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An interview with Odette Alcazaren-Keeley on dismantling structural racism in media 

June 19, 2023 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Founded in 1977, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education fosters diversity in newsrooms through improved coverage, hiring, and business practices. The organization offers newsroom training and professional development programs that promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in journalism. In 2018, the organization launched the Maynard 200 Fellowship as a call to action for the industry. The program provides training and mentorship to mid-career journalists of diverse backgrounds in order to advance their career growth and ability to take on expanded leadership roles.

Director Odette Alcazaren-Keeley kicks off the 2023 Maynard 200 fellowship program.
Director Odette Alcazaren-Keeley kicks off the 2023 Maynard 200 fellowship program.

To date, 146 fellows have completed the program. These diverse media leaders, storytellers, and entrepreneurs are not just equipped to lead within media organizations, or their own endeavors. They also form a community of support that grows every year, which is especially critical amid turbulence in the industry. Maynard 200 Fellows are part of what its director Odette Alcazaren-Keeley describes as “a mini-movement aligned with our mission of dismantling structural racism in America’s newsrooms and media spaces.” 

Alcazaren-Keeley recently received the SPJ NorCal Excellence in Journalism “Unsung Hero” award, primarily for her work directing the program, which they cited as “as one of the most powerful incubators for journalists of color in the country.” Here, she discusses the state of newsroom equity, what’s changed – and what has not – and offers insight and advice for media leaders who want to support diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in tangible ways. 


Describe the current state of diversity in newsrooms as you see it:

There has been progress but there is still so much work to be done to grow diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging [DEIB] in newsrooms. Three years after the Summer of George Floyd, many newsrooms still continue to struggle with racial equity.

Given economic uncertainties, many newsrooms find themselves at crossroads. News organizations can choose to continue to build on the momentum of the racial awakening of 2020. But the work is not easy. And as some newsrooms struggle with financial sustainability, they may be tempted to abandon efforts before reaping the benefits of this work. We’ve seen this reported in other industries. For example in tech, where DEIB roles saw high attrition rates –  and even layoffs – earlier this year.

Of course there is reason to hope and we can point to metrics of progress. For example, the American Journalist Study of 2022 found that the number of full-time journalists of color increased from 10.8% in 2012 to 18% in 2022.

But again, this progress has been mixed as found by the Pew Research Center survey of almost 12,000 journalists last year. For example, journalists surveyed gave their news organizations highest marks for gender and age diversity – but the lowest for racial and ethnic diversity.

Our organization has been doing this work to help diversify the profession so that demographics of newsrooms better reflect the demographics of the U.S. for decades and the marathon continues. This is why we are so passionate about the successes of the Maynard 200 Fellowship program. We designed the program to train journalists of color and their allies. The program’s curriculum is both skills-based and centered on DEIB principles. The investigative reporters, editors, managers, executives, and media entrepreneurs who participate in the Maynard 200 Fellowship go on to become change agents in their organizations. And we can see that this is something the media industry clearly needs more of. 

Are you and your fellows seeing change on the inclusion front?

Marla Jones-Newman, VP of People and Culture at Mother Jones, and a 2022 alum of the executive leaders track of the Maynard 200 Fellowship, recently wrote an insightful piece about the industry’s fluctuating commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Media advocates and journalism funders relay reports of DEIB leaders across newsrooms who share that they do not receive an authentic infrastructure of support and are not able to sustain their work. This has led them to fail their mission in shifting cultures of toxicity and racial inequity inside media organizations – the very reason for their roles.

It can often feel like two steps forward and one step back – or one step forward, two steps back depending on the backlash. When newsrooms are inconsistent with their commitment to DEIB, it can feel performative and actually hurt their reputations among audiences and employees. 

[Disclosure: Mother Jones is one of the news organizations participating in the 2023 Maynard 200 Fellowship business case study challenge, where fellows are tasked with designing solutions to challenges faced by today’s media organizations.]

 Many media organizations have pledged to improve their racial equity. Have they? 

This work can be difficult to track – especially when previous efforts to survey the industry have faded out due to “crushing resistance” like the American Society of News Editors annual diversity survey which had been conducted since 1978.  So few news organizations contribute data about their racial equity, that some industry leaders want to make diversity reporting a requirement to receive prestigious journalism awards, like the Open Letter to the Pulitzer Prizes published last year.

Again, we can point to some progress. But if news organizations want to thrive they must quicken their pace. The younger generation coming out of journalism schools today has higher expectations. To refer back to the Pew Research Center report again, the numbers that jump out the most come from younger respondents. For example, 68% of journalists ages 18 to 29 say there is not enough racial and ethnic diversity at their organization, compared with 37% of journalists 65 and older. 

In some ways, the culture of society is changing faster than media organizational culture is changing. Younger generations in the U.S. are more diverse than previous generations, if media organizations want to recruit the next generation of journalists, they need to catch up. 

What are the barriers that need to be addressed to improve equity in media organizations?

There are many, but the primary barrier to address is systemic racism. More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a committee to investigate the rise in U.S. racial conflicts in the late 1960s. The outcome of that investigation, known as the Kerner Commission report, warned that: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report also stated the news media was “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting” people of color.

In response, the news media claimed it was a “pipeline problem” in that they could not find qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds. In 1978 at a pivotal meeting of top brass in print, Bob Maynard declared it was time to remove this excuse from the equation. “We will not let you off the hook,” he said. “We must desegregate this business.”

This climate propelled our Institute’s namesake Robert C. Maynard to gather a diverse group of journalists and found the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education with the mission of promoting diversity and antiracism in the news media through improved coverage, hiring and business practices.

