The data may not be surprising, but it is discouraging for many young journalists: Nearly half the current staffs at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times went to elite universities, according to a report in the May issue of the Journal of Expertise.
At face value, hiring journalists with excellent academic credentials doesn’t seem like an issue. But having an overwhelming proportion of elite-university graduates in a newsroom can signify a lack of socioeconomic, racial, and geographic diversity, said Heather Bryant, founder of Project Facet, a platform that facilitates newsroom collaboration. That type of staff makeup can limit perspectives in a newsroom. For example, when people who attended elite universities report on poverty—something they may not have experienced because many attendees could afford those elite schools—it can lead to the same kind of story again and again.
“If you go and you look for stories about poverty, you find stories about people who are experiencing economic hardship…(but) there is nothing out there that helps people understand, how do I navigate my life as someone who’s experiencing this hardship?” Bryant said.
How can Newsrooms facilitate change?
How can newsrooms (and the young journalists that want to break in) work to change the current situation? Megha Satyanarayana, a reporter for Chemical and Engineering News who spoke about mentorship at this year’s ONA conference, said newsrooms can start by focusing less on where someone went to school, or whether they went to college, when considering candidates. Rather, it’s vital to consider who a reporter is beyond their degree.
“If you’re packing a newsroom with a bunch of Ivy League grads who all look the same, sound the same, come from the same places, have the same color skin, have the same life frames, then you are depriving the newsroom and your readers of the true diversity of the people that they serve,” Satyanarayana said.
But changing this archetype also requires newsrooms to look inward. At the core of a newsroom, for instance, hiring managers can be prone to hiring people they are connected with or people who are like them. But Bryant said that structure for a job pipeline doesn’t make sense. Journalism is based on a lot of on-the-job teachable concepts, she said, so scoring an elite degree doesn’t need to—and shouldn’t—be the main focus.
“Staff your newsrooms differently, think about who you’re actually putting in them,” Bryant said. “Hire someone different. Give your internship to someone who didn’t go to a major school. Pay your interns. Think about who it is you’re actually doing journalism for.”
Ultimately, Bryant said, packing a newsroom staff with elite university grads dilutes a news organization’s coverage of several groups of people. She said encouraging opportunities for different people from different communities is the way to change that.
“We have to do journalism for people,” Bryant said. “We have to do journalism with people. We cannot just do journalism about people. That’s not enough.”
Students outside Ivy League schools can help too
It might not be easy for journalists from public universities or state colleges to immediately break into a newsroom filled with graduates of elite universities, but Satyanarayana said they can catch up. The best strategy, she said, is to seek out the uncomfortable.
She attended Tufts University — a school she acknowledged as elite — but said some of her most formative experiences were early-career jobs at mid-sized papers in Charlotte, North Carolina and Mississippi, two places she never expected to work.
She said the job in Mississippi was particularly challenging — she had preconceived notions of the deep south, didn’t know anyone there, and had to confront an area where people were recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
“I needed to be extremely respectful of what happened, but I still needed to do my job,” Satyanarayana said. “I needed to meet the needs of the newsroom I was working in, and I had to also take care of myself. It was very hard.”
Those lessons weren’t offered in any journalism course — Satyanarayana had to go through them in the field. And since those opportunities exist far off campus, they can be available to journalists who attend any university, if they are willing to put themselves in those uncomfortable situations.
“Recognize that your first couple of internships — and indeed your first couple of jobs — may be in very, very small newsrooms,” Satyanarayana said. “If those opportunities are opportunities that you can take — for family reasons, for financial reasons, whatever it can be — then I suggest that those are the choices that you make.
“Especially for young journalists, you need to be uncomfortable. If you’re not uncomfortable, I don’t think you get as many opportunities to grow and change and really become the reporter you’re going to be.”