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May 6, 2021, 8:30 a.m.
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Swati Sharma is leading a new era in Vox’s mission to “explain the world”

“When I think about the kinds of stories I want us to do more of, it’s the kind of coverage that pushes people to have the conversations that lead to real change.”

In 2014, Melissa Bell, Ezra Klein, and Matt Yglesias started Vox.com, a news outlet that pioneered explanatory journalism.

Seven years, 13 podcasts, one Netflix series, and millions of readers later, Vox’s leadership was ready for change. In 2020, Klein, who was last the editor-at-large, left to join The New York Times as a columnist. Yglesias went independent and started his own Substack newsletter, Slow Boring. SVP and editor-in-chief Lauren Williams left to cofound Capital B, a newsroom to cover Black America. Bell is Vox Media’s publisher.

Enter: Swati Sharma.

Sharma joined Vox as its editor-in-chief in March 2021, the third one in the site’s history and the second woman of color to take on the role. Sharma was previously the managing editor of The Atlantic, where she oversaw all the sections, including politics, culture, technology, ideas, science, family, global, health. All of those became even more relevant in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged through every part of daily life as we knew it, and The Atlantic became all the more essential. Before becoming managing editor of The Atlantic, Sharma was its deputy editor. She came to the magazine from The Washington Post, where she was a general assignment editor and a foreign and national security digital editor.

We discussed Sharma’s plans for Vox, the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in newsrooms, and getting to know her new staff remotely. The conversation below is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: What has the first month been like?

Swati Sharma: The first month has been really wonderful. I joined Vox because it has strong values, it has a clear and, in my opinion, crucial mission and it’s just been so great, talking to people, collaborating with people. I’ve been trying to learn the newsroom and Vox Media at large and just been trying to talk to people and and understand what it’s all about.

Tameez: Coming off a historic year for The Atlantic, how did you decide to make the change?

Sharma: The question for any media organization is reall, “How do you make your work distinctive? What is your brand’s North Star?” That’s something that The Atlantic really tried to figure out — and, I think, did figure out — over the last few years, and you saw that through the pandemic coverage. Now I’m at Vox, and it’s the same question: What is the brand’s North Star? What is the vision of the brand?

The answer will be very different from what the answer was for The Atlantic, but I’m going through the same process of learning Vox in the way that I learned The Atlantic in the way that I learned The Washington Post when I was more doing general assignment reporting, and then before that when I was doing national security and foreign news. I love learning about the brands and figuring out how the work can be distinctive.

Tameez: What do you think the North Star of the Atlantic was? What is it for Vox?

Sharma: I don’t want to speak to [The Atlantic’s] strategy now, but I think we had some of the best writers and a really great brand. The Atlantic has been around for 165 years. Its role in the moment … was to be really disciplined and deliberate with its coverage and figure out what spots it wanted to own. The Atlantic is known for making bold arguments, but it’s also known for revealing big ideas. It’s known for getting out stories around human behavior. Obviously, that was when I was there, and it’s a different reality now, post-Trump and post-Covid.

With Vox, I’m figuring out the same thing. Vox’s core mission is to explain the world, to add clarity, to provide all the information to empower audiences, and to do it in an approachable, inspiring, and helpful way. One thing I’m thinking about a lot is: How do you sharpen Vox’s explanatory approach, given that so many of our competitors have widely imitated it? A lot of my thinking is just trying to figure out how do we make Vox distinctive.

Tameez: What are some of the lessons either from The Atlantic or earlier in your career that you’re bringing into this role?

Sharma: I am a woman of color and an outsider in this industry. Whenever I start a job, I double down and try to just learn the place. The people in charge aren’t often the people who make the decisions — there are other people who influence them. So I put a lot of time into understanding and learning a newsroom. I’ve done that whether I was a junior producer or the managing editor. I’m doing that same thing now. It would be naive of me to go into Vox and be like, “This is how we do things now.” I’m trying to learn the place, and in learning it, I do, of course, have a vision, but it’s only becoming stronger the more I talk to people.

Tameez: You’re coming into Vox after it just celebrated its seventh anniversary and after two of the three co-founders left within the last year. How do you think about those things as you move forward in your work?

Sharma: Our journalism is a top priority for me. Great journalism, for me, means having an inclusive and generous culture and a diverse workforce. Having a great newsroom culture means so much to me and it goes hand in hand with having great journalism.

I want our work to be even more distinctive and ambitious than it already is. I want each story is to be excellent. Again, I keep using the word “distinctive” because it’s an important word to me in this moment. When I think about the kinds of stories I want us to do more of, it’s the kind of coverage that pushes people to have the conversations that lead to real change. It’s stories that help people live better lives, stories that clearly define how the culture we consume shapes our worldviews.

