How to advocate for yourself in the newsroom

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here

We’ve all been there: You have an idea for a story so good you can almost see it on your screen, but your editor dismisses it without giving it a second thought and you don’t push back. Or you want to propose the adoption of a new tool, but you decide against it because you don’t know how your more experienced colleagues will react. Have you ever tried to argue against one of your editor’s decisions, only to be insulted or mistreated for doing so?

Defending your views in the newsroom, especially when you’re early in your career, can be intimidating. After all, you’re facing editors and coworkers with far more experience, who in some cases have spent years on the job doing things in a way that makes the most sense to them.

When there are disagreements in the newsroom, some young journalists lash out in a way that can be perceived as entitled, while others prefer to lower their heads and stay silent, but in doing so they are depriving their newsrooms of potentially useful ideas, and enabling a culture where hierarchy trumps feedback. Ultimately, they are doing a disservice to readers. So, what can you do?

I spoke with Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Robert C.Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, where he leads diversity training for journalists, and director of the Reveal Investigative Fellowships from the Center for Investigative Reporting about how early-career journalists can advocate for themselves in the newsroom. The conversation was edited for length and clarity:

The millennial generation is considered to be more outspoken than its predecessors. Is there a need for them to learn how to advocate for themselves?

Martin Reynolds: Absolutely. There’s a need to do it in a way that takes into account the multiple generations [boomers, Gen X, etc.) that exist within news organizations, as well as the issues around race, around class and certainly gender.

What’s the first step an early-career journalist can take to assert themselves?

MR: Understanding how to talk to people who are different than yourself and approaching the conversation with an understanding of what it is you seek to get from it and what it is that the other person is also trying to accomplish. Knowing how you’re going to diplomatically navigate the dynamic for purposes of still being able to collaboratively work with this person.

It’s also important to seek out those you have seen doing this well and seek the mentorship from people who you know have the capacity to navigate a potentially perilous dynamic. Self awareness is really critical in all this. Sometimes there’s the perception that millennials might be entitled, so you have to make sure your approach is cool and that you have a sense of where your strengths and your weaknesses lie.

What do you do when your boss is not responsive, particularly in the case of minority journalists?

MR: It’s hard. There’s only so much you can do if you have a boss who does not understand or value what it is that you bring. But there are a few steps you can take: You can find advocates on the team, people that may not be in positions of actual leadership, like senior reporters, who can help advocate for a particular story or idea, or a space at the table, so that you’re not the only one.

Talk to senior management. This can be somewhat perilous at times, but if you think that there is a really a problem, go to a more senior member of the organization that you trust and feel safe with, someone that you feel you can have a productive conversation with. You’re not trying to throw someone under the bus, so the way you present it is very important. Present it as a challenge you’re trying to navigate.

Now, here’s what’s interesting: I’m coming at this from my own generational perspective. It could very well be that a younger journalist doesn’t take the normal pathway for dealing with this scenario, and part of me actually thinks that maybe there’s merit to that. The old way hasn’t always worked and so, if you’ve got a generational shift in the news organization, and there’s a greater percentage of a particular generation that approaches authority differently, that could be a good thing.

The organizations that flourish and succeed have a founder or a CEO that is able to be challenged at the same level as a peer. Quite frankly, journalism organizations do not operate like that, and quite frankly, that’s why we haven’t innovated in the way that we need to.

When younger journalists speak up, sometimes they are seen as entitled. Where’s the line between that and self-advocacy?

MR: It’s not walking in the first day and putting your foot down. Take a little bit of time to get the lay of the land, build some relationships, have some success, foster some out-of-work relationships. A little politicking. That can go a long way. When you’re early in your career I think a little bit of grinding to make an impression on the organization matters.

The line is proving yourself in whatever way the culture of the organization sees that and recognizes it. When you do those things and people respect you, then it’s easier to speak up. Many younger journalists feel that they need to be their own brand, and  some news organizations want some of that, but you need to balance that need with doing the best for the organization.

What other advice can you give to young journalists?

MR: It’s OK to advocate. Some people may look at you because you’re young and say, “What do you know?” — especially people who might not be in departments where they would know about your work. That is why you also need to cross-pollinate. You need to be an organizational bumblebee. Invite a manager from another department for coffee and learn what they do, or another colleague. In those situations, you’re building collaborations and camaraderie across teams that I think will help you when you speak up.

The other part of that is that you can’t worry too much about what other people are going to think about you. If you are a person of color and you raise your hand in an organization or push back, some people are not going to like it and they might not even know why they don’t like it, they just don’t like it, because they have unconscious bias. And there’s not really a good way to combat that.

You’re not going to please everyone. Everyone is not going to like you, and you know what? That’s ok. Because if you have build relationships and you have shown yourself through your work, and you have built allies across departments, you’ve done your homework. The decisions about who gets opportunities don’t happen when you are in the room. Whatever you have done to foster goodwill will emerge when you are not in the room.

I think we need more people pushing back and asserting themselves and bringing who they are into news organizations, but they also have to prove themselves too. I think doing those two things simultaneously is incredibly important for the health of journalism.