When Francisco Vara-Orta went to the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in 2013, he said “he knew his place.” And it wasn’t as part of IRE.
“I wasn’t an investigative reporter—I didn’t have the title,” he said. “I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t white, and I wasn’t ‘one of the boys.’”
Eight years later, as of September 2021, Vara-Orta is the first director of diversity and inclusion for Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), trying to make sure IRE isn’t the space that he initially observed. He was first hired as a training director for IRE in 2019, after years of experience at the Los Angeles Times, Chalkbeat, and various newsrooms across Texas.
The Objective’s Janelle Salanga spoke with Vara-Orta about what diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion look like in practice, the importance of not confusing progress with perfection, and more.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your path through journalism. How did you get started with doing more macro-level work with the industry?
My first job in journalism was at a publication called La Prensa in San Antonio, a bilingual publication that was free and served primarily the Latino community. And you can get it at all the businesses around where I grew up, which is a very working-class, mostly Latino, but pretty mixed, as far as some former military, lots of single moms, Black [people]. There was a Korean immigrant community.
So I grew up with a degree of diversity. My mother always talked about it, that it was a good thing—it was important to appreciate other people’s cultures, so early on, I had that appreciation of culture and diversity in my household. So through that and reading books, I think that’s where it started.
I know a lot of folks have come around to this [macro-level diversity work] later in life through some type of traumatic experience or episode. But my relationship with it started, I think, in a positive manner. It’s been more perplexing as I’ve lived to see how it’s viewed as such an ugly thing, or bad thing, or corrosive thing to this country and world.
When I started at La Prensa, I started to experience this because the daily mainstream paper, which was mostly a white staff, really looked down on La Prensa. That was kind of the beginning of me starting to realize how different I was even in my own backyard in my hometown. But while La Prensa didn’t have the resources, or the training, or maybe the editorial direction that the mainstream paper had, it was serving a need that the major daily never reached. It was giving me a platform at the age of 17 to write news stories just because they needed staff writers. They took a gamble on me, so I really credit the “ethnic press” to giving me my first ticket into the room of being a journalist.
From there on out, inherently I just was either assigned stories about people of color, or they were the ones that I found myself most attracted to. They were the ones that I saw no one picking up or like struggling with and it would come to me, so I felt like I might as well do those stories. I had the privilege of going to a Hispanic-serving institution, so my college newsroom —which is something a lot of us [journalists] go through—was mostly Latino. And my next job after that was at the Los Angeles Times. Even though Los Angeles is very diverse and, predominantly in some places, Latino and Mexican American, I did not see that in the newsroom.
I noticed as I worked my way up through journalism programs, fewer and fewer faces looked like mine. Back in San Antonio, it looked more like me, so I felt this disconnect. I had professors and teachers from all backgrounds saying, “You’re going to make it like you’re the type in this bunch, it’s going to go national.” That really helped me feel motivation and security, but in hindsight, I wonder, “What didn’t they see in my other classmates? Where did the pipeline break down for the people around me?” On my education team of four people, I was the only male, but I’m also the only one still in journalism.
I saw that race and gender really are two of the biggest issues, and you also see how class in a capitalist society, in the U.S. also is a factor. It’s not just a white male class issue, it’s usually tied to your race or gender. That has led to these rooms not being reflective of this country, and as that gradually registered more and more, I felt more and more of a need to more explicitly center my work around this topic.
I think it’s interesting that you brought up your professor saying “Oh, you’re gonna make it national,” because I think that speaks to the glorification of pursuing national news over more local outlets like La Prensa. How else have you seen and thought about that in your own work?
There is a lionization of working in a big city at the big media outlets. And look at the raw data. I mean, the numbers show that the majority of journalists are not in those spaces, they’re in community newspapers, their local TV stations and radio, they’re in their communities, and they cover their counties, they cover their towns and their cities.
That’s really one reason I decided to stay at IRE, because we do have a more explicit mission now of making sure that people know that while investigative teams sound somewhat elite, that the idea and the techniques of investigative reporting can be done by anyone anywhere. And that is something that we have to deconstruct partly because it [investigative reporting] was viewed as a straight white male image at the Washington Post. We all grew up with All the President’s Men. You don’t want to take away from the power of that moment and the press holding the administration accountable.
