Q&A: Jon Schleuss

Earlier this month, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reported that — once again — a small number of news organizations completed the News Leaders Association annual diversity survey, the results of which have the potential to help newsrooms improve.

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Led by OpenNews Co-Executive Director Sisi Wei and NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss, a group of more than 100 news organizations responded with an open letter to the Pulitzer Prizes urging the committee to require that news organizations “publicly share data about staff demographics” in order to be eligible for an award.

This week, we spoke with Schleuss about the letter (which is two years in the making), the importance of transparency, and media unions’ roles in solidarity work. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Could you start by telling me about the letter? 

The letter came about a year and a half or two years ago. Sisi Wei over at Open News, Meredith Clark, who has been working with the News Leaders Association on the survey for many years, and I were talking about the low participation in surveys done in the past by the News Leaders Association. There’s another broader issue in the news industry — a lack of companies reporting the number of women and people of color that they employ and actually breaking down what newsrooms look like from a gender and race and ethnicity standpoint. 

As journalists, we have an ethical obligation to be accountable. Typically, that means being accountable to our readers and our sources, but I think it also means that we have to be accountable to our communities, with the goal that eventually the newsrooms have to look like the communities that they report. If it’s a newsroom in a community that reports to that community that’s 50% Black, then the newsroom — and the newsroom leadership — needs to look like the community and be 50% Black. 

More like this: Q&A: Sisi Wei

The basic first step is to be transparent. That’s important: Showing how we are reporting in our stories. But it is also really important for news organizations to be transparent with our readers on what we actually look like. That is just a basic principle of being an ethical journalist. So we’ve been having these conversations, “What can we do?” And one of the ideas that we thought about — again, a while ago — was that we could potentially approach the Pulitzers and ask the administrators to make this a requirement for any news organizations who are submitting awards: They have to actually participate in some survey. Not demanding that they hit certain metrics or do any other work, but just be transparent about the people that they have in their newsrooms. 

And so when it was reported two weeks ago in Nieman Lab that so few — just 303 out of 1500 news organizations — actually participated, it was so appalling that Sisi and I immediately got on the phone and were like, we should do something now. Let’s ask other organizations that are respectable in journalism circles to sign on to an open letter calling on the Pulitzers to make this requirement change. 

The News Leaders Association was supportive of it — we included a line about that in our letter. 

Then it was just kind of an overwhelming number of organizations that were extremely supportive of this, who were thinking, “Oh my God, this is a great idea. We’ve been talking about the same issue.” And then another group saying, “We’ve been talking about the same issue,” and we’re like, “Oh my God, we’ve all been talking about this!” It just seems like a very easy first step, because the Pulitzer Prizes are, in print and online journalism, the top award in the U.S. If they can make this requirement I think it could also filter down to every group that provides journalism awards and grants.

How did this group come to the realization that an emphasis on journalism awards would motivate people to take the survey or be more transparent?

We started this conversation two or three weeks ago, and after we saw the Nieman Lab piece we started it up again. We were thinking that we should go and ask every group, like we should ask SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists] to change their award program and requirements and we should do that with the SABEW [Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing] folks for the business awards. Then we realized, “Actually, we need to kind of focus this in,” and coming up in early May are the most recent Pulitzer Prize winners. So we’re like, this is the top award in print and online journalism — the Pulitzers should be the group that we focus on. They could take a very easy step by making this a requirement, which would be a huge benefit to our industry.

One group that does not participate in the News Leader Association survey is the New York Times. They publish their own data, but when a news organization publishes their own data they can decide how they want it to look. They can decide which metrics to include and which ones to leave out. They get to look a little bit better. I’m a former graphics journalist, I understand that sort of thing: It doesn’t allow us to compare where we are across the entire industry. Some groups — strangely enough, Gannett and McClatchy — are actually better at participating in that survey than the New York Times or other publications. It would be a really good thing to try to get more and more newsrooms to participate. 

Of course, there’s a caveat to that: If there’s another group that you’re working with to report your survey data, that’s fine, too, as long as it’s reported publicly. We heard pretty directly from the folks at the Institute for Nonprofit News that they would like to sign on, but they do their own reporting because some of these nonprofit newsrooms are very small. They wanted to make sure that they would be included in an effort, so that’s why we opened it up to “the News Leader Association survey or some other group” and they were so happy to sign on. A ton of very small publications that are digital-only and nonprofit who’ve never even won a Pulitzer are also signers on this letter.

