—such as the idea that being a good leader may not hinge on the duration of leadership but on the transformative change that can be made while under one’s care. This idea of transitional leadership to transform organizations and systems is something that could be adopted at larger organizations, though doing so is unlikely without normalizing and incentivizing conversations about it. This points to a potential opportunity for metaorganizations (including funders) and external accountability bodies to encourage more expansive visioning that reframes sharing or relinquishing power as a positive accomplishment of transformation. Such conversations could similarly encourage discussion around related infrastructure to support transformation, such as term limits for executives, and community-led boards where non-management staff and members of the public could nominate and vote on boards—to offer oversight for leadership.
External Accountability Infrastructures
The journalism organizations observed in this book interfaced with a number of bodies that offered critical external accountability. These included the long-established infrastructure of trade unions—which were key to highlighting issues around pay equity at both WHYY and the Inquirer. BIPOC journalist affinity groups including the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the Philadelphia chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists played a critical role, both in directly organizing and publicly calling out news organizations through social media and other forums, and by collaborating on the Philly JAWN initiative. Additionally, the national metaorganization Free Press supported both Philly JAWN and additional accountability work in concert with the Shift the Narrative Coalition, which focused on narratives around violence and policing.
While the relationships between these external bodies and established news organizations were tense at times, news organizations can approach external actors with a spirit of shared goals. These actors may essentially be acting as “loyal opposition,” prioritizing different interests and seeking change, but doing so with a shared sense of care for the news organizations and their missions. At a time when many communities were not engaged with these news organizations due to a lack of trust or interest, caring enough to express concern should not be taken lightly. Newsrooms and external accountability bodies potentially have a shared investment in sustaining news organizations that serve local communities. If these parties can establish a constructive working dialogue, there may be a valuable opportunity for learning and development, whereas an antagonistic relationship played out on social media is likely to further erode trust in the news organization.
Newsrooms can also take more agency in supporting and collaborating with external accountability groups. While not every news organization will be willing to create a community-led governing board, there are numerous models for advisory bodies. What is crucial is for such infrastructure to incorporate a way for the news organization to share power with the external community group instead of being performative or extractive by “listening” without sharing any power. This is an area that would benefit from incentives from funders and other metaorganizations—be it by funding BIPOC journalists’ affinity groups, initiatives like Shift the Narrative or other yet-to-be-conceived efforts, and supporting news organizations like Kensington Voice, who are taking steps to meaningfully share power with community-led boards.
While collaborative journalism has a history in Philadelphia, the cases I explored in my book suggest that collaborations are not inherently equitable and can bring unintended consequences. Much depends on the orientation news organizations and their staff bring to collaborations. Newsrooms I followed (and individual managers and staffers within them) varied greatly in terms of their openness to collaboration, their reflexivity about the power dynamics involved, and their commitment to equitable and nonextractive collaboration.
Many of the cases highlight positive examples of what is possible in a system where collaborative groundwork is in place, but these cases also point to the complexity involved. Organizations like Resolve Philly have done considerable work building infrastructure for equitable collaboration through their Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative (previously known as Broke in Philly) and other projects that often prioritize the needs of smaller partner organizations. At the same time, there were times when elements of their work that involved giving microgrants to other newsrooms (including, for example, Kensington Voice) may have yielded less funding for those newsrooms than if a funder directly made individual grants to the partners (of course, it is an open question whether small partners would have ever gained the attention of many funders without Resolve). WHYY’s project the News and Information Community Exchange, or NICE, is another example of an organization pursuing its goals for community engagement while supporting other local storytelling actors in the system. WHYY gave NICE partners – a mix of podcasters, bloggers, influencers, and ethnic media producers – a stipend to participate in weekly meetings, share resources, and discuss possible collaborations. Some were featured in WHYY programming, though collaboration with their newsroom was limited. Its initial efforts highlight the importance of “moving at the speed of trust” with partners and the value of establishing clear shared expectations. The example of the NICE project also underlines the need for news organizations to secure investment from across their institutions and find ways to integrate community engagement initiatives with general newsroom operations.
