Two years ago, we released our first newsletter. Since then, we’ve interviewed dozens of journalists (and non-journalists) to share their advice for improving the industry.
This week, we talked to one of our founders, Gabe Schneider, about The Objective’s origins, his introduction to journalism, and his hopes for the future.
Outside of The Objective, Gabe currently works at Grist and previously worked as an assistant managing editor at VoteBeat, as an assistant editor at CalMatters, and as the Washington correspondent at MinnPost.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
I want to start by asking, because I imagine a lot of people who read The Objective don’t know, how did you get involved with journalism?
I got involved in journalism by accident. I was studying urban planning and political science in college, and on our campus there was a newspaper that I didn’t think did that much. I went to UC San Diego, and there was a student population around 30,000. So, we had a lot going on in terms of labor practices with custodial workers and food service workers, a lot of incidents of racism were happening on campus, and millions of dollars in student money was being spent on various initiatives by the student government. And I didn’t think that the current newspaper did a good job of covering it.
So I pretty much started a blog with two other people. We just sat down over a big pizza and started blogging. Fast forward two years, we had a volunteer staff of about 60 students. And for me, that was my first foray into journalism. I was taught how to write news by high school journalists that had started in college and wanted to join a paper and build a stronger news section for us since we really started off as an opinion outlet. These are the folks that taught me newswriting kind of collaboratively.
I didn’t go to journalism school, I learned journalism through my peers, and I think I’ve carried that lesson — that mentors can be not just folks that are older than yourself, but also your peers — with me ever since.
I feel like I see some similarities between that and what you and Marlee Baldridge have done with The Objective. Could you talk to me a little bit about how you see that informing what you started?
I should also say that Curtis Yee was one of the founders of the newspaper I started at UC San Diego, and now is copy editing for The Objective, so we’ve kept in touch over the years. The Objective kind of started the same way. In the summer of 2020, I was very upset with coverage of race when it came to how media criticism and reporting were being done and started blogging. A few other journalists were willing to edit my work and once I started publishing, other journalists and folks I knew wanted a space to do the same.
I think for the most part — and there are a lot of media criticism and reporting outlets— none of them center how journalism has failed throughout its entire existence in the U.S. in being equitable and representative of the people that they are meant to cover and write for, and being equitable and representative in terms of the people that are working in journalism institutions.
To me, it’s frustrating that media criticism and reporting outlets don’t make that the center point. In my mind, that’s always been the chief failure of journalism institutions in the U.S. — at least mainstream journalism institutions. There have always been, for lack of a better word, ethnic media outlets that have covered things within communities. But I think what folks traditionally aren’t centering in media criticism are the failures of mainstream outlets around equity and inclusion.
And one of those failures, the primary failure, is objectivity. Objectivity hasn’t worked out. Journalists are sometimes still told in journalism school that it works. But it’s not used to produce a fair journalism environment: It’s used as a cudgel to punish journalists of color, and trans journalists, and basically anyone that is marginalized in any way. In a newsroom, objectivity is used by editors to say, “Hey, you’ve had x, y, and z personal experience, and because of that you’re biased in your coverage.”
But when, for example, white reporters are writing about white people, that’s never brought up. No one ever says, “You’re not being objective,” because you’re white and you’re writing about white people. That’s just not a discussion that’s ever had in newsrooms and — I’m treading ground that other folks have tread — but I think The Objective is a space to have these conversations and center these conversations. And I think in that regard we’ve done a good job.
Objectivity has a big impact on what we do. And, as we’ve touched on a little bit, it’s functionally not what we, meaning journalists broadly, think it is. It’s not what we’ve been taught, what we internalized. During your journey through journalism, do you feel your own understanding of objectivity has changed over that time?
Absolutely. I think when I was in college I looked at things from the perspective that I learned from student journalists that had learned newswriting in high school. With that, they brought to me these reference points of, “We need to be objective, we need to be fair.” I think what I didn’t understand then is that our student paper was primarily made up of journalists of color, and when you leave a space like that, and you’re talking about objectivity, it means a very different thing.
Wesley Lowery talks about the difference between an objectivity of self and an objectivity of practice and how a lot of reporters seem to think that it’s possible for there to be an objectivity of self. That means that you’re not biased, you don’t bring any biases to your reporting. And that’s not possible. That’s ridiculous.
You’re human, you bring opinions and experiences into your reporting, but you can bring into it an objectivity of practice. You can search for the facts, you can give the different sides in your story a fair chance. But there’s no escaping the fact that there is no objectivity of self: You’re always going to choose a story frame, you’re always going to choose the folks that you’re interviewing in the story. And so, my understanding of objectivity has definitely evolved from college to now, and I graduated in 2018. I’ve definitely learned a lot about objectivity since then.
A lot of what you do is work with young journalists. What advice would you have for them about their relationship with objectivity itself and objectivity of practice?