How has your background in data journalism informed your view of the NLA survey (and other similar surveys)? 

From September of 2013 to December of 2019 I was a data journalist at the LA Times, and I worked with a lot of datasets all across the board. Like, wait times at Disneyland to the 2020 election results in 10s of 1000s of precincts across the state of California. I was also part of a group of several 100 journalists who unionized with the LA Times in 2018, and one of the things that we did right after we unionized and won our vote was a request for information. After you unionize you can ask your employer for all of the pay data and salary data for every worker and the demographic data that the company had on hand. Then we put together a report — making sure we didn’t share people’s identities — and we showed the pay gaps between men and women and people of color and white people in the newsroom, accounting for levels of experience and age and the position. We also saw a complete demographic split from the community of Los Angeles County, or even Southern California, and the community that, in theory, the LA Times covers. 

Getting access to that data and then having a group of journalists at the LA Times put together a report then sharing that back out with all of their colleagues and with the company was a really powerful way to signal, “You have a lot of work to do here, as the leaders of this company, to make sure that our newsroom is equitable and people are paid fairly, and to make sure that our newsroom actually attempts to try to become and look like the community that we cover.” I was really inspired by all of that work as a data journalist unionizing with my colleagues and then providing a report. Now, in my current job as president of the News Guild, I get to see these efforts happen all across the country. 

Around the time that we launched this letter, the Post Guild at the Washington Post put out a really detailed survey of the demographic data and the pay equity issues at the Washington Post, including a lot of really important anecdotes from some of the leaders in the newsroom who are Black. Those are efforts that are amazing and are happening from a labor standpoint where unionized journalists are pushing this in their own newsrooms. But if we step back and think about our goals for the industry, it has to be similar and we have to make sure that there’s pay equity. We also need to make sure that there’s transparency in what our newsrooms look like. So it became kind of an easy sell that we’ve got to push this in a larger way, because it’s not just a labor issue. It’s an industry issue that we’ve got to make right. 

A list of individual signers of the letter was released today. What can people who are nervous to sign their name do to help? How do you plan to keep this momentum going?

Momentum is the keyword. There’s gonna be a lot of people who will be individual signers on this letter. And it’s a mixture of people: It’s deans of journalism schools, it’s union leaders, it’s rank and file journalists, it’s former Pulitzer winners, it’s former people who were on jury with the Pulitzers determining who should get awards. It’s a really great mix of people who believe that this should be a change. 

The first thing is to see how the awards actually react. There’s a beautiful opportunity for them to say, “We want to incorporate this. We heard loud and clear that the industry wants this so we’re going to make this a requirement so that, within a year and a half, the next time that we do awards, they will only come from news organizations who have actually completed some form of the survey.” I think it’s a really beautiful opportunity for the Pulitzers to actually take this on and make this part of their mission, because it’s clearly a huge interest of the entire industry and they can take a really helpful step to make it happen. 

We submitted a letter with 50 organizations, and the last time I looked [Wednesday] morning, almost 100 new organizations and a ton of individuals had signed on, so that builds more momentum. What other people can do is just tweet about it, even in a non-opinionated way, so we can bring more people into understanding that there is this letter that they can sign on to. This is true solidarity and we all are doing something together. It’s something that’s wholly good and it’s transparency from an ethical standpoint to try to make our newsrooms more accountable.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

Our union is one of the fastest-growing unions on the continent. More than 5,500 media workers have unionized with us in the last five years alone, which is a percent growth that no other union is facing, except for maybe the recently-formed Amazon labor union. There’s this huge outcry among rank-and-file journalists all across the country to demand more respect in their work and with their employers. And so that is also a big part of this: You’ve got all these people unionizing, getting their own data, and realizing that there are pay inequities or demographic issues in their own newsroom. They’ve got really smart ideas to correct this by raising the pay for every journalist, making sure that every journalist is guaranteed an annual raise, improving the hiring process so that we’re bringing in more diverse candidates in the interview process, and then building management-worker (so editor-journalist) committees, where they actually come up with solutions. 

There’s a ton of journalists, whether they’re at the Arizona Republic, the Idaho Statesman, the Miami Herald, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the New York Times, Washington Post, or any of these organizations, who really want to see positive change and build an industry that is respectful to the workers and sustainable in the long run. At the end of the day, our job is to be there for our communities and report for our community. We can’t do that if we don’t have sustainable good jobs.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.

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