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How the Current Wave of More Inclusive Leadership Is Changing Newsrooms

Following the racial reckoning amid the 2020 protests, heads of broadcast, cable, digital and print media became more diverse. Here’s how the new guard is guiding coverage.

When Kim Godwin introduced herself to the staff at ABC News in May 2021, the incoming president talked about her family and her kids, about being raised by a single mother and having been a single mom herself. She shared with them her love of running and of fast cars, her professional wins as well as the times she had been passed over.

“Amid all that, I’m a capital-J Journalist,” she told her new team. “I say all of this to say that all of you need to bring your authentic selves to ABC News, and that will make us a better organization. Everybody has equal voice here.”

The tone-setting declaration was necessary because the division, like many other media brands after the summer of 2020, had made headlines for workplace inequity and racial hostility. Godwin’s interview for the top job had notably included questions on how she would reform newsroom culture.

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It’s a mandate that faces many of today’s editorial leaders, a number of whom hail from historically excluded backgrounds and rose to the top of the masthead or org chart over the past couple of years, as nationwide conversations about equity and inclusion came to the forefront. “What 2020 did was forge a new baseline [for diverse staffing],” says Simone Oliver, who was appointed global editor-in-chief of Refinery29 in September of that year. “‘Let’s give them a seat at the table’ had been interpreted as, ‘Let’s hire a Black person as an assistant.’ There’s been a shift in that expectation where it’s now about steering the ship.”

Never in the history of American television has there been a more diverse lineup of news chiefs. Cesar Conde broke the color barrier in May 2020 when he became chair of the NBCUniversal News Group (and the first Hispanic leader of any major English-language TV news organization), and in February 2021 he promoted Rashida Jones to president of MSNBC, where she is the first woman of color to run a news network. After Godwin moved to ABC News from CBS News, where she had been the No. 2, her former company named Neeraj Khemlani president and co-head alongside Wendy McMahon, who is white, in June. Together, they’re among the new guard attempting to transform media – what is covered, how it’s covered and who is covering – from the top down.

The ripple effect

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that leaders from traditionally marginalized backgrounds tend to beget diverse teams. “Having a range of points of view is something I’m very passionate about, because I’ve lived it,” says Khemlani, who was born in Singapore to Indian parents and grew up in Queens.

Two months after assuming oversight of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC, Conde announced the Fifty Percent Challenge, a pledge to increase the proportion of nonwhite employees from 27 percent to half of the division. “Without absolute commitment and authentic support from the chairman and the C-suite by extension, I don’t think you have this kind of transformational change across the organization,” says Catherine Kim, who was promoted to global head of digital news at NBC News in March 2021. Adds NBC News’ longtime senior vice president of editorial Janelle Rodriguez, who says she was often the only Latina in leadership meetings as recently as a decade ago, “As someone who’s also very senior, I’m not left as someone who has to explain [the necessity of diversity] to the very top.”

Or take ABC News as a case study: When the Black on-air talent at the division — a dozen in all — wrote to management in 2016, decrying “the lack of African-American representation in key editorial positions,” Good Morning America and 20/20 each had just one black senior producer, and there were no Black producers at that level or higher at World News Tonight or Nightline. Today, the division has eight EPs or senior EPs from historically excluded backgrounds — World News Tonight‘s Almin Karamehmedovic, GMA3′s Cat McKenzie, Tamron Hall’s Quiana Burns, Nightline’s Eman Varoqua, 20/20′s Janice Johnston, This Week’s Dax Tejera, ABC News Lives Seni Tienabeso and longform series and specials EP Muriel Pearson — half of whom were promoted by Godwin.

“Kim looks at the world differently,” says Tejera, one of Godwin’s elevations. “Preconceived notions of who might make sense for a given role in the past have been challenged.”

That extends to which experts are booked to add their authoritative commentary on news programs, one of an EP’s most impactful areas of responsibility. At This Hour’s Javier Morgado, who along with Erin Burnett OutFront’s Susie Xu are two of CNN’s longest-running EPs, made sure to seat a Black woman on his panel every day of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “Whether it was a constitutional law professor or someone who knows her personally, because we were looking at a mostly white Senate question this woman, it was so important to hear a Black woman process the same thing you and I were hearing,” he says. “[My work] is always through the lens of not just my own lived experience as a gay Latino but every person of color who watches us.”