But we have to think, why was there not a Black person or a woman on that team?
That’s something I thought about in later years. Who are my role models? I came to learn them way later in life when I started to get to a place of better agency and I no longer knew where to look. I thought about Ida B. Wells, I looked at Ruben Salazar. The more you know about your own cultural background, you learn about who your journalism ancestors were, who never got credit. Maybe in AAJA, or NAHJ, they’re a household name in those spaces, but not to greater newsrooms and J-schools.
You can go back and look at years of reports of journalists of color and queer journalists and women journalists saying, we need to do a better job at x or y. And we’ve seen success, with organizations like The 19th*. Organizations you would think, “Do we still need them in 2021?”
We’ve needed them forever. Now, we’re just legitimizing them in a way that the industry is less defensive of the need for them.
It’s also difficult when you’re not going to a big city, like New York or Chicago, where maybe there’s a more intersectional scene reflecting your identity as a journalist. So you have to decide, where do you want to go? You might want to be one way as a queer person. But then once you bring up your—for you, for example, Filipino heritage, you don’t know what microaggressions you may experience. Like for me, in the Mexican American space, transphobia or homophobia shows up in all kinds of different ways, so you end up defensive in both cases.
It sounds like the IRE Journal issue you and IRE’s editorial director Madison [Fleck Cook] worked on is one of the ways you’re hoping to highlight that this is something a lot of folks experience, and something editors need to understand when they work with folks who are queer or trans in their newsrooms. What else do you think is important for them to know?
Just because we’ve seen some, what might feel like sustainable, progress in the industry, when it comes to queer visibility specifically, and to some degrees racial visibility, doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Progress does not mean perfection.
That’s where I think people get defensive and feel exhausted. In the context of right now, we have to always underscore everything with the pandemic. I just don’t think you can uncouple the general malaise and fatigue that people are feeling about fixing the world and changing the world. It does feel with how much consumption of information we have at our fingertips, that the world is constantly on fire. When you’re a person of color, you’re used to trauma around you all the time. When you’re a queer person, the same thing. We’re very equipped to be able to do two things at once, so a lot of queer people of color come from a very “fighter mentality” about resiliency.
There’s stories done about this. Can we get to a point where we don’t need to do those stories because we no longer need to be that resilient? We particularly see this in the U.S. in stories about queer Black women and trans people. Can we get to a point where they can just be joyous and free? Why are we not striving for that standard, as opposed to going, “Well, look at what we already have [in terms of visibility]”?
I think you can acknowledge what people are putting into the other equation of your relationships, and give them validation, but it doesn’t mean you stop there, especially when your needs haven’t been met or respected. That’s what I see younger journalists have less patience for, and I think that that is a good thing, to say, “We don’t have time to wait, we need to address these things. Now.”
You don’t always get it right. You know, you trip up. But it’s about how you own your mistakes. That’s part of the process. But I think journalists, we’re so in the business of being right that we’re scared of ever messing up. And that is an unrealistic standard.
Will it be fixed overnight? Not necessarily. Will we agree on how to fix it? Not necessarily. But that feeling of urgency is what every journalist, and particularly every white journalist, needs to absorb fully, to not be defensive in doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work, because it will benefit them in the long run.
Going back to sustainable progress, what is the legacy you hope you’ve created for IRE once you transition out of the position? What does “progress” look like to you and how are you thinking about making that sustainable?
There’s definitely a few ways. I think metrics are important. I don’t think it’s the only way to measure sustainable progress if you don’t have great data to start with. [We asked], how do you build the infrastructure to collect data? Especially around identity. People do not always want to disclose their background. That can make it hard to know how to tailor the programming. So trying to get a hold on that as best we can, is one of the main things that I have been stressing and that IRE and that my team really believe in.
For example, when we started looking at our membership data in 2019, we saw we had about 6000 members or so. At the time, of the people who had given us their data, we could only say at least 13% of our membership were journalists of color. But I knew from being around the space more and more, because my first conference was in 2013, that wasn’t accurate.
