Hiring efforts at budding news outlets like Project X continue to leave women by the wayside.
When the predictive superstar Nate Silver announced last summer that he would defect from the New York Times, it began a wave of new, new money-backed “personal brand” journalism startups that launch in earnest with FiveThirtyEight on ESPN next week. This was supposed to be a good thing. “A very luxurious situation” indeed.
When word leaked a few months later that the billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar would be joining forces with Glenn Greenwald, he had to clarify that the then-unnamed First Look Media would amount to something bigger than one man, a “long-term effort to build a new and exciting platform for journalism” and contribute to “the greater good”.
When political pundit Ezra Klein left the Washington Post earlier this year for a new “Project X” in explanatory journalism backed by Vox Media, he told the Times, “We are just at the beginning of how journalism should be done online.” Oh, and “we’re hiring”!
Well, Project X may now be called Vox, but the great VC-backed media blitz of 2014 is staffed up and soft-launching, and it looks a lot more like Projects XY. Indeed, it’s impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively – and increasingly – male and white.
To be sure, the internet has presented journalists with an extraordinary opportunity to remake their own profession. And the rhetoric of the new wave of creativity in journalism is spattered with words that denote transformation. But the new micro-institutions of journalism already bear the hallmarks of the restrictive heritage they abandoned with such glee. At the risk of being the old bat in the back, allow me to quote Faye Dunaway’s character from Network:
Look, all I’m saying is if you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.
Of the many others who have eloped from the portals of the industrial presses to big, shiny and new things (as in, not Yahoo or The Information), the sole female top editor or founder is Kara Swisher at Re/code. And she is running that technology site collaboratively with a man, Walt Mossberg. At First Look, behind-the-scenes Laura Poitras is one of two main female names on a virtual masthead that just added John Cook from Gawker (to run Greenwald’s magazine) to join Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone (to lead his own). At Vox, the female hire making early headlines with Klein’s departure was Melissa Bell, a back-end publishing expert whose work for Klein’s Wonkblog was “unglamorous but considered vital”.
It is not just the four new (and still exciting) breakout projects of the year: Vice, Quartz, Buzzfeed, Politico, Grantland – these, too, are led by white men, and filled with more of them.
It is as if Arianna Huffington never happened. Or as if diversity of leadership and ownership did not really matter, as long as the data-driven, responsively designed new news becomes a radical and successful enough departure from the drab anecdote laden guff put out by those other men.
“I was about to feel outside the club,” Klein opinies in a new video on his site, of opening up a complex newspaper story back in the day, confused and uninformed. “This is a real problem. And it’s not a problem we could solve in print.”
“Clubhouse chemistry is important,” Silver said when he talked to Time.com last week about his own rigorous hires, which he posts gleefully on his dummy site. Last count: six women on the 19-person editorial staff. By the sophisticated math of this pundit – and Silver hates pundits – that is just under over 30%. Minorities – as, after all, women are a majority – are even more poorly served, at FiveThirtyEight and elsewhere.
A clubhouse. Do we really still have to have one of those? And does the importance of clubhouse chemistry really override the need for a more thorough look at the statistical make-up of its membership?
Klein has already responded to one call to do better, with an acknowledgement of the diversity problem. (Today, he hired another woman.) And this is not to lay all the ills of society at the doors of marquee journalists striking out on their own: no doubt there are earnest intentions to produce good work. But it is curious that the whiff of testosterone hanging round the whiteboard has not been sufficiently challenged. Just look at the tech companies and VC funds that distribute money to startups like those in media this year, and you’ll see a similar – if not even greater – problem when it comes to women looking to get funded.
Maybe it is the fault of legacy media for failing to make enough women “marquee journalists” in the first place. Being a “personal brand” superstar journalist is a harder path for women to negotiate, not just through the closure of institutional opportunity, but also through the bruising nature of internet discourse, which can represent an entirely different and much less civilised clubhouse than the equitable one Nate Silver is building at ESPN with so much fanaticism that he hires by chart.
Women tend to have to choose in the newsroom, even digital-first newsrooms: serve others, as an editor or commissioner, or be your own presence as a journalist/columnist/blogger. The leadership in the new (new) journalism do both, and their founders would not for one second have thought they had to choose.
Remaking journalism in its own image, only with better hair and tighter clothes, is not a revolution, or even an evolution. It is a repackaging of the status quo with a very nice clubhouse attached. A revolution calls for a regime change of more significant depth.