GMA3′s McKenzie notes that such diverse booking decisions reverberate beyond individual shows. “You see experts being passed along from ABC News Live to Nightline, GMA, This Week,” she says, adding, “Being an Afro-Latina gives me a mission to make sure underrepresented groups are represented in our coverage. Taking the extra mile to find a Black psychologist or astrophysicist or an Asian sports star, we try to vary the voices we’re hearing from so that there’s true inclusion no matter what we’re talking about, whether it’s the Oscars or politics.”

Multiple editorial leaders emphasized their perception of inclusive coverage not as a niche, but rather a lens to be applied across all reporting. NBC News’ Kim is proud of her organization’s verticals dedicated to Asian American, Black, Latino and LGBTQ stories, but she says how those brands are positioned as part of the overall digital news division is crucial. “Especially as a woman of color, it was very important for me to signal across our newsroom that the diversity verticals are not just sections that are siloed off, but they travel across our site and there’s incredible integration and collaboration among editors all the time,” she says. “They are part of our core coverage.”

Print media has similarly seen the ripple effects of diverse editorial leadership via a wider array of subjects and angles. “When you have people of color who are in charge and have the lived experience of being people of color, that influences the way you see the world and manifests in daily coverage, the brands we cover, the designers we feature,” notes Harper’s Bazaar digital director Nikki Ogunnaike, who says she “jumped at the chance” to accept editor-in-chief Samira Nasr’s offer to join her at the magazine in November 2020 because of the prospect of having two women of color at the helm. (Nasr, who is of Lebanese-Trinidadian descent, became the U.S. flagship’s first EIC of color in its 155-year history when she was hired five months prior.)

Asad Syrkett invoked the pandemic and protests of 2020 when he was introduced as Elle Décor’s first editor-in-chief of color that September: “I believe in the power of design to challenge the way we see the world.” He did that starting with his first issue, which confronted historic Blackamoor furniture. “I wanted to pull people into a conversation about the ways that colonialism and slavery have overlaid themselves onto the world of interior design,” he says of that issue’s illustrated cover, which has since been acquired by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Interrogating “objectivity”

After six Asian women were killed in the Atlanta spa shootings last March, the Asian American Journalists Association fielded reports from some members that their outlets were barring them from covering the incident, for fear that they were too “emotionally invested” to do the job fairly. Black reporters around the country have described similar experiences when it comes to a variety of stories.

“Often when people say ‘objectivity,’ they mean the perspective of a cis-hetero white male,” says Danielle Belton, who a year ago became the second Black woman to serve as editor-in-chief of HuffPost. “For most of my career, what was considered objective was reproducing whatever the police said with no critical eye whatsoever. For so long, many in the media just took their word as golden because they weren’t part of a community that was overpoliced, and they didn’t know there was this whole other side of policing that was controversial.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the diversification of newsrooms has coincided with increased discussion among journalists about objectivity and bias. “Especially in 2020 with George Floyd, a lot of people did start to wrestle with how much of your identity comes into your work,” says Shawna Thomas, who was hired as EP of CBS Mornings in February 2021. “I want people to bring ideas that come from their full selves to the table. That doesn’t mean we don’t think about our biases as we report — it’s part of my job to figure out if their biases get in the way. It does not make them bad journalists; it makes them human.”

Thomas adds that there’s also a business motivation behind expanding editorial representation: attracting a similarly broad viewership base. And ABC News Live’s Tienabeso notes that more inclusive newsrooms can combat an existential crisis currently facing the journalism field. “Diversity creates authenticity,” he says. “That’s important, because right now there’s, unfortunately, a trust gap between the public and our industry.”

The news heads all emphasize that diverse perspectives are not limited to racial and ethnic backgrounds, and are particularly essential when it comes to socioeconomics, geography, family status and other factors. World News Tonight’s Karamehmedovic, who was born in Sarajevo and lived through the Bosnian War, says that personal histories are more relevant to journalism than ever. “As a child of war, the Ukraine conflict is personal for me, but it’s not just Ukraine, it’s other injustices that have been covered,” says the news veteran. “My personal experiences add an element of understanding what human tragedy is all about.”

Adds CBS News’ Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, who last November was promoted to executive vp newsgathering, overseeing all of the division’s bureaus and reporting worldwide: “As a society, we are not monolithic, so how sustainable, relatable and impactful can a new organization be if it doesn’t take advantage of a diverse universe of journalists?”