It was a slow burn for us to figure out “How can we make this sustainable?”. We did a listserv in Spanish when I was a grad student there. And then when I got hired a few years later, full time, as a trainer, I was the only trainer of color. I was the only person of color on the staff. We’re only about 13 people. But still, inherently, these questions came to me. I thought, “Do we even have a snapshot of what we look like?”
That’s what every journalist will tell you: Get the data because you can’t go off what you feel. But I felt like there were more people of color in our membership than we knew. A lot of them maybe didn’t mark the box, or we knew we were on the cusp of getting more of them, because every time we would go teach at schools that didn’t have J-schools, I would see majority women, and I would see a good-sized number of people of color.
In just two years of us making a better effort and publicizing the importance of filling out your data, we now can say 30% of our membership is journalists of color. We know now we have more capital in saying we need to serve these communities better and make our space more accommodating and welcoming so that people of color want to stick around.
You also have the DEI symposium that we did last year, and that was new, and we had to do it virtually because, again, our communities have been hit hard by the pandemic and we were trying to figure out, does it look appropriate to do an in-person event as Delta was surging? Delta kind of calmed down by the time we had the event. But now we’re kind of dealing with this omicron, and we have people coming from all over the world to [IRE’s data journalism conference] NICAR, and it’s just complicated the process. So it’s about responding in kind.
We’re working with some more folks this year that we’re going to be bringing into the diversity work to help us with that. Because it can’t just be all in one person. I’m a conduit. I’m not the know-it-all expert. And that’s something that I’ve tried to publicize in my space. You cannot put all this work on one person, no matter how much they love it, or how skilled they are. Because I have my own blind spots.
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And what do we have already available that we can utilize? That’s revamping our trainings, to make sure that we show examples of great investigative and data journalism from women, people of color. So this week, I’m doing a curriculum review of all of our trainings to look at making sure that we have visibility and representation and that when we show examples of what can be worked on, it’s not just people of color or early-career journalists. We’re all susceptible to mistakes, so spreading around the glory and the pain.
In the IRE Journal magazine, in the last two years, we have done an issue centered on race and diversity. And we did diversity & inclusion in 2020, and then we did the queer one that just came out. We made those free to the public, so anyone—even outside of journalism—can download those and see how we “make the sausage.” And in the first issue, we didn’t have all writers of color. So for this one, we wanted to build on that and have as many queer authors as possible, and the cover was designed by a non-binary illustrator. And Madison worked really hard to help procure that.
There’s still more work to be done in the journal space that Madison and I would like to do. But you don’t do it overnight, and we also have to ask people that are on us to give us grace and patience, that you can’t move a boulder as quickly as you want, always. So when you operationalize things to make things sustainable, there’s a process to that. And that process takes longer than any of us. But the hope is that by instilling a process that it will go on beyond whoever is there.
How has your idea of diversity, belonging, equity and inclusion evolved as you’ve been in journalism and in this position?
You and I know that we come from communities that are not monolithic. When you’re in a space, among people with your racial background or your gender or sexual orientation, you know we don’t all agree, we don’t all vote for the same people. We don’t all like the same artists, we all don’t cook the same dishes the same way. These are the nuances that have to go into those conversations.
I feel like on the cusp of a pandemic, the insurrection, and climate change, that you cannot avoid these conversations anymore. Race and gender and class have to do with every single one of those issues. Let’s stop pretending that we can put our head in the sand anymore. We all have to confront it. And that’s uncomfortable for every single one of us, no matter whether you’re the aggrieved or you’ve been part of the benefits of the system. I think it’s important that IRE centers those conversations in our trainings and our work, and understand that is not activism, those are facts.
With IRE, we took an inventory of all the things we’re doing, and embedded it everywhere. It doesn’t need to be a dramatic announcement all the time. There’s a balance between making sure you’re being explicit about your DBI efforts in your organization and public-facing. And then there’s all the work that goes in between. For example, when there’s an opening on staff, are you reaching out to your networks and making sure people of color and women and people of all different ages feel welcome to apply? Sometimes older journalists, and particularly older journalists of color, went through so much trauma to stay in the field, that they grapple with listening to younger journalists of color about what they think is the best way to move forward on something.
