What does it mean to create systems-level change?
by Erika Owens
The challenges in journalism right now are clear, from harassment campaigns to hedge funds dismantling organizations. But alongside these outside forces are longstanding structural problems of how newsrooms treat their employees, and who they decide to hire and promote in the first place. Some journalists have never felt comfortable, welcome, or safe in these mainstream, white institutions. Some journalists have tried to change those organizations from within, and increasingly, I hear how tired they are of waiting for change to come. Since we started doing thematic SRCCON conferences, people share new name ideas and usually they’ve been about themes in the industry like LOCAL, PRODUCT, REVENUE. But over the few months, I’ve heard ideas like SRCCON:
- BURN (as in “burn it all down”)
The willingness to accept the status quo is waning, and fast. But, luckily, journalism is full of some pretty dang determined people who go after change in this industry as doggedly as an important story. And one such journalist has just joined the OpenNews team: Sisi Wei. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have Sisi now a part of our team, bringing deep experience as a data journalist and editor, and in developing programs that have real impact in increasing equity and access to the field.
Creating change through collective action
Sisi understands that communities are how you create change and the work it takes to build spaces where people can truly connect and plan for how the future must be. I’m so excited that I’m going to get to work with Sisi and our colleague Ryan to shape our work and help move journalism into its next stage of evolution — in its coverage, its organizational culture, and its way of doing business — to create more inclusive, equitable, and purpose-driven journalism.
As Sisi put it, OpenNews has been heading in this direction for years:
OpenNews has grown and evolved so much over the years and I’ve always cheered them on, impressed and inspired by their ability to identify and act on the community’s needs and build programs that make a transformative difference. They placed technologists into newsrooms when journalism was just beginning to understand what programming could do. They created SRCCON, an interactive conference distinguished by its ability to enable real and urgent conversations that journalism is begging to have, and a conference that people repeatedly say creates the most safe and inclusive environment that they have ever felt at a professional gathering. On top of that, OpenNews has worked to connect people in the community who often feel most isolated in their newsrooms — with scholarships to underrepresented people in journalism, focused programming for helping journalists of color change their newsrooms, and for local coders scattered across the country, who are doing important work, but lack peers with similar skills in their organizations to support them.
For us, the hiring process for Sisi’s new role really underlined how much this evolution has resonated with the needs of the community we serve.
Learning that our community is here for us
When we posted the opening for the Director of Programs role, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I wrote the job description to be purposefully open and designed the hiring process to be exploratory and responsive to the applicants. Working from Hearken’s great documentation, some of our own fellowship process documentation, and with the support of board members Candice Fortman and Tiff Fehr, we conducted an intentional hiring process.
Right away, I was surprised by how many applications came from this community. Overwhelmingly, we heard from people we knew and had collaborated with before, sometimes for years! Ryan and I both know how big and difficult of a step it can be to leave the newsroom, and yet dozens of community members were willing to do it.
This process also gave me so much hope and humility about the future of OpenNews. We saw such a huge community interest in literally contributing to the work we do, as opposed to just participating in it. Through applications and interviews, I listened and learned from so many applicants’ experiences of making and attempting change in this industry and their deep desire to restructure the systems of journalism to truly work for everyone. The process left me with:
- A huge amount of inspiration. It was incredible to know the community cares so much about this work, and has so many ideas about how we can support and strengthen the journalism industry through collective action. Each person we spoke with helped to shape my understanding of this work, and what that person saw as urgent for us to do next.
- A responsibility to create more ways to connect with the community and define the impact we’d like to see together. While this hiring process was just for one job, community members are clearly interested in being involved in a range of ways (and as a team of just three people, there’s no way we could do everything ourselves anyway). So we’re working hard to come up with good and fair ways for this community to be able to contribute, especially ways that are considerate and thoughtful about your time.
On a personal level, the support of our community is also what keeps me going. Time and again I hear the community ask us “how can I help?” or “what more can we do together?” But most frequently, I hear all of you insist to myself and to OpenNews: “PLEASE JUST ASK US FOR WHAT YOU NEED.”
And so we did: asking for sustainers and a new teammate and help for peers. I find it hard to ask for help, but it’s simply not possible to do this work alone. With Sisi and Ryan, we’ve got a team that knows how to design and structure inclusive programs in service of an activated community in an ailing industry. To transform the systems that need to change — especially toxic ones — we’ll need both collective action and broad support. Good thing we’ve got a community that’s ready and eager to shift the systems that no longer work and create and industry that welcomes and serves everyone.