Diversity—or lack thereof—in journalism startups, cont.

Emily Bell weighs in on the response to her Guardian column from last week

Someone is wrong on the internet, and I wonder if it might be me. Last week I wrote a piece for the Guardian about what I saw as a disappointing trend: high-profile journalism startups reflecting the structures of old media. Namely, they’re led by white men. Many women cheered both publicly and privately, saying, “Everybody wants to say it, nobody quite dares.” Others did not, saying that I was both overlooking and diminishing the roles of women in new journalism startups by writing them out of the script.

Had I forgotten Melissa Bell, the co-founder with Ezra Klein of new venture Vox? Why underplay Laura Poitras, who Glenn Greenwald consistently and meticulously includes as a co-founding inspiration in the Pierre Omidyar-funded First Look? What about all those other women who were starting journalism businesses?

The most thought provoking responses came from Melissa Bell, who elegantly pointed out that if my coverage overlooked her, then it added to the problem of visibility in the media. This is true. It made me wonder how many editors had asked to interview Klein and Bell together. Another excellent piece came from BuzzFeed’s deputy editor in chief, Shani O. Hilton, who wrote about the difficulty of building a diverse newsroom and what steps can be taken to help with hiring.

Men were more eager to point out what was wrong, and others wrote to me privately saying that they thought there was a problem, both in new startups and in existing mainstream outlets. Those directly dealing with introducing diversity—founders and editors—were generous in explaining how iniquities exist but remain difficult to solve. As someone who was briefly in the unenviable position of being ‘board champion for diversity’ at the Guardian several years ago, I feel their pain. Numbers do not change without investment and hard work, nor without counting and prioritizing.

Writing a column is often a process of sharpening words until they are sharper than your thoughts. Had I been unfair in my assessment? The numbers for all startups, where journalism is not broken out, are indisputable. Venture capital money mostly goes from men to other men. Estimates of what proportion of funding, exactly, goes to women-owned startups vary but never get above 15 percent, and are often as low as 7 percent. In journalism there are maddeningly few solid pieces of research on what is happening to digital jobs, as Ann Friedman pointed out here last month. So we are reduced to counting what we know.

Initially my article was inspired somewhat by Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, which launched Monday. He was quoted in Time.com talking about how rigorous his hiring process is, and how it is ‘too important to be left to HR reps.’ He said that he plots hires on a grid for rigor and empirical reporting.

Anyone who has a grid on which they plot employees for suitability needs a third axis (this will be familiar territory to statisticians) which represents diversity. Not because employers need to feel good about themselves, but because homogeneity can be a business problem. Women are interested and active in politics, business, and sports. We are 50 percent of the market in the main demographic. Some of us would very happily challenge Silver on football knowledge (soccer to Americans; football everywhere else), and many of us really would like to see far more women writing about all these topics. Entering a predominantly male environment can be offputting for women, both as consumers and employees.

Nate Silver clearly didn’t like the angle my response to his Time.com quote took—he told New York magazine that he found my piece “really frustrating,” adding that of those applying for jobs with FiveThirtyEight, only 15 percent are women, which he also finds frustrating. Just by sharing that statistic, however, he provides motivation for improvement. Given that his staff is just under a third female, Silver is doing better in finding women candidates outside the available applicant pool. In time one hopes there will be a data journalism site having the same 50:50 ratio of men to women as Kara Swisher’s Re/code.

The grander point that I tried to make, and will continue to hammer away at, is that journalism is important. It shapes information and the way people engage with vital issues. It is exciting to be around at a time when talents like Silver, Poitras, Bell, Klein, and Greenwald want to do better work in new formats to be relevant to wider audiences. But doing it differently is not just words on page, or line graphs, listicles, and math. Doing it differently means considering the workforce, the outward face of the organization, and measuring it as as carefully as Silver does. One of the most common refrains I heard last week was, “Are we still having this debate?” Yes, I’m afraid so.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.