Independent news businesses lead the way on healthy work cultures

A few years into my journalism career, I looked around and realized that I didn’t know a single person among my peers who thought their newsroom was a great place to work. And while it may be true that millennials have higher standards for healthy work cultures, it is also true that many of us working in newsrooms couldn’t even begin to articulate what a healthy work culture looked like.

That sobering reality is finally changing — in part because independent newsroom leaders, with more authority and autonomy than they ever had in legacy newsrooms, are leading the way in not just talking about, but investing in, the personnel, resources, and processes to best support their staff.

Why? Because these publishers recognize that healthy work cultures are a core strategy of building a sustainable news business.

We’ve already seen some excellent examples in the creation of dedicated roles focused on people and culture. Last year, Chalkbeat hired its first ever chief people officer, who wrote, “I am much more than compliance police. I help people navigate thorny issues.”

A few months later, The 19th hired its first chief people officer. At our recent LION Local Journalism Awards Ceremony, The 19th cofounder Amanda Zamora said that while The 19th had planned to launch a people-centered newsroom, they hadn’t realized how to operationalize that culture. “You really need somebody…who’s just focused on the people within,” she said. “It’s so obvious that if you’re going to center people in the communities that you cover, you first need to start with centering people in your own organization.”

This year, the Center for Public Integrity hired a chief of staff as part of “a deliberate culture shift” led by new CEO Paul Cheung, who wrote last year about the importance of investing in operational excellence.

And just recently, The Marshall Project hired Emma Carew Grovum (who predicted back in 2018 that newsroom culture was becoming more of a priority) as its first-ever director of careers and culture. “I wasn’t in a newsroom by choice for so long, because I didn’t see a place that was investing in the safety and success of journalists of color at a level I was comfortable with,” Carew Grovum told me, adding that the creation of her role is a reflection of her employer saying “a lot of places in journalism are not good places to work and we don’t want to be part of that trend.”

Traditional “HR” is changing and independent news organizations are helping the journalism industry catch up.

And while investing in a full-time employee dedicated to people/operations/culture isn’t always feasible, we’ve seen, and I predict will continue to see, heartening examples of smaller news businesses prioritizing this work despite limited resources.

Montana Free Press, a 13-person news business, won a LION Award for operational resilience for investing in its staff with policies like unlimited paid time off, paid parental leave, sabbaticals, and mandatory extended holidays. While accepting the award, deputy director Kristin Tessman said, “One of the things I learned very quickly when I joined the field is that journalists were traumatized by their employers for a very long time. And John [Montana Free Press’s founder] said very clearly that we weren’t going to build an organization that was going to traumatize its most talented members of staff,” she said. “So we worked really hard to make sure — we talk a lot about trust in news — that our journalists trust the organization.”

Dallas Free Press Founder Keri Mitchell told me that at our recent Independent News Sustainability Summit she heard the journalism funders say, essentially, “We want to fund your business, not your journalism.” So at the Summit, she texted her part-time operations director and asked if she’d go full-time, making her their sixth employee. The operations director’s first priorities? Making sure the staff had the health insurance they needed, clearly defined time-off policies, and an employee handbook.

“There are always more stories to cover…and so many things we could be doing journalistically, but at the end of the day I was about to self-combust trying to manage everyone,” Mitchell said. “I thought if I don’t hire someone to do the managing, I won’t be able to do my job and no one else will be able to do their job. It would be a waste to hire another reporter if we’re all just going to fall apart.”

Our industry is going to need more leaders who understand how to operationalize healthy newsroom cultures — whether that’s with brand-new roles or sourcing fractional support to create a strong foundation for leaders to build upon. 2023 is when we’ll see more news businesses invest in this challenge.

Anika Anand is deputy director of LION Publishers.

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