How Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service built a racially diverse team that reflects the community it serves

In one of America’s most diverse cities, nearly 70 percent of MNNS’s paid staff members identify as people of color.

May 5, 2021 by Ben DeJarnette

Ron Smith News Guest

In one of America’s most diverse cities, nearly 70 percent of MNNS’s paid staff members identify as people of color.

With legacy newsrooms still failing to hire staff that reflect the communities they serve, independent news businesses are stepping up to show the industry what’s possible, and the difference it can make.

The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (MNNS) in Wisconsin is one of the organizations leading the way.

In one of America’s most racially diverse cities, nearly 70 percent of MNNS’s paid staff members identify as people of color,including its top editor Ron Smith.

In this episode of News Guest, our host Candice Fortman, executive director of Outlier Media, talks with Ron about the approaches to recruitment, hiring, and training that helped MNNS build a news team that reflects the community it serves, and what the rest of us can learn from it.

Subscribe to News Guest on SpotifyApple Podcasts or wherever you do your streaming.

Here are a few highlights from the podcast conversation, plus our pre-interview before the show:

1. Diverse hiring starts with recruiting diverse candidates

Ron got the opportunity to hire three staffers shortly after joining MNNS in 2019, and he used that chance to reevaluate the most important qualities and qualifications for candidates.

“What was most important to us was to find people who know our neighborhoods, who are connected to the community,” Ron said. “It didn’t matter their complexion, but they needed to know our neighborhoods.”

To find those candidates, MNNS not only promoted its jobs in all the usual places — Facebook, newsletter, website, etc. — but it also took word-of-mouth referrals from readers, whose strong relationship with MNNS empowered them to share recommendations from their personal networks.

“The reputation of MNNS matters,” Ron said. “We ended up with a diverse staff because we had diverse options.”

Got questions about hiring? Send us your questions for an “Ask Me Anything” session with Ron Smith and LION Publishers deputy director Anika Anand on Friday, May 14.

2. A new set of application questions led to better hiring decisions

Ron added two questions to the MNNS application for his first series of hires: one that asked applicants to critique MNNS, and another that asked them to pitch two story ideas.

The candidates with the strongest answers to those questions weren’t always the ones with the most traditional journalism experience, but they checked the most important box for MNNS: understanding the community and the newsroom’s role within it.

“The critiques weeded people out,” Ron said. “Eighty percent of our applicants were coming from people not in our neighborhoods, so they were more in love with getting a job than serving a neighborhood.”

3. How training is part of the retention strategy

The decision to prioritize community knowledge over professional background at MNNS means that some of its new hires join the newsroom without much experience as reporters and writers.

To close that knowledge gap and help its staffers learn and grow, MNNS has historically put stories through as many as four to five rounds of feedback and editing before publication.

But “that’s a lot of rewrites,” Ron says, so the newsroom now is spending more time on coaching earlier in the process, before a reporter has even gone into the field.

“It seemed like we should do more coaching at the front so we’re not doing it at the end,” Ron said. “It takes more work, but it cuts back on the rewrites.”

Listen to the full conversation with Ron Smith to learn more about MNNS’s hiring practices, as well as the impact it’s had on their community journalism.

News Guest is a monthly podcast featuring practical advice from LION members and other entrepreneurs who are changing the news business. You can subscribe on SpotifyApple Podcasts, or wherever you do your streaming.

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