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Jan. 5, 2016, 11:21 a.m.
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In rethinking the future of the Maynard Institute, there are no shortcuts and no direct answers

“If we were starting the Institute” — a major force for diversity in journalism — “today, what would it need to be, and how would it survive?”

How do you reinvent an entire organization, while still hanging on to the founders’ original vision? Where do you even start, faced with that kind of question?

You ask more questions, Martin G. Reynolds told me. Reynolds is currently a senior fellow at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a leading voice promoting diversity in journalism, and he’s leading the Institute’s gargantuan six-month effort to set a new course for its future programming, following the death last February of its longtime president Dori J. Maynard.

“[Dori] desperately wanted to retool the organization,” Reynolds said. “The last board meeting before she got really sick, it got brought up to the board that something needed to occur. So there were seeds of the project before she passed.”

Maynard Re-Imagined, as it’s being called, isn’t about brainstorming ways to expand on the Institute’s sought-after diversity trainings, or to shore up its media watchdog columns. It’s starting at the very core of MIJE: Who is the intended audience (or is the more suitable word now “customers”)? What concrete offerings should it make available to those audience? How should it be funded moving forward?

“We had all this credibility, and we’ve done all these great things, but what you’ve done in the past doesn’t guarantee you a future, and we can’t pin our future on what we’ve done in the past,” Reynolds said. “How can we be a viable organization that serves journalism and society in the 21st century? We serve journalism, and maybe, by extension, society, but the Institute now needs to pivot and look outside journalism, too.”

Day One

The six-month effort kicked off at the end of November. Members of the Maynard Re-Imagined committee members spent a weekend together at the Arlington offices of Politico, along with facilitator Tran Ha of Stanford’s Institute of Design; Reynolds; and the Institute’s executive director Evelyn Hsu. Reynolds and Hsu together drew up the original proposal for funding the six-month strategic planning; the Knight Foundation gave MIJE a $200,000 grant to support the rethink and the Ford foundation gave $200,000 to support the organization in the short-term. (Full disclosure: Knight is a supporter of Nieman Lab.)

The scene at the first formal Re-imagine meeting, as Reynolds and other attendees described it, was one of controlled, creative chaos. There were the requisite Post-it notes on glass conference room walls. There were existential questions delivered via PowerPoint. There were lunchtime arguments. The discussions took place under the framework of “human-centered design thinking” (unclear what this is? Here’s a playbook). There was, however, no push to arrive at any answers at the end of the two days.

“What we’re doing, it’s like remodeling, bringing the house down to the studs,” Hsu said. She and Reynolds both cited a key question posed by committee member Jim Shaffer (who’s served as CFO of the Los Angeles Times and dean of the University of Southern Maine’s business school): “If we were starting the Institute today, what would it need to be, and how would it survive?”

“Day one was a freakin’ bloodbath, because our committee was asking lots of questions, some of them really uncomfortable,” Reynolds said, laughing. “Who is the customer, if you will, what do they need, how do we provide it, where are the new opportunities — inside and outside of journalism — and how the heck is all of it going to be supported? I was thinking, what the hell did I get myself into? These are massive questions that journalism as an industry has yet to figure out, and we have to do it in six months…”

Bob and Dori

In recent years, parallel organizations like the Poynter Institute and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford have also undergone strategic overhauls. For the Knight fellowships, this meant sharpening the program’s focus to challenges around innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership (the Knight Foundation also provided strategic planning support in this instance). For Poynter, it meant growing its educational arm, seeking out new revenue sources, and a revamped digital presence.

But for Maynard, memories of the figures who lent the Institute its name loom very, very large. The organization’s history is critical to understanding how the Re-imagine committee began thinking about what audience the new Institute should serve.

The organization that would later become formally known as the Maynard Institute was founded in 1977 by a group of journalists, in response to the lack of diversity in newsrooms and any sort of systematic efforts to remedy the situation. It was renamed for one of its co-founders, Robert C. Maynard (who was the editor and then eventual owner of the Oakland Tribune) after his death in 1993. In 2002, Bob’s daughter Dori became president, pushing forward the Institute’s mission until her death this February. (Both Bob and Dori were Nieman Fellows during their careers.) Dori was universally praised upon her death as a champion of diversity in journalism.

“The goal was to have the spirit of her and the organization in the room,” Reynolds said. “But we didn’t want to get too bogged down in the history of the organization.”

