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The year news orgs say “yes” to real leaders

“It’s not that those in charge now don’t know there are problems. It’s that they too often respond with versions of ‘Yes, but we can’t fix it,’ ‘Yes, but it takes time to fix it’ — or worse, a denial that it’s their problem to fix in the first place.”

We know that our news environment is broken — because it doesn’t represent us, because it proliferates falsehoods, because it devalues those who want to change how we do things. We also know that there are people doing amazing and vital work to uncover truths and tell the stories that help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

The gap between those talented people and systems that should support their work is huge. We need strong leaders to bridge it. I believe that 2019 will be the year that those leaders step up and are given the resources they deserve.

It’s not that those in charge now don’t know there are problems. It’s that they too often respond with versions of “Yes, but we can’t fix it,” “Yes, but it takes time to fix it” — or worse, a denial that it’s their problem to fix in the first place.

So it’s time for leaders with vision to take the reins — from budgets to hiring to key editorial decision-making.

Two things to clarify here: First, this leadership is vital for both the health of our society and the health of our industry. It’s a business imperative — not that that should be the primary case for doing the work needed to create diverse newsrooms.

And second, leadership doesn’t necessarily mean the executive editor or editor-in-chief. It’s the person in the newsroom who controls or affects the way the group responds to internal and external critiques. It’s the one who decides which freelancers to work with and which to pass on. Leadership is especially crucial when day-to-day decisions are made about which stories to cover and how.

Many of us who’ve worked in newsrooms intuitively know what that means. You’re reading or listening to a story in which is a source is labeled by their race or religion as a shorthand — but only if they’re not white — and there was no one in the editing process who might have noticed. Or you’re talking about a story with your team and one person — often a minority in the group in some way — raises a red flag. At that point, the editorial discussion becomes really interesting and the story gets better — or, too often, a leader in the room shuts things down or brushes off the concern. Or you’re talking to an executive because of your concerns about the editorial structure, and they might nod or they might disagree. But they definitely do not take action.

The leaders who step up in 2019 will make decisions on the daily that bring inclusion, that will change the way resources are spent and will improve the news that we all get. They’ll make mistakes and be humble, but they’ll have vision and the will to change.

Like others who write these predictions, perhaps mine is more of a hope. But it’s time. It’s 2019.

Angilee Shah is an independent journalist and editor.

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