Cases I followed also underscored the need to handle collaborations with care and showed what can happen when they are not. Among other instances, I heard from smaller outlets like Kensington Voice about challenges they faced when they attempted to collaborate with bigger outlets like the Inquirer. They noted how they sometimes struggled to protect the trust they had built between their organization and community members when a larger organization sought to engage with community members as sources or when the larger outlet’s investment in a project was not sustained. Their experience illustrated the challenges of any one outlet building relationships of trust when community members could develop a generalized sense of distrust of news media—underlining why collaborations grounded in equity were critical.
Funding for Transformation
Local journalism is of course largely operating without a viable market-based business model for financial sustainability. While innovative revenue efforts are underway, including by many of the journalism organizations discussed in these chapters, larger structural reforms and policy interventions are needed that are beyond the purview of this article or book. In the meantime, media organizations would do well to look critically at how their aspirations for equitable and antiracist journalism square with their existing business models, which are often enmeshed in highly inequitable racial capitalism and tend to prioritize imagined white consumers. In the current moment, particularly given Press Forward, philanthropic support from foundations may play an increasingly critical role for many news organizations. Journalism funders may consider lessons in the preceding sections related to building both internal and external infrastructure for accountability and to incentivizing equitable collaboration and difficult conversations around organizational governance and opportunities for transitional leadership. Funders seeking to prioritize a more antiracist and equitable system may also do well to recalibrate their budgets so that the bulk of funds go to BIPOC-centered and -led organizations, with some reserved for strategic interventions to support transformational BIPOC leadership within established organizations at key moments.
Journalism education in the United States faces both challenges and opportunities, many that parallel the challenges within the industry. Many J-schools face shrinking enrollments, while some elite universities have launched niche master’s programs at eye-wateringly high tuition rates. At the other end of the spectrum, concerns over a lack of diversity within the journalism industry have led some to pursue more accessible and inclusive approaches to journalism education. This includes collaborations with community colleges, pay-what-you-wish courses for journalists of color, and initiatives, such as City Bureau’s Documenters, that challenge the need for journalism school and professionalization more broadly, by training community members directly to commit “acts of journalism.”
Of course, many who, like me, are already within the university-based system of journalism education are also invested in reimagining the status quo—and doing repair work within our own institutions. We grapple with many of the same issues as legacy news outlets. We are often disproportionately white faculty, including a sizable number of colleagues who are themselves alumni of harmful legacy outlets. Some left these outlets out of frustration and a desire to repair, but others maintained an allegiance to their former employers’ traditions and practices. I have spoken with faculty around the United States who have shared concerns that while they have attempted to teach more equitable iterations of journalism, they have also encountered students who had already learned problematic frameworks from other instructors, such as uncritical interpretations of “objectivity” norms (some of us gathered to discuss our efforts at a recent Engaged Journalism Exchange preconference on reimagining journalism education).
This moment of flux in the industry and the academy offers an opportunity to revise and reimagine the canon of journalism education and to create new opportunities for more accessible and inclusive training. When reworking what we explore in classrooms, we can redefine standards of “good journalism” as inherently community-centered, antiracist, and equitable. We can teach competencies like nonextractive community organizing practices as part of the work of reporting. We can teach strategies for journalists to self-monitor the diversity of their sources, integrate equitable workflows into their reporting and editing, and monitor their work for harmful frames. We can train students to be practitioners of what Sue Robinson calls “identity-aware care.” We can also teach the development of accountability infrastructure as core practices of newsroom management, and we can explore case studies of newsrooms that have pursued greater equity and learn from their success and shortcomings. We can also welcome community members into our classrooms, as I’ve been doing this fall in collaboration with a paid community fellowship program to allow students to collaborate with residents of North Philadelphia on solutions journalism reporting. The more we can normalize equitable journalism as standard journalism practice, the better equipped our graduates will be to contribute to the reimagining and repair necessary for the industry to retain relevance.
Progress or Performance?
