I Left Journalism Because It Had a Problem with Race. I Came Back to Change It.

By Fran Scarlett, Chief Knowledge Officer, INN

I left journalism 12 years ago, one of many “leavers” who had become disenchanted with the industry. I came back four years ago to join the Institute for Nonprofit News as its Chief Knowledge Officer in charge of programming and events that help INN members learn from experts and from each other as nonprofit news leaders. I was excited to see journalism presented as a public service — a different kind of journalism that is intentional about serving everyone, not just the information needs of the few. I was excited to see that, with that framework of journalism, there were a growing number of news entrepreneurs looking to do journalism in a new way — to not repeat the mistakes of legacy media, especially the mistake of ignoring or misrepresenting communities of color.

That year, when I went to present at my first INN Days, the conference was just as white as when I left eight years before. Visually, I could identify less than five people of color in the room.

Especially in our field, this cannot be. If our mission is public service-oriented, it’s essential that our industry, and INN’s representation of it, reflects the population and experiences of our nation. I’ve continued to diversify our conference every year since. A year ago, I said we’re doing our next conference around diversity, period.

That’s what the INN at Home: Racial Equity in Journalism conference is. Last September, I started putting together these panels for INN Days originally scheduled for June, which ultimately became two parts of INN at Home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I wanted to have a conference with speakers that represented the United States. I didn’t want discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion to be an offshoot — I wanted to bring diverse voices in the room so people could listen and hear of people speaking of this work and what they’re doing.

The power of this network is in its member-to-member sharing. On September 22 and 23, speakers from our network will provide supporters of public service journalism with practical tools and strategies, using their own experiences as examples, so attendees can engage in DEI work at their own organizations.

Outlets can incorporate DEI standards in storytelling, in sourcing, in partnerships, in staff and contractors and in leadership. We’ll hear from Charlottesville Tomorrow on how a small newsroom can reach new and traditionally overlooked audiences with their reporting by working equitably with media partners who already have their trust. We’ll hear from Susan Smith Richardson, the first African American CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, on what it’s like to be a change agent. We’ll hear from S. Mitra Kalita on how we can fix journalism’s racism problem, and from Ashley Alvarado on why we might need to get uncomfortable to do so.

We’ll hear from engagement leaders across the country on how you can incorporate strategies like solutions journalism, empowerment journalism and peace journalism into your own newsroom to bridge divides and address big problems on a limited budget. We’ll hear from newsrooms that have baked trust into every part of their operations.

Funders can incorporate DEI standards when they’re deciding what to fund and how to track progress in their grant recipients. With the power that philanthropic investment holds for the nonprofit news space, it’s possible to hold the industry accountable by investing in equity work and holding grant recipients accountable to that work. We’ll hear from Karen Rundlet from Knight Foundation on ways to support entrepreneurs of color. We’ll hear from Farai Chideya from Ford Foundation on how we can innovate in the service of media equity.

Of course, we can’t ask members to do anything we’re not doing ourselves. This conference is a chance for all of us at INN to learn from our members, one that is very needed. We’ve been evaluating our own actions at INN. In my opinion, as a Black woman, our silence until this point has not been okay. During the conference, we’ll disclose INN’s internal DEI report and the efforts we’re developing to support the members to also do this work. We’ll also release our first-ever INN Index Diversity Study, showcasing where the nonprofit news industry stands now so we can grow together.

We’re in the midst of a movement, not a moment. The erasure of communities of color and the work of people of color have been going on for decades — by contributing to this erasure, we become facilitators of racism, just the same as legacy news organizations. Nonprofit news has an obligation to be different because it claims to be different, and there are outlets lighting the path of change. Let’s learn from them.

In every training I do, I focus not on “you should do this,” but instead on “you can do this, and here’s how” — this conference is no different. It is possible to grow. It is possible to be more respectful. It is possible to become a change agent.

Let’s embrace those possibilities and make them realities.

INN at Home: Racial Equity in Journalism will be held virtually Sept. 22–23. Join us by registering by Sept. 18. Recordings will be available for those who register.

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INN strengthens and supports more than 250 news organizations in a new kind of media network: nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to public service. inn.org

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