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June 6, 2019, 12:06 p.m.
Business Models

Promoting based on potential: How The Atlantic is putting a lot more women in charge

“The only way to put women in leadership is to do it for the first time.”

It’s not a shocker that a lot has changed at The Atlantic since it was founded all the way back in 1857. Perhaps more surprising, though, is how much has changed there in just the last two and a half years.

In 2016, women made up just 17 percent of editorial leadership at The Atlantic. Today, women account for 63 percent of newsroom leaders (see the masthead here; though this story focuses on the editorial side, there are a lot of women on the business side too). In 2018, 75 percent of new newsroom hires were women.

This isn’t an accident. The Atlantic — like other news organizations that have sought to diversify their staffs, though there’s still a ton of work to be done — has been intentional about hiring more women and people of color under the leadership of Jeffrey Goldberg, who was appointed editor-in-chief in 2016. Adrienne LaFrance, who joined The Atlantic as a tech editor in 2014, has risen through the ranks to become the publication’s executive editor, the first time in The Atlantic’s 162-year history that a woman has held that role.

(Adrienne is also a former Nieman Lab staffer, like her Atlantic colleagues Shan Wang and Megan Garber.)

And it’s worth noting that it was in 2017 that a majority stake in The Atlantic was purchased by the Emerson Collective, which has fueled a hiring spree and is, of course, run by a woman, Laurene Powell Jobs.

I spoke with Goldberg and LaFrance about how they are thinking about the hiring and promotion of women at The Atlantic. Here’s some of their advice.

Prioritize it.

Adrienne LaFrance: It’s very easy to say that you care about diversity or having women or people of color in leadership. It’s a different thing to actually make it happen. With every single hire you make, you’re making a choice. Our goal is to hire the very best journalists for whatever role it may be and not limit ourselves to just half the population.

Jeffrey Goldberg: [Women in editorial leadership] is a top-tier priority for me. It’s in the basket of the top 2 or 3 things I have to get done. We have some opportunities for expansion — like the [post-Emerson uptick in hiring] — that give me the room to maneuver.

When you’re being sexist, recognize it.

Goldberg: I am lucky in that I have my own personal gender advisor. My wife [Pamela Reeves] advises Melinda Gates on gender issues. She introduced me to the concept — which you don’t have to be married to a gender specialist to understand — that women are judged on experience and men are judged on potential.

When I really thought about that early on as editor, it helped me to look at the world in a different way. I began to look, inside and outside the organization, at who did not fit traditional models of what editorial leadership might look like. I studied their potential, their innate leadership abilities, their competence and ambition — and I thought, I’m surrounded by amazing talent, and it’s under-utilized talent. Adrienne is a perfect case in point, but we’ve done this now probably a dozen times or more.

It’s cognitive. It serves the function of leveling the playing field, but the problems are cognitive and cultural. It’s understanding women and their potential roles inside organizations different than previously.

LaFrance: When I started here at The Atlantic in 2014, when I became the tech editor, there were no women who were more senior than me [in any section or in the print magazine]. When I became editor of the website, there had never been a woman in charge of the website before. Across the newsroom, we’re putting women in positions that they’ve just never held before. The only way to put women in leadership is to do it for the first time.

Embrace discomfort and remember: It will make your organization better.

Goldberg: My number-one goal is to find the best leadership talent to run The Atlantic. It’s in The Atlantic’s best interest, it’s in my best interest. By opening up the possibilities of younger people, women, and people of color, by imagining their rise in a deliberate way, I’ve just widened the pool of potential leadership. So it serves The Atlantic.

There’s no quota system here, but there’s a lot of latent leadership talent inside The Atlantic and there’s a lot of latent talent in quality print journalism, generally.

LaFrance: We obviously want extraordinary journalists in every position. In some cases, maybe, the hiring managers are male and can see themselves in the [male] candidates, but it’s about making sure that you’re looking outside of your own experience and your own career trajectory to think about what various paths and skillsets people could bring to the role. It’s just always making sure that in your pool of finalists you have diversity, you have really strong finalists who are different from one another.

At times, that means you have to keep going back again and again, and hiring takes longer than you may want.

This is just adopting a mindset that the work is never done. It’s not like you hire women or put women in charge and then say, We did it! It’s a continual state, working toward diversity.

Goldberg: Writ large, our goal is quality right now. We’re leading up to a subscriber model [to launch this fall]. We have to make more, better journalism all the time. I think we’re doing better than we ever have and I don’t know how to link that to the gender issues, but I think diversity sharpens the mind.

We’re about 160 people at this operation now, not including freelancers. I think having a very diverse editorial organization — diverse in gender, race, age, ideology — when you put all these people in the same room in the same organization, especially inside a country that’s so fractured and polarized, I think you’re going to create moments of tension and discomfort. I think you’re also going to create much sharper journalism.

Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, The Atlantic was basically a bunch of white guys and some women in helping positions. I’m sure for them it was very comfortable, but they were just not being challenged in a daily way. Their assumptions weren’t being challenged, their story selection wasn’t being challenged, the choice about who gets to write stories wasn’t being challenged. And now we live in a situation inside this organization where, I hope, every assumption is overturned, and every decision is discussed and dissected through various prisms, including race, gender, ideology, and age.

And I think everything gets better [with more women], by the way. I used to cover the Middle East and I think the thing that hamstrings Middle Eastern countries more than almost anything else is that they tend not to tap into half their population’s potential and intelligence. When half the people are women and they’re just not being used for the betterment of society, you’re not going to be a dynamic country. It’s the same principle applied to any field, any place.

Acknowledge where you have fallen behind.

LaFrance: Our most core, loyal readers are disproportionately male. If you look at our overall audience, it’s more evenly split, but if you look at just the most active, loyal readers, they’re more male. We are actively thinking about how to bring in more women as readers and subscribers. I think you do that just through elevating quality, generally. We want to bring the smartest, best journalists across all the topics we cover and we believe that if we do that, that will reach women as well as men.

Goldberg: We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. —Ed.]

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

The more women you have in leadership, the more women you have in leadership.

Goldberg: One of the things I’ve noticed is that the more women there are in leadership, the easier it is for women to be in leadership. There’s this theory of critical mass — if you’re an organization that’s, say, 10 men in leadership and 1 or 2 women, women have to do a lot more just to stay in that leadership group. They have to do a lot more advocacy for workplace issues that men might not be thinking about.

[One case in point is the story of how women at The New York Times fought successfully for better parental leave, a story told in this week’s episode of The Double Shift, a podcast by 2017 Nieman Fellow Katherine Goldstein. —Ed.]

It was important for me not to just raise up and promote a couple of key women. I want to create conditions in which women and people of color don’t feel like they have to represent all the time, they can just do their jobs.

Nobody comes here to be the advocate for gender parity, the advocate for the inclusion of people of color. They come here to do journalism. We have to not just promote a few stars, but distribute this widely so that burden-sharing becomes tolerable within an organization.

LaFrance: It’s stunning when I look around at the colleagues of mine who are indispensable to our institution’s success, and who wouldn’t have been here in an earlier era. I wouldn’t have been here in an earlier era. It’s pretty remarkable to me just to see how much can change if you resolve to do it, and then do it.

Graphic design students Mackenzie Robinson and Bethany Faulkner created a “copycat” Atlantic magazine for a school project. This art is from their cover.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     June 6, 2019, 12:06 p.m.
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