Of course we’re going to keep writing with authority about policy initiatives, but I want to make sure we’re not just writing for the lawmakers, but for the people who will be affected by the policies we write about. I think it’s so important for our stories to be approachable. Julia Belluz recently did a story on Covid long haulers. She took this complicated thing about why people are still feeling Covid symptoms months [after being diagnosed] and it was presented in such a clear and approachable way. That was a good example of what Vox does.

I think about how our coverage is also helpful. Dylan Scott had a piece about how we shouldn’t let insurance companies charge people for Covid-19 vaccines. We provide clarity, and part of that is looking at the complex problems in our world and providing solutions for them. Kelsey Piper, one of our writers for Future Perfect, had this great piece about how to develop vaccines before the next pandemic. I think this is where Vox is at its best. I want to bring more discipline and deliberation into what we do best and keep doing more of that.

Tameez: What is your day-to-day as a remote editor-in-chief like? How do you learn the newsroom when nobody’s in the newsroom?

Sharma: It’s been pretty great. It’s actually easier to meet more people when it’s just on Zoom; you can just keep scheduling meetings. That part of it has been, in some ways, a gift. I am an in-person person and I love newsrooms, but I also feel like I’ve been meeting more people than I normally would.

I am such a workflow, process person, and I feel like the only way you can have real changes is if you have the workflows and processes in place. So I have the right morning meetings and I join team meetings and I have a lot of one-on-ones, and I have the structures in place so that I’m not only meeting a lot of people, but also understanding the analytics, and also weighing in on stories, and also talking to editors and meeting writers.

Tameez: What are some of the challenges in providing explanatory journalism, in an era where news moves a mile a minute and everything needs an explainer?

Sharma: One challenge is how you maintain consistency across all platforms. Vox is growing fast and in many different ways, so that’s a challenge we have to keep trying to figure out how to solve.

I also said this before, but again, staying distinctive is a challenge. I think Vox offers something very specific in this industry, but we have to keep our focus there.

Another challenge is journalist burnout. Our challenge is to make sure that we have a supportive, generous newsroom where people feel seen and heard and taken care of.

The last challenge is to keep making sure that we have a diverse and inclusive newsroom. That has to stay a top priority, not just for me but for a lot of leaders in this industry.

Tameez: How are you planning to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion in ways that are meaningful and sustainable at Vox?

Sharma: Everyone’s trying to recruit different types of candidates from different backgrounds. I think we’re seeing that happen. But one part I’m really focused on is: How do you have the culture where people of different backgrounds can thrive? It’s so easy for newsrooms to have a certain culture where only certain types of people thrive, and I don’t want that to happen [here]. I want Vox to be a place where, no matter what, you still feel seen and you don’t have to conform to other people. That you can really be who you are. That is really really important to me and something that I hope we can we can maintain.

[Sharma wrote more to me about this in an email:

It’s important for newsroom leaders to grasp the basic concept that their journalism is failing without a diverse staff and inclusive newsrooms. Until diversity, equity, and inclusion are seen as fundamentally tied to the work, we won’t be able to build the teams we need. Every person in a newsroom needs to see this as part of their responsibility. This isn’t reflected only through hiring, but also through our stories, news coverage, contributors, freelance, visuals, how stories are assigned, policies, and more. And every person of every background should take these initiatives seriously — it shouldn’t fall only on people of color. When hiring, it’s important to really gauge what you need from the position and think about hiring people with different resumes, backgrounds, and experiences. The newsroom — and our audiences — will be better and stronger for it.

We are working to make sure there are coaching and mentoring opportunities so people of color and people with various identities and experiences have equitable access to guidance, context, information, and decision making. We want to create and maintain an environment in a newsroom where people of all backgrounds are seen and heard and feel valued. There are concrete ways to address this — think about who gets praise and why, who gets to speak in meetings, how you set a stage where people feel comfortable chiming in conversations and brainstorms and pushing back.

Management is important, and often an undervalued trait in journalism. A newsroom’s work is only as strong as a newsroom’s culture. Managers should check in during difficult news moments and during difficult life moments. Knowing when to tell people to step away, encouraging them to take time off, and empowering them in their work leads to a better workplace culture and experience.

Now back to our conversation. — HT]

Tameez: How do you plan on measuring both the success and impact of Vox’s journalism going forward, and measuring your own success and impact?

Sharma: If you come back to me in a year and want to talk to me about how great we’re doing, that will be a success. A distinctive, excellent, recognizable version of Vox is my goal. That’s what I want to do and that’s the thing that’s driving me. I want to empower audiences with information they need. I want to push people to have the conversations that lead to real change. I want to inspire people to live better lives. I hope more and more people read us and more and more of our work resonates with people. That’s success to me.

Image courtesy of Josh Ariza/Vox.com. Headshot by Melanie Robertson Photography.

POSTED     May 6, 2021, 8:30 a.m.
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