We need to foster those conversations and, at the same time, realize that if it was a silver bullet, one answer fits all, that we would have fixed this industry a long time ago. It is a moving target. To shift to queerness, when I started in the industry in 2001, I was told not to come out. I wasn’t even sure if I was queer at that point. But I had all these messages reinforced, like, “You’re already going to have a huge strike against you as a darker-skinned Latino male. So don’t add any more stress to yourself. Keep that at home.”
It’s gone from that to like us putting in on the cover of our magazine and letting people know, it is a good thing. It is a thing to be valued, and no matter who you are, or where you come from, you should know about it. If you’re in the LGBTQ+ community, you should know about other parts of your own community, that it’s not just a white cisgender community. There are so many currents running at the same time. We’ve all been here all this time. You just haven’t paid attention to us.
What challenges have you faced when doing this work and what keeps you hopeful?
I think one of the greatest challenges is one that we’re all dealing with: Am I doing enough? And is what I’m doing right?
The biggest challenge is usually internally, I think, for most people, because if you can have a good handle on that, it’s easier to deal with the external adversity, in my experience. When it comes to external adversity, it’s trying to meet people where they’re at and sometimes having to say something that’s going to make people uncomfortable and possibly damage your relationship. But by not underscoring something or surfacing a concern or a problem, I am part of the problem by letting them move forward.
Another challenge is remembering that I can’t do things alone, so I have to approach with humility. Some days, I do feel like, you know, you can’t make anyone happy.
But that is the kind of training a lot of us get prepared for as journalists—that we put out what is classically viewed as a “good story.” It’s factual, it’s well-written, it might be ahead of its time, but because of what the truth is, it’s not well-received. Later on, people are like, “Oh my God, you were saying this a year ago?” But at the time, you felt very isolated and alone.
That’s why it’s so important to have a good support system and people around you that are going to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. I have friends that tell me to let it go. Or don’t take it personal, even though this time it feels personal, or that’s on them, or give them time to come around. Or you’re right, stick to your guns, let them learn.
I think it’s trying to be empathetic, but also firm in your conviction. I believe you can do both. It’s just an art. And it’s not something you get right every day.
What makes me hopeful is seeing websites and publications and efforts like yours, Nieman, Poynter, and Columbia Journalism Review, taking on these issues and making us kind of self-examine, because once we leave college, for those of us that went through to college in order to get into journalism, you don’t always get a lot of training. You’re out there doing stories, and you’re not really knowing what’s going on in the industry. It is on us [as IRE] to help provide that information to journalists that are grappling with these issues, and that everything I’m talking about, I eventually see on your side or Poynter or Columbia Journalism Review, or in Quill with SPJ, which makes me encouraged.
And five years ago, I was hearing conversations that were very much like, “You stick it out. This is a hard field. If you’re weak of heart, get out.” You do need to have a strong backbone, but it can be covered around with soft flesh. You’re a human.
We’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about pay equity, we’re talking about representation, and in 2001, when I started thinking about La Prensa and the mainstream daily paper, my God. If I brought up any of those things I was viewed as making it about race or making it an excuse or trying to get a hand up as a pity, or a kind of plea. Now, it’s changed so much.
But I think that’s also why we’ve seen some of the ugliest vitriol spewed out in this country, is because some people are threatened. And we also have to deal with that and try to hope we can bring some of those people around to realize that there’s not this boogeyman in us becoming a multicultural society. Once America started forming in the beginning, and we started blending different types of people, whether it was intended or not, that is what we’ve been handed. At this point, what are you going to do about it? In 20 years, what kind of work do you want to be remembered for? That’s how I operate, and that calls for a bolder, more courageous approach to journalism to rise to this moment of crisis that we’re in.
Janelle Salanga is the deputy editor of The Objective. This piece was edited by Holly Rosewood and Gabe Schneider.