Plenty of journalists know well the Institute’s vision. Since its founding, it’s trained more than 5,000 people working in media, who’ve then tried to carry that vision of diversity and fairness into their own news organizations. A few on the Re-imagine committee were close to Dori and many others had met her, though Reynolds said that, in putting together the 18-person committee, “we were very conscious we needed some insiders, outsiders, and some complete outsiders.”

Ha, the facilitator, was a graduate of Maynard Media Academy. Hsu went through its summer program for minority journalists. Reynolds himself is on the board of the Institute and runs one of its newer programs, Community Voices, which partners with local media to help train community members in various cities on storytelling, with an emphasis on digital skills.

“A major challenge for MIJE is that if you knew Dori personally, or graduated from one of the programs, or benefitted from Fault Lines training, then you know what they’re all about, and how valuable their perspective is,” committee member Stacy-Marie Ishamel told me (Ishmael heads up #teamnewsapp at BuzzFeed). “But if you didn’t — which is to say, the vast majority of people — then you had few mechanisms to ever find out. So Maynard was facing an awareness challenge, a branding challenge really, even at a time when so many headlines are about topics that are really core to their offering.”

Committee member and USA Today standards editor Brent W. Jones, who knew Dori through work he’s done with the Gannett Foundation, spoke glowingly of the planing process: “It’s exactly the kind of transparency and diversity of thought the public expects from our newsrooms and the industries covered by them. Maynard’s founders and Dori Maynard would want this.”

The long and short of it

The committee is an impressive, diverse bunch. It includes, for instance, Washington Post CIO Shailesh Prakash, Politico’s director of operations Kara Kearns, and The Undefeated’s newly minted editor Kevin Merida. Members split into two groups, one focusing on short-term priorities, the other on long-term goals.

“In the short term, finances and direction are the biggest issues,” committee member Marisa Porto told me. Porto is vice president of content for the Daily Press Media Group, and a graduate of Maynard programming. “When the economy struggles, nonprofits struggle as well. Because Maynard focuses on the news industry, it also faces the same changing business model. It’s a domino effect. News organizations are struggling, so the industry is less focused on its journalism mission and more on its survival. So Maynard, which focuses on the mission of diversity in journalism, struggles as well.”

Brent Jones (l); Danyel Smith. (Photo courtesy of Martin Reynolds)

“People who went into the short-term group recognized that we can’t really just make a bunch of asks for the short-term without knowing the thinking for the long-term,” Reynolds said. “Short-term challenges like funding are symptoms of longer-term challenges.”

MIJE, Reynolds believes, can’t expect to lean on the same foundation funding and the people who’ve paid for its training programs. The Maynard mandate to promote diversity in “staffing and content” also needn’t apply only to newsrooms. It could mean promoting diversity on the business side, on the management side, on the engineering end. Tech companies and other large, non-journalism groups are also in need of diversity training. Would Maynard serve those companies, moving forward?

“When the Institute began, it began with programs that were lengthy and immersive. But nowadays, time is at a premium,” Hsu said. “We still have people who ask for our trainings. But we are reconsidering everything from the shape to length to the means of delivery.”

“Maynard’s focus has been diversity in ‘hiring, business practices, and training programs’ for traditional print media,” Porto said. “But the face of media has changed over the years, and the question that needs to be answered is whether the organization needs to expand its scope of influence. The training programs teach skills that can easily be used in broadcasting, entertainment, technology, and other related media fields.”

Leaving the door open

Between now and January 30, the committee will hone in on the challenges identified in the November kickoff meeting and will conduct interviews with additional people in and around journalism. Then the group will meet for another intensive session to unpack the additional research and produce a preliminary plan.

Completely new programs could emerge. Existing programs could be tabled (or not). The goal is to have a plan to present to the MIJE board by March (three seats on the board have purposely been left vacant, to be filled when the strategic planning concludes). Reynolds will then spend the next six months working with Evelyn to implement the new components.

The Institute’s regularly scheduled programming continues, including Voices, its mainstay; Fault Lines diversity training; and a recent partnership with Politico to bring college students to D.C. for workshops on political reporting. But given the six-month timeline, retooling the Institute is a major priority at the moment.

“You wouldn’t report on a story that you already know exactly what you’ll write. We’re leaving the door open to whatever it is to come,” Reynolds said. “I think the vision remains, but in some ways maybe the mission has changed.”

Photo of Post-it notes by Jack Lyons used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 5, 2016, 11:21 a.m.
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