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February 23, 2018

Improving newsroom culture: four takeaways from SRCCON:WORK

Group shot from one of the SRCCON:WORK opening talks.
Photo by Erik Westra


By Melinda Szekeres, with contributions from Andrea Hart and Nesima Aberra

In December, OpenNews held the inaugural SRCCON:WORK conference. A spin-off of SRCCON (pronounced ‘Source-con’), it grew out of the realization that some of the biggest problems faced by the news-code community and journalism at large are not technical. Instead, current newsroom culture needs rethinking for us to all to make journalism more inclusive, representative, and responsive.

Democracy Fund sponsored the conference and supported Andrea Hart, co-founder of City Bureau, and Nesima Aberra, audience engagement editor at The Center for Public Integrity to attend.  They shared their key takeaways and highlights with us. We’ve gathered and synthesized them here, along with useful resources and more information from the conference that any local journalist or news organization could benefit from.

It Pays off to Organize an Inclusive Event

Hart shared that she initially thought the news-code community didn’t include her. However, the conference organizers’ deliberate and thoughtful efforts to make it inclusive event changed that.

Aberra also enjoyed the sincere support, friendliness, and respect the attendees and organizers demonstrated.

“I appreciated the thought that went into the program agenda, speakers and ways to communicate and connect with people like having tea and coffee hangouts, small break out dinners, on site counselors, childcare, snacks and more,” Aberra said.

OpenNews has shared resources on how to organize an inclusive and diverse conference. Here are just a few:

Onboarding Matters – yet Is Overlooked

Hart also recommended a session on onboarding.

This session kicked off hilariously as Melody Kramer of Wikimedia and Poynter and Kate Travis of Science News had attendees go around to share positive or negative onboarding experiences,” Hart said. “Overwhelmingly folks had negative stories to share. It was cathartic but not all doom and gloom.”

We should not overlook onboarding — Kramer pointed out research suggesting that implementing a standard onboarding process for our companies can increase new hire productivity by 54 percent and new hire retention rate by 50 percent. Effective onboarding can also set up successful mentorship, company-wide engagement, and signal inclusiveness.

Kramer and Travis provided a useful packet for employers to assess and plan their onboarding practices. It includes audit questions, worksheets to help with prioritizing levels of information, and a time tracker to help navigate the process.

We Need to Talk More About Health

The University of Miami’s Erin Brown and The Palm Beach Post’s Christine Stapleton’s powerful and brave talk about combating depression and substance abuse put mental health in the spotlight at the conference. These conversations are important to have, especially since they are so frequently hushed, they said.

Journalism is a tough industry. Reporting can be stressful because of both the nature of the topics and beats, and the pressure to keep up and contribute to a 24/7 news cycle. Systemic obstacles like alcohol and issues of diversity and inclusion don’t help, Brown and Stapleton pointed out.

“The mental health and self care sessions were really powerful and I learned that mental illness is now included in the Americans with Disabilities Act so workplaces have to provide [reasonable] accommodations for what you need to be productive and happy — from employee assistance, therapy, medication, and a quiet space,” Aberra said.

Brown also highlighted the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles employees of covered employers to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to be able to take care of ourselves physically or mentally or to provide care to someone in the immediate family.

“But if SRCCON: WORK happens again (and I truly hope it does) I would love to see sessions about what resources are available for freelancers seeking mental healthcare, especially as the industry trends in this employment direction,” Hart said.

‘I’m Not Here to Save Your Job, I’m Here to Do the Work’

Sydette Harry’s opening speech about racism in the media industry was a highlight for Hart and Aberra. Harry pulled from her experience as a Guyanese Black woman and on her work first as The Coral Project’s Community Lead and now as the Editor-at-Large. [Disclosure, The Coral Project is also a grantee of Democracy Fund.]

“One of [Harry’s] standout clips — ‘I’m not here to save your job, I’m here to do the work’ — has become my new battle cry against folks unwilling to let go of oppressive systems in journalism,” Hart said.

Harry summarized her speech in a brief interview. “… rather than expanding our view of the world, the work we [journalists] are doing and the professionalism we claim is telling people who can add amazing value that they do not belong.”

While Harry is frequently seen as representing diversity in the newsroom, she is quick to point out that this is problematic because she followed a very traditional and privileged path to get where she is today.

“We need workers that reflect the people we claim to work for,” Harry said. “But this is our moment for news. As long as we can have moments like this … where our focus is not just our career, not just our industry but our work we do, and the way it affects not just the people that we target as our audiences and ourselves and change for the entire world, I have hope.”

For more takeaways and resources, browse through the article recaps of some of the other conversation that took place. Find out more about the benefits of sponsorship vs. mentorship programs, learn about how to build an interdisciplinary and collaborative culture with technology, and much more.

Melinda Szekeres headshotMelinda Szekeres is the Spring 2018 Public Square Program intern at the Democracy Fund. She splits her time helping advance ecosystem news at the Local News Lab and researching developments on combating misinformation.

Melinda is a final-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, where she studies Social Research and Public Policy with concentrations in Economics and Interactive Media. Prior to joining Democracy Fund, she interned at KMPG Advisory, CBS News’ 60 Minutes, and Robben Island Museum among other organizations. She is a proud Hungarian-American and is interested in technology policy and impact investing.

Follow Melinda on Twitter: @SzekeresMelinda