At an organizational level, media organizations must strive to create a culture of belonging for journalists and audiences of all backgrounds, rather than othering these groups in their workplaces and their coverage. To push DEIB principles forward – in addition to professional development training programs like the Maynard 200 Fellowship – the Maynard Institute also provides consultation and training to media organizations that address the structural inequities that persist in newsrooms. Using the Fault Lines® training methodology designed by Bob Maynard, the Maynard Institute helps newsrooms come to terms with bias along race, gender, sexual orientation, generation, geography and class lines as they apply to journalists, newsroom collaboration and coverage. 

As you mentioned, we often hear about a “pipeline problem” and we’ve seen media organizations work with universities and other organizations to better recruit diverse candidates. Is this working? Is it enough?

Similar to other professions and industries – such as those in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) fields –  the myth of the “pipeline problem” has been busted. There is no shortage of qualified candidates of diverse backgrounds. But until media organizations can adopt diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging principles as foundational to newsroom culture, progress will continue to be slower than we would like to see.

Looking at our metrics, we are proud that while there are many newsworthy journalism fellowships, the Maynard 200 Fellowship has consistently served the most diverse group of journalists in the industry. Year after year, the majority of fellows are Black, followed by AAPI, Latine, and mixed race. In addition, since the program began, the vast majority of fellows have identified as women. 

Back in 2018, the Maynard Institute created its fellowship with the goal to provide training and professional support to advance the careers of 200 journalists. The Institute will soon exceed that goal in 2024. But the positive impact of the program is already visible, particularly for Black women who have advanced to executive positions in the industry since participating in Maynard 200. One of the things we think sets our program apart is this success at supporting Black leaders in the media. And as news organizations continue to diversify their leadership and c-suite, further success will be measured in the retention and advancement of diverse employees, who feel supported.  

 What do you see that is working or that has been effective in your program? 

Some of the key components of the Maynard 200 Fellowship we find especially effective are the peer learning community model and the year-long, one-on-one mentorship. Because getting journalists of color hired isn’t the end of the journey. The industry must also establish communities of support and pathways to career advancement in order to ensure journalists of color don’t burnout or leave the industry altogether. For example, after Maynard 200 Fellows complete the training curriculum, they are paired with an industry professional who works in their subject area for a full year of mentorship.

What advice would you give to media leaders committed to change?

Remember that this work requires more than just issuing a press release or vision statement about the value of diversity. Organizations need to avoid performative lip-service that doesn’t have a real, tangible impact. DEIB principles must be embedded into organizational culture and business practices.

In order to achieve this, leaders have to acknowledge and leave behind old hallmarks of the profession that reinforced systemic inequity. For example, the myth that journalists must strive for strictly objective reporting is not only outdated, it is harmful. Since 2020, we’ve seen a call from industry thought leaders, educators and award-winning journalists like Wesley Lowery to abandon the myth of objectivity.  

What would you like to say to today’s media leaders who are committed to dismantling structural racism? 

Media leaders today must embrace the concept of belonging. In the 1980s, the most commonly used term for this work was “diversity.” Over the years additional concepts such as equity and inclusion have been integrated into professional settings. Most recently, the concept of belonging has emerged as vitally important. Belonging describes more than a feeling of inclusion or welcome.

Belonging means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life — the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions. 

At its core, structural belonging holds a radically inclusive vision because it requires mutual power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within an organization.

Leaders must accept that culture change is hard and an ongoing process. Leaders must prepare and build in space for the emotional work associated with these issues to be truly successful. The news organizations with leadership who prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging make substantial progress. You can look at the success stories of newsrooms for payoffs.

For example Southern California Public Radio used the performance-driven change management tools to assess and track organizational progress on DEIB issues. An independently formed task force made 44 recommendations to leadership that were all accepted and implemented. 

Also look to GBH – the largest producer of content for PBS and one of the public media organizations participating in the Maynard Institute’s Newsroom Transformation Program. They’ve invested heavily in weaving belonging into their organizational culture and business practices. For example, GBH has diversified their network of suppliers and transitioned unpaid internships to paid internships in order to create more equitable opportunities. Business practice changes like this can have a big impact. The first year they implemented paid internships, GBH saw a 12% increase in the diversity of their interns. 

Our co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, Martin G. Reynolds often says, “News organizations need to learn to operationalize the concept of belonging.” This is very challenging work because it requires an individual and collective unwinding of internalized biases, perceptions, and business practices that have made some news organizations toxic places for so many, particularly people of color. This work must be aligned with a news organization’s business strategy.

What’s the payoff for media organizations that effectively improve the diversity of their teams?

We know that diversity in newsrooms has multiple positive outcomes. In addition to the ethical imperative, there is a strong business case. Having journalists from diverse backgrounds helps improve the quality, breadth and depth of coverage which then in turn, attracts and expands the audience. The term “payoff” says it all. The payoff of this work is long term growth and financial sustainability.  A media organization cannot grow its audience and bottom line without doing this work.

For example, if a news organization is eager to reach younger consumers to ensure financial survival then it must implement an approach to diversifying story sources and coverage. Research commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that younger people have a strong interest in coverage that is clearly more diverse and inclusive. Plus, the Washington Post editor, Neema Roshania Patel has found that “Diversity in sourcing is key to reaching and retaining a younger, more diverse set of readers.”

Our Maynard 200 fellows embody a superpower that makes our mission of creating more institutions of belonging possible – courage. In their collective voice and impact, I see the collective power of journalism. And I know other media leaders out there can see it, feel it, and want to be part of it too. 

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