Hiring 101: A guide to effective and equitable hiring for independent news publishers

What does it take to hire a diverse, talented team for an independent local news business? We get that question

May 26, 2021 by Ben DeJarnette

Hiring can be both exciting and challenging, especially for small news businesses. Here are a few resources and tips to help. (Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/vectors/people-special-different-employment-4009327/"> Katie White on Pixabay </a>)
Hiring can be both exciting and challenging, especially for small news businesses. Here are a few resources and tips to help. (Image by Katie White on Pixabay )

What does it take to hire a diverse, talented team for an independent local news business?

We get that question all the time at LION Publishers, where many of our members start as “solopreneurs” or two-person teams long before they have the resources to hire paid staff.

The good news is we’ve pulled together some hiring resources, insights, and best practices for independent publishers, with help from Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service editor Ron Smith, LION Publishers deputy director Anika Anand, and Association of Independents in Radio Managing Director Amanda Hickman.

This guide is broken into two sections, both designed to help you recruit and hire the best newsroom talent that is representative of the community you aim you serve:

Resources to help you get started

📚 Guide: This Hacking Our Hiring series from OpenNews explores how to identify application requirements, screen candidates, structure interviews, and more.

📚 Guide: The media tech company Hearken wrote an excellent step-by-step guide on how to copy its hiring process, which helped the company improve the diversity and quality of its candidates.

💡 Tip: Emma Carew Grovum, founder of Kimbap Media, says you should build relationships with local affinity group chapters and reach out to them when you’re hiring in this must-read post, “How to Diversify Your Newsroom, Starting Now.”

💡 Tip: Emma also shared some tips in this column, “Sincerely, Leaders of Color,” about writing more inclusive job descriptions, including how to reframe your “requirements” or “qualifications” checklist.

💡 Tip: LION member City Bureau argues that you should never ask for cover letters, and at the very least, always let applicants know how you expect to evaluate applications.

💡 Tip: Sign up for the DEI Coalition for Just and Equitable Newsrooms, a community space on Slack dedicated to sharing knowledge and taking concrete action in service of a more anti-racist, equitable and just journalism industry.

📝 Template: WAMU and DCist’s Hiring Priorities and Values Document is an excellent example of an organization taking the time to articulate what they’re looking for in candidates and how their values are reflected in their hiring process. This type of transparency is key to building trust with candidates who you may not have attracted in the past.

🔍 Case study: The Institute for Nonprofit News explains how its member newsroom Reveal overhauled the way it hires, onboards and promotes employees to create a more inclusive workplace.

LION’s Q&A about hiring best practices with Ron Smith and Anika Anand

Q: Are there particular “unintentional” barriers that often filter out otherwise strong candidates?

Anika: Hiring exercises/tests (e.g. writing or editing tests) without clear boundaries and that don’t show a respect for the candidate’s time. There’s nothing wrong with those tests, but my advice is to either time-constrain it or pay people for their time doing it. If I ever use hiring tests, I make sure candidates know not to go beyond a certain amount of time and that all candidates will be judged equally based on time allotted. (I even let them know I can see time stamps of revisions in a Google doc so they know I’m serious about it).

Ron: I also think we need to look at what we are trying to measure in these tests. I have taken many tests, particularly when I was a copy editor. They would ask “popular culture” questions such as “who were the Beatles,” but they’d never ask anything about my culture. They came from a white perspective of the world.

Anika: I also forgot to add here that I hate cover letters and I don’t ever ask for them in an application. Instead (a la this guide from Hearken), I ask specific questions so that I’m not judging people’s ability to sell themselves in a cover letter — rather I’m judging their ability to talk about their vision/thoughts/ideas about the work itself.

Q: We often use the word “diversity” in our industry without defining it. So how do you define diversity within your organizations?

Anika: I want to answer this question by first acknowledging that many of us use a lot of different language to talk about race, racism and identity, and that I try to do a lot of listening to ensure I’m understanding the many different perspectives and experiences that inform those language preferences. That being said, I personally feel like using the word “diversity” without qualifying what type of diversity we’re talking about can be perceived as lazy. Usually when I am talking about diversity, I mean racial and ethnic diversity, so I try and be specific about that as often as I can.