The pressure of the pioneer

Even as the changing faces of leadership over the past two years may be attributed in part to general enlightenment — as well as the fruition of a generation of more diverse journalists steadily rising through the ranks — certain instances of editorial turnover were a direct result of controversy that surfaced during the so-called racial reckoning. The white editors-in-chief of Bon Appetit and Refinery29 both stepped down and were replaced by Black women, which led some to wonder if people from marginalized backgrounds were finally being asked to lead for the purpose of damage control — a less-than-ideal setup for their success. “That’s a question you have to ask: Is this a token moment? Are you trying to clean up, and am I the broom?” says Refinery29’s Oliver, who posed those queries to Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc when she was approached about the job. “But when I think about my strengths, I am good at transition. So it’s not just because I’m Black that people are calling me. They’ve seen me be innovative in spaces where you don’t have a lot of resources.”

Inheriting a “weary, skeptical but also excited” staff (remotely during a pandemic, no less) has the potential to be a glass cliff situation, and Oliver says that her biggest challenge was “keeping people focused and inspired and building trust.” Even while doing her onboarding and strategic planning for the brand — typical tasks for a new leader — it was even more imperative that she take the time to sit down with every editor: “I had to focus a lot of my energy and intention on building trust and also trying to sharpen my vision. But listening to the team was the number one thing. Asking them, ‘How are you feeling? This is a crazy time.'”

Listening to her new staff was also the No. 1 priority for Versha Sharma, who is Teen Vogue’s third consecutive EIC of color but came aboard last May after a public outcry from the staff over the originally intended incoming top editor’s past racist and homophobic tweets. “It was a difficult and challenging time for people,” Sharma acknowledges. “The fact that I had a lot of prior management experience helped to establish trust, as well as my reporting and journalism experience — and that I had a visible history of elevating [others].”

The staff also met with Yashica Olden, who in September 2020 had been hired as Condé Nast’s first global chief DEI officer. “It was a painful period for our employees. Because of everything that was happening in the world, I think for them it felt very much like a situation where they weren’t being heard by senior leaders at the organization,” she says. “It was really important that we wrapped our arms around people and made them feel like we were listening, and that we were making moves where they felt safe.” Olden adds that for someone in her position, there is a tension that exists between professional responsibility and personal empathy: “It was incredibly difficult. On the one hand, as a leader in the organization, we believe in redemption and people’s ability to improve, but on the other hand, I’m also a woman of color and related very much to everything people shared with me.”

Even without a tumultuous transition, succession can pose lofty challenges, particularly to those newly charged with legacy brands. “It’s a different level of responsibility to be in charge at a storied legacy show, and I always like to think of myself as shepherding and protecting the show itself, the people who create the show and the brand. That’s what I’m charged with,” says 20/20′s Johnston, who was promoted to EP in January 2021. “But when you’re a storied brand, you don’t want to spend too much time looking back. You’re standing on that foundation already. Editorially, our job is to keep the show facing forward.”

Radhika Jones also wasn’t shy about making that intention clear when she became Vanity Fair’s first EIC of color back in 2017, and she weathered scoffing and skepticism from elitist traditionalists over her editorial sensibilities, which included more cover stars of color, rising from 17 Black subjects in the 35 years preceding her arrival to 25 in the five years since. “What is this, Ebony Fair?” a prominent publicist once sniffed of Jones’ choices, according to a New York story in 2019.

“There will always be resistance to change from certain quarters, but defenders of the status quo just end up making themselves obsolete,” Jones says now. “It’s much more fun and rewarding, for me and Vanity Fair, to be in conversation with an audience that is in touch with the culture and is future-minded — and to see that audience respond so positively. Success is a pretty convincing outcome.”

Sustaining the momentum

Longtime ESPN editorial executive Rob King was promoted to executive editor-at-large — overseeing the overall journalistic direction across the entire company — in March 2020, just before the world changed. Conferences and leagues grappled with bubbles and shortened seasons as athletes — many of whom are Black — made their voices heard about police violence and other forms of racial injustice roiling the nation.

“We were in extraordinary days,” King says, describing his dual responsibilities of spearheading the external work of editorial coverage, including how the network’s forward-facing talent were themselves responding to national events, as well as the internal work of listening to employees who were hurting and seeking to be heard (ESPN was among the media brands hit with an investigative exposé about racism in its workplace). “It was a lot of work — a lot of people committed to speaking honestly and to having the courage to ask questions when folks didn’t quite understand one another. And because of the pandemic, our work was harder to do. I had quiet moments where I felt like I got the job just when it was going to be most important to have the job.”

Many of the new guard cope with the challenges of the job and the pressures of their unique status as “the first or the few” by turning to one another for solidarity, even across companies. CNN’s Morgado and CBS’ Thomas are part of a peer group of EPs who gather for socialization and professional troubleshooting. “It’s a group of people who know they can call upon each other for advice and it’s not going to get leaked or be seen as a competitive advantage,” says Thomas. “I could call Javi today and be like, ‘How would you think through this?'”