Reflecting on my five years observing Philadelphia media, I am conscious that I am offering a partial snapshot of a moment of flux. But from this slice of observations there are insights to consider. Cumulatively, these cases trace how interventions attempting equitable and collaborative journalism at multiple levels can affect ties within what communication infrastructure theory calls local storytelling networks—in particular, relationships between local media and community stakeholders. They also show how colorblind ideology, whiteness, and anti-Black racism can be infused into newsroom practices and norms irrespective of the intentions of managers or staff—weakening network ties in turn. But the interventions undertaken by both established and start-up journalism organizations also demonstrated a range of takeaways for newsrooms committed to equitable journalism to consider either adapting or avoiding. Of course, this snapshot is not a comprehensive panorama—for example, none of the interventions involved local broadcast television stations, who are often implicated in circulating problematic narratives.
Accounting for both the insights and limitations of my observations, what does this snapshot of activity add up to? What does all the buzz around local journalism in Philly amount to? Is it real or just performative? The voices introduced in my book show a range of possible answers. Listening to Ernest Owens, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the conclusion would be pessimistic: “It seems to me that a lot of these groups have gotten better with including more people, but I don’t think they’ve gotten better at advancing more people. . . . Visually the aesthetic is changing, but when we’re looking at power, that’s not changing. . . . The people who are calling the shots and the serious decision makers still remain largely white.” Independence Public Media Foundation’s Molly de Aguiar similarly outlined why she was not optimistic about shifting power:
There’s little perceived incentive for those in power to do the very real, hard work of reimagining the system and sharing or ceding their power in the reimagined system. I say “perceived incentive” because there are real and powerful incentives—like clarity about and liberation from the systems of oppression that trap us—but undertaking this journey requires deep commitment to oftentimes painful self-examination, learning, change, perseverance, and also a vision for what is possible. For most people with power and privilege, it’s simply much easier and more comfortable to do nothing, or to do just enough to make them look or feel like they’re doing something.
At the same time, none of these people were abandoning efforts to advocate for real shifts of power. Rather, they—like many others doing this work—were being more strategic in how and where they invested time and resources. For some this meant investing in change when openings arose and trying to lay foundations for infrastructure that, while unsexy, had potential to be more than performative. Yes, there were elements of performance in how powers within Philadelphia institutions heralded individual DEI and community engagement initiatives. Critically recognizing this should not undermine the value of these initiatives – it should highlight the need for more advocacy for transformative change that cuts across institutions.
As one DEI worker noted about the work of becoming “an antiracist institution”: “That is a commitment to a lifestyle, that is a commitment to a culture, that is a commitment to a way of activism that really lasts a lifetime, not just for a quarter.” The work of equitable journalism will never be a finished project. For media organizations, the goal should not be a destination to be reached but rather processes to be integrated into institutional frameworks and the day-to-day practice of journalism. There really is not an acceptable alternative to proceeding forward in this work irrespective of the multifaceted challenges facing journalism, as Sachi Kobayashi of Public Media for All noted: “People are like, ‘Oh, it’s a new pot I have to mind.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no. This pot was always here. You’ve just been ignoring it for multiple decades.’ You don’t get to treat it like a new one and be like, ‘Oh, so novel. I don’t know how to juggle this many pots.’ You left it on the back burner for decades. Maybe it’s time to leave something else on the back burner now, if you really can’t handle two things on the burner at once.”
It is true that the cooks in Philly’s test kitchen of local journalism still have occasional kitchen fires as they tend to pots and develop recipes for a more equitable news and information system. But I do think there are chefs to watch here. Some may be more presentation than flavor. But there are also thoughtful kitchen staffers creating infrastructure to slowly simmer multiple pots. There are things happening here in Philly. Many merit critical skepticism. Others are incomplete, untidy, and uncomfortable. Looking at how existing interventions play out within the system cumulatively, often complicated by complex ties of collaboration and competition, highlights that while there is dysfunction, there is also dynamic movement here. The test kitchen may need a gut rehab, but Philly shows us we can keep stirring pots while the construction work is underway.
Adapted from Antiracist Journalism: The Challenge of Creating Equitable Local News by Andrea Wenzel. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Andrea Wenzel is an associate professor at Temple University and a former Tow Center fellow. She is the author of Antiracist Journalism: The Challenge of Creating Equitable Local News (Columbia University Press, 2023) and Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust (University of Illinois Press, 2020).