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Nov. 25, 2015, 11:02 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A program from Poynter and ONA is helping foster a community of female leaders in digital media

The Women’s Leadership Academy provides camaraderie and concrete advice beyond a bundle of platitudes.

“I don’t think there’s enough support for women in media from others within the industry,” Mandy Velez told me.

Velez, who was an editor at Ashton Kutcher’s digital media company A Plus and who will next week become the editorial director for news and culture at a forthcoming mobile-focused site for millennial women, is certainly not alone in voicing this worry. But she’s been able to share her experiences and seek advice from a group of other women who also hold leadership roles in digital media.

Velez and 24 other women — whose journalistic experiences run the gamut but all fall broadly under the category of “emerging leaders” in the digital journalism sphere — are part of a new program called the Women’s Leadership Academy, a tuition-free, week-long program run jointly by the Online News Association and The Poynter Institute. The curriculum for this year’s leadership training, which took place in April, was loosely structured around themes like navigating and promoting newsroom culture, managing business negotiations, and setting budgets.

Women in established leadership roles, like S. Mitra Kalita of the Los Angeles Times and Cory Haik of the Washington Post, came to speak. On the final day, participating women drew up personal “action plans” about what they would bring back to their newsrooms and apply to their own careers. Applications for a second, slightly larger class of 28 will open in January.

Discussions around leadership can sometimes be a bundle of platitudes, but the response from the program’s first participants, and their continued camaraderie in the months after the program ended, suggest that the program was genuinely helpful. The digital sphere presents challenges on top of the ones women usually face in the workplace, and the program organizers tried to assemble a small cohort (from 486 applications) that represented a wide range of ages, ethnicities, hometowns, and career trajectories.

Funding for the program comes primarily through the McClatchy Foundation, with additional funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (also a funder of Nieman Lab), Ford Foundation, and Craig Newmark (participants just cover their own travel costs; some travel stipends are available).

“A lot of the leadership skills we focused on during the sessions were standard, core, fundamental things that anybody who wants to lead within a news organization should focus on,” said Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member Katie Hawkins-Gaar. “But narrowing the group to people who are focused on digital media allowed us to spend less time on discussion topics like ‘What if my organization isn’t thinking digital first?’ and really focus on the shared experiences of being a woman in this field.”

The program intentionally uses a broader term, “emerging leaders,” in its selection criteria, Hawkins-Gaar said, because it’s interested in targeting a level of management where many women in digital media, for various reasons, feel they’re “getting stuck and not moving up.”

“Digital newsrooms move so quickly,” said ONA executive director Jane McDonnell. “In this group, we had everyone from someone who ran a startup with a few people to someone who worked at a major media company, so our themes were around topics like how you make your way through all the changes happening in technology and in digital tools, while also leading others through your piece of this world.”

“Many digital jobs are relatively new in the media industry, so we’re exploring a lot of uncharted territory,” said Masuma Ahuja, another one of the women in the first cohort. Ahuja joined CNN this fall as its social apps producer, a job that didn’t exist a few years ago. “It’s important for people looking to enter this field to approach the industry with an open and creative mind and have confidence in your thoughts about where media can go in the future.”

Many of the women said the program made them aware of instances in which they simply weren’t being included in discussions about business or content strategy. “A lot of the women said they weren’t privy to conversations about budgets — that was a really eye-opening day for everyone,” Hawkins-Gaar said. It was critical that many of the discussions were kept off-the-record, McDonnell added, so that participants could openly discuss the more sensitive issues that affected their work environments.

“While I think all media organizations should invest in this sort of training for managers, this setting provided an additional layer of support,” Rebekah Monson, co-founder of Miami-based media startup Where.By.Us and a member of the first cohort, told me. Monson applied to the Academy seeking insight on revenue models and fundraising, how to build and manage teams, and how to scale. “I think it was easier to establish trust and be candid about issues in which being a woman can be a limiting factor — particularly work-life issues, promotion, salary negotiation, hiring — because the participants and most of the faculty were women.”

The week-long trainings were useful, but the main value of the program seems to be in the virtual community it’s created for women in digital media. Much like another group of fellows we’re familiar with here at Nieman, the Women’s Leadership Academy class has stayed in touch through social media, and its members meet up frequently in person.

When she was exploring new job opportunities, Velez said, she was reminded of conversations she’d had during the program about negotiating for fair pay, which gave her “the confidence to ask for what [she] deserved.” Her class, she said, “was there throughout the entire interview process.”

“I communicate with this cohort on a regular basis,” Ahuja echoed. “They’re people I turn to for advice, for inspiration, and for friendship.”

Monson said many women in the class have taken on new jobs or roles or launched new products, and she credits the program for jumpstarting those career advancements.

“Could they have done that without this program? Probably, because these are accomplished, smart, hardworking, ambitious people,” she said. “But I think it would have been harder, for most of us, without the training and relationships we started building in that week.”

“I would encourage all newsrooms and organizations to think more strategically about how they can involve women leaders,” McDonnell said. “We were only able to pick 25 this time, and 28 for the next class. This is a drop in the ocean.”

Photo of women in conference by J. Michael Raby used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 25, 2015, 11:02 a.m.
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