Morgado agrees. “We get together to help each other out, because we do face challenges. When you’re in your first year of EPing a show, it can be scary and daunting. Yes, we’re competitors, but it’s more important for us to be in the collective spirit of celebrating each other’s successes.”

On the print side, Teen Vogue’s Sharma notes that some of Condé Nast’s women of color EICs — which include Radhika Jones as well as Allure’s Jessica Cruel and Pitchfork’s Puja Patel — share a group chat to ask each other questions about tricky situations. “It might seem small but it’s also massive,” says Sharma, who was grateful to Jones for giving her a ride to her first Met Gala.

“People of color like us were never trained to be in this position [of leadership]; we’re thrust into this arena we didn’t have access to before we get here,” Cruel adds, noting that Condé has provided her with an executive coach. “That has been crucial to my success,” she says, as has been the support of her predecessor Michelle Lee (the magazine’s first EIC of color) and outside mentors. “I do feel loads of pressure: ‘Is this [editorial decision] going to have all the Black people in America calling me?’ I rely heavily on [pioneering Black beauty editors] Mikki Taylor and Michaela angela Davis to lift me up. That’s helped get rid of my imposter syndrome.”

The veteran pioneers are determined to keep the pipeline to leadership stocked with diverse talent. “I’ve always felt this sense of responsibility associated with the opportunity I’ve had,” says Rashida Jones, who this year launched an annual scholarship for journalism students at her alma mater, Hampton University, an HBCU. “For a long time, my big career goal was to be an executive producer in a major market, to work for the person who worked for the person who ran the station. What if I had had a person to look up to as a freshman? How do I use this opportunity to create avenues for the fantastic leaders who will come behind me?”

Associated Press CEO Daisy Veerasingham, who upon her promotion last August became the first woman and person of color to lead the 176-year-old organization, points to a couple of new AP talent initiatives, including an internal leadership development program for non-managers from underrepresented groups. “It’s really important we do this,” she says, “not just to acquire talent but also to retain the talent we’ve got and show that there are pathways for people to progress in their careers.”

Surveying the current media landscape reveals that diverse leadership has come more quickly to some brand categories than others. In print, most top editors of color lead women’s and lifestyle publications. (The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet is retiring next month and will be succeeded by his deputy, Joe Kahn, who is white; Veerasingham’s role at the AP is not as a journalist.) The pattern isn’t unlike how diversification began on the television side. “When I started in the business more than 20 years ago, many news leaders with diverse backgrounds were relegated to oversight of weekends,” notes digital and broadcast veteran Anthony Galloway, who in February was hired from The Wall Street Journal to oversee programming and production for CBS News’ streaming network.

“My gut is that people are willing to try new things and experiment with lifestyle media,” says HuffPost’s Belton. “General news is considered — at least by some — to be ‘more important’ and therefore more conservative and resistant to change under the auspices that men, and in particular white men, are best for these news outlets, as they’ve always traditionally led these outlets.”

Bucking this line of thinking will be Semafor, the global news startup from former BuzzFeed News EIC and New York Times media columnist Ben Smith and former Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith, which tapped South China Morning Post, Wall Street Journal and Reuters alumna Gina Chua to serve as its founding executive editor. “We’ve been looking to hire people who have navigated very complex questions around how to cover stories where there are these deeply different narratives and perspectives, and how to report the facts without imagining that you can reconcile everything into a single point of view,” says Ben Smith. “Gina had one of the all-time hardest and most complicated jobs in that department in running the South China Morning Post, so both her personal and professional background made her obviously the most qualified person for this gig.”

Chua, who was born in Singapore and also is one of the most senior out transgender journalists in the United States, notes that a new brand has certain appeal when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace. “This is a wonderful adventure and opportunity to start from scratch,” she says. “I don’t want to spend time unraveling things that were done years ago.”

Adds Smith, “We didn’t do this perfectly at BuzzFeed, but certainly in thinking about representation in a 100-year newsroom that has been hiring a certain way for everyone’s lifetime, there are obviously huge advantages in starting fresh than in wrestling with existing ratios.”

Still, editorial heads across a variety of brands are sanguine that the leadership shift that CNN’s Morgado describes as “seismic” is not just sustainable, but also a winning strategy for the industry’s very future. “If we want to survive, we need diversity of thought,” says Belton. “The newsroom that figures that out is going to be ahead of everyone else.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.