Diversity makes for better journalism

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The editor's desk

Today was a good day. A hard and difficult day, to be sure, but a good day.

Around teaching the Newspaper MA students, and a meeting with Jon and Ben about the Interactive MA, I was with the Financial Journalism MA students at city, doing technical and web tutoring on their budget day website. And what an experience it was. It made me realise how much I miss the buzz of a busy newsroom. It’s been some years since I work din one full-time now, but I do crave the feeling of being part of a team working towards something, and my current menu of work isn’t really giving me that. Something to consider.

The reason that all this came to a head is that this team of students were working exceptionally well together, and the adrenaline rush of working to a tight deadline around a major news event was harnessed well, to create productivity and great reporting, and not dissipated in stress and anger.

And that’s despite the amount of people working on a single WordPress install maxing out the database connections repeatedly – something to think about for next time we do something like this.

Financial MA students 2013/14

One thing I’ve noted this year is that a diversity of students makes for a better learning experience. Two of my cohorts have been much more diverse in age, country of origin and experience before joining the class, and that seems to bring a different dynamic to the group – one that’s very positive.

Diversity and the lop-sided enterprise

It’s an interesting contrast to offices I’ve worked in years ago, where the recruiting policy seemed always to be “more people like us”, leading to a surprisingly toxic work environment. A whole bunch of people sharing common outlooks and weaknesses doesn’t actually create a very good team. Both their strengths and weaknesses are amplified, making for a very lop-sided enterprise.

Which rather brings to mind Emily Bell’s commentary on the hires going into Vox and FiveThirtyEight:

Well, Project X may now be called Vox, but the great VC-backed media blitz of 2014 is staffed up and soft-launching, and it looks a lot more like Projects XY. Indeed, it’s impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively – and increasingly – male and white.

I love you, Bro-grammer

This theme was picked up in an excellent Medium piece by Zeynep Tufekci:

Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of “macho” jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

There’s an obsession in certain hiring circles about making sure new hires are a good “cultural fit”. I think that – in journalism – you actually want people who are a slightly poor cultural fit. Journalism at its best is a team game with a little bit of internal friction. Journalistic teams who are too matey, too similar in mindset and too comfortable slip easily into a common worldview bubble that excludes that sort of boundary-pushing, challenging journalism that makes a publication really stand out.

From Diversity, Quality

It’s utterly right to make the argument for diversity from a cultural point alone – but it’s worth bearing in mind that there is another argument that supports the same results, that of building a better team, even is that’s a team with a few more rough edges. Journalists need people around them to challenge their worldview, reporting and conclusions – because that internal process makes for better journalism, and better service to the community you’re reporting for. Too much uniformity within teams creates that toxic “us versus them” reporter versus audience dynamic that I’ve seen too many otherwise good journalists slip into.

Beware. And hire uncomfortably.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.