I think it’s really hard to figure out how to be a journalist. And I think the advice that I have for journalists just starting out — and I refrain from saying younger journalists because they could be my age or not that much younger than me — is to find mentors and outlets you admire. Find the editors that you think are doing good work, and look to them as your north stars. And if you have an editor at your current job who is telling you something that doesn’t sit right with you, or goes against your morals in some way, or they’re pushing you to cover things in a way that you find offensive, try your best to seek out advice and validation and criticism from peers that you respect and think do good work. Make sure that you have a group chat so that you can get that validation from your peers.
I think what ends up happening is, if you’re trapped in a bubble of a newsroom where you’re not really sure of yourself (and obviously a lot of us, including myself, struggle with impostor syndrome), it can be really hard to get out of that bubble and do the work you want to be doing if you don’t have folks in front of you role modeling that behavior. It’s really critical not just to say to yourself, “I want to work at the New York Times, I want to work at XYZ outlet,” but ask why you want to work at that outlet and what kind of journalism you want to do, because I think a lot of folks don’t really think about the why and what it looks like for them to be doing their best work as a journalist outside of platitudes.
I want to return to what you said about finding north stars and the type of journalism you want to do, focusing less on where you’re working. Could you tell me about people or other types of journalism that guide the way you want to do this work?
When I think about the kind of journalism that I want to be doing, there are a lot of frameworks that have challenged me. For a while, I thought about my journalism from a personal standpoint of what I wanted to be doing and figuring out why I wanted to be doing it that way. But in terms of the frameworks that have challenged me to think about things more broadly and bring in other concepts and understandings, I look to Anita Varma, who’s on our advisory board, who’s popularized the concept of solidarity reporting. Or, I’ve read up and reported on movement journalism. There are these different frameworks that other folks have been developing actively that I think have challenged my journalism and my understanding of journalism. And I think rightly so.
Obviously, as I mentioned him earlier, Wesley Lowery has done a tremendous amount of work in opening up the field to have these conversations more broadly and in the mainstream. There are other folks that have, to their detriment, who have inadvertently opened up the field for those same conversations. I think about Alexis Johnson, who was fired for making a joke on Twitter, and I think about Felicia Sonmez of the Post, who was just fired and is now fighting for her job back. These folks have inadvertently informed my journalism just in how they pushed back publicly against their former bosses.
I also think about a number of outlets that have really helped me reconceive what journalism is: I look at City Bureau in Chicago and the work that they’re doing in training people to gather records and go to meetings and be a different type of journalist and reimagine what journalism might be. I think of Outlier Media and El Tímpano in terms of engaging with local communities. And I think of Scalawag, which just had an abolition week centered on how the media portrays police and police propaganda. I’m constantly trying to learn from, understand, and recognize the folks that are challenging my journalism to be better.
I also learn from peer groups, whether it be folks I met in my time reporting in D.C. as colleagues and friends or the Journalists of Color Slack. These folks have been really helpful for me in conceiving different ways of doing journalism and journalism where we can talk openly and criticize employers that aren’t doing the things that we need them to do when it comes to using labor practices or when it comes to not just hiring Black employees, but retaining us. Those peer groups have been invaluable to me.
What do you see as our role in the future of this industry? What do you see us doing now and what do you hope we can do in the future?
I think that, in the same way I don’t think any news outlet gives a voice to any group, I don’t think The Objective “gives a voice” to any group. But I do think that as a platform, I hope that we are making folks more comfortable in their criticism and in their media reporting, and making folks more comfortable talking about the injustices that they see in newsrooms or perpetuated by newsrooms. I think all of that is really critical in light of the supposed reckoning in media that happened in 2020. When we started up, I really hadn’t seen a “reckoning” in media that supposedly happened. You can look throughout the history of American journalism, and these issues of equitable newsrooms treating folks at the margins fairly, and retaining them… these are not new issues.
I’m hoping that The Objective can continually grow in its role of being a place where we can have a centralized conversation about that. Because these problems, in my mind, are not going away anytime soon. It frustrates me to think that there was this sort of one-and-done behavior from a lot of folks. There was a “reckoning” and, “Okay, we’ve done some DEI committee stuff,” but many of the DEI committees didn’t get any funding. We saw the “We did what we had to do” mentality from a lot of newsrooms, instead of actually investing in structural changes and conversations about what values the newsrooms want to have. I think our place is continuing that conversation and not treating it like it’s all done. We’ve done what we needed to do because that’s not what I see from everyone.
I think there are some fantastic folks around the industry trying to change the way things are done. But I also see a lot of folks not taking the changes that need to happen in legacy media, in nonprofit media, and in startup media very seriously. I remain hopeful that The Objective can be a space for an ever-growing conversation about the marginalization and erasure that continues to be perpetuated by editors in their newsrooms and outside their newsrooms … because the conversation is not going to go away. We’re not going to go away.
This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.
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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.