Ron: I see diversity through several filters: Age. Geography. Race. Gender. Socioeconomic status. Religion. Sexual orientation. The reason why is because all these filters affect our perceptions of others.

Anika: You can also use “underrepresented” and “marginalized” to identify folks as it relates to the community you’re serving. Who is underrepresented or marginalized all depends on the context of the community you’re serving, I believe.

Q: What’s the single most effective thing you’ve done to recruit and hire more racially diverse candidates? And what venues have you used for recruiting racially diverse candidates in your community?

Anika: Tactically speaking, here’s a post from my brilliant friend Emma Carew Grovum that rounds up many best practices. Strategically speaking, a resource I would point to is the recently launched OpenNews’s DEI Coalition Slack group, which is for anyone who wants to advocate for anti-racist, equitable and just newsrooms. There’s a jobs channel, but more importantly, this is a great space to read or be a part of conversations that people in the industry are having about identity and race. That’s one way of seeking diverse applicants that we don’t talk enough about: just being a part of conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. That’s how you meet other people who care about those values, too.

Ron: Asking for help. Sometimes we think we need to know all the answers. And we don’t. We told our readers what we were looking for, asked them to help spread the word and we were able to get some leads. But imma be honest: IT. TAKES. WORK. When you want to diversify your staff, you have to think about it before a position opens. You have to build relationships and partner with groups who align with your mission.

Anika: +1 to what Ron said! I’d also point to being prepared to provide clarity about expectations of the job and specific examples about work culture. Before writing a job description, I create a job scorecard with a one-sentence mission statement, key job responsibilities, a RACI chart of major upcoming projects that we know of, outcomes to achieve a year from starting the role and a list of role-based competencies and skills and culture-based competencies. I’m always REALLY clear in saying that much of this might change — but I think it’s effective in showing a potential hire that you’ve done your homework and thought deeply about the work they’ll be doing when they come in, even if that work shifts over time.

Q: From a legal perspective, where does the line fall between trying to recruit/hire more diverse candidates and actually discriminating against over-represented candidates in the hiring process? What’s allowed and not allowed under anti-discrimination laws?

Anika: This is a great question and I’ve reached out to Lawyers for Reporters (a wonderful resource) about it. In the meantime, here’s a great example of transparently sharing hiring values and priorities (h/t to The Local Fix). These were developed by Rachel Sadon and shared by Kelsey Proud of NPR affiliate station WAMU in DC. Reading this as a job candidate signals to me that this newsroom isn’t just trying to check the diversity box — rather, they are intentionally bringing in someone whose underrepresented perspectives will be valued. (Because remember, retention is just as important as hiring!)

Ron: That’s a good question. I am not a lawyer. Here’s where I stand though: When we were looking to diversify, we were not looking in terms of a quota. I don’t count people, I make people count. So we have a rubric of what we wanted to see from candidates and they were scored accordingly.

  • We wanted someone who knew our neighborhoods and could generate stories that were people-centered and issue oriented.
  • They had to be lifelong learners who could take coaching and grow.
  • They had to be committed to actually being in the community.
  • They had to have strong interpersonal communication skills.
  • They had to have the drive to make us better.

Q: How do you track/measure whether your job openings are reaching people from underrepresented communities/backgrounds? Do you have metrics to evaluate the success of your recruitment/hiring efforts?

Anika: I have a lot more learning to do in terms of tracking the success of recruitment efforts, but I think there are two main things to monitor here: obviously, who the applicants are, and also where they say they’re finding your job. You should ask that question in your application (though I have not been great about remembering to do this). Would love to hear from others.

Ron: We are so tiny, we don’t have anything formalized. Half the staff has been with us since the inception. That is something we will need to get better at.

You can read this whole AMA conversation on Slack if you’re a member of the News Entrepreneur Community Slack group — or you can request an invite here.

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