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“We need you in this field”

Takeaways from ‘Asian American Leaders in Media,’ a conversation hosted by the As|Am ERG

As|Am, Vox Media’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group (ERG), hosted a slate of impactful conversations throughout May in honor of AAPI Heritage Month. From discussions with National Book Award-winning author Charles Yu to hosting a conversation with hacktivists and community organizers including @turbovax creator Huge Ma; Welcome to Chinatown co-founder Victoria Lee; Executive Director of Asian American Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus Aarti Kohli; and Design Director for the NYC Mayor’s Office - Civic Service Studio Mari Nakano. As|Am spotlighted members of Asian American communities, highlighted the diversity and intersectionality within the group, and partnered with ERGs across the industry for impactful programming.

The final installment in their event series gathered a roundtable of accomplished Vox Media leaders to examine the media industry as it reckons with racial disparities and scrutinizes its coverage of communities of color, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Here, we’re pleased to share advice and insights from the six speakers: moderator Kainaz Amaria, Visuals Editor, Vox; Camilla Cho, SVP of Ecommerce; Margaret Chu, Chief Financial Officer; Nishat Kurwa, VP & Executive Producer of Audio; Sukjong Hong, Editor of Curbed; and Swati Sharma, Editor-in-Chief of Vox.

Minimizing gaps in editorial coverage of anti-Asian racism

For Vox’s editor-in-chief Swati Sharma, one can’t address editorial coverage without looking at a newsroom itself:

“DEI — having a diverse and inclusive newsroom — is essential to journalism. You can’t have one without the other,” she says. “Creating this environment requires effort from everyone. Calling attention to reporting on important issues, such as anti-Asian racism and violence, “can’t just fall on the people of color,” Sharma continues. “We need to create newsrooms where anyone, no matter of their background, is conscious and informed of the pitfalls and stereotypes that can occur when covering incidents.”

The full group weighed in on tactics to create more diverse and inclusive media companies in order to deliver nuanced, diverse, and inclusive editorial coverage:

  • Open channels to speak up: This isn’t limited to editorial creators. From outside of the newsroom, business leader Camilla Cho shared an example: this year, she partnered with As|Am colleagues to pen a letter via the company’s “letters to the executives” program, to call for additional coverage of the waves of anti-Asian racism and violence. “It’s been a really meaningful part of my work.”
  • New angles: Curbed editor Sukjong Hong found the letter Cho mentioned “galvanizing,” and believes in finding new angles to tell the stories of anti-Asian racism that go far beyond the coverage of violence. Curbed, for example, explored how Asian American communities in New York were building safety initiatives and her team has a forthcoming story about efforts in Oakland.
  • Sourcing: “As newsrooms are evaluating old practices and our institutional biases, we need to be doing a close examination of how we render sources credible,” says Nishat Kurwa, Vox Media Podcast Network. She explains that as media outlets look to one another for ideas and affirmation, she hopes her team will continue to lead by bolstering the credibility of a wider array of sources.
  • An all-hands-on-deck model: When covering urgent, complex moments, Curbed’s Hong looks to cross-team collaboration. For instance, at the time of the shootings in Atlanta, independent editorial teams across New York Magazine teamed up to share ideas. “Putting all resources on deck to try to find new stories or assign features or think about having meaningful impact on coverage was really powerful,” she said. This approach also makes sure that it is not only the job of people of color to cover these moments: “everyone has to think about this and put all your strengths to bear.”

Shaping company culture

CFO Margaret Chu has seen authentic change happen inside organizations when internal culture and external factors collide: when the change agents are both employees and audiences who might say, “Hey, you’re selling me something that doesn’t resonate with me because it doesn’t look like me, it doesn’t affect my life, it doesn’t touch my culture.”

As we see the overdue collision of internal and external forces calling for progress, the panelists share examples of what they hope to see in company culture:

  • Managers who are accountable for staff wellbeing: The culture needs to be collaborative, caring, and place the wellbeing of staff as a top priority — a task, explains Vox’s Sharma, that should be considered when evaluating a manager’s success. In tough news moments, Sharma makes sure “that people step back from coverage when they need to and that people take time off if they’ve worked over the weekend….that culture leads to people doing their best work.”
  • Executives who model best practices: The tone is set at the top, says Cho, who leads Vox Media’s commerce business. In times of difficulty, it’s common for team members to ask, “what are the execs doing? How is my manager reacting?” Cho praises leaders who embody their well-meaning words by taking time out of their busy days to do things like promote and participate in DE&I activities or mentor and coach more junior colleagues.
  • Uncomfortable conversations: Creating an environment in which employees can and want to speak up is a big part of the puzzle, reiterates Sharma. The follow-up, though, matters just as much: it takes courage for a staff member to express something concerning; we must be open to what they say. “You have to accept all those conversations with generosity, empathy, and in good faith...these reckonings are really uncomfortable, messy, and tough...but having uncomfortable moments will get us to a better place.”
  • Audits and progress tracking: Examining coverage and processes in an organization “highlights gaps,” says Curbed editor Hong. This can apply to tracking coverage in a newsroom or leaning on a task force to track the impact of DE&I initiatives, a tactic that Kurwa mentioned the Vox Media Podcast Network leverages.

Hiring and retention

Before getting tactical, Kurwa, VP & EP of Audio, speaks to what she calls “cyclical exclusion,” the practice of seeking only new hires with years of experience within a field in which people of color have been historically underrepresented. Without opportunities, training, and investment in people, that cycle of exclusion will simply continue.

Here, the panelists each offer concrete ways they think about more inclusive hiring and retention:

  • Invest in developing talent: Kurwa advocates for “investing in meaningful professional development that focuses on rapidly up-leveling skill sets.” For example, she created a new, non-traditional senior role on her team to focus on curriculum development and education for everyone — a long-term investment in her team members’ individual and shared growth.
  • Look for potential: “Instead of hiring for something that someone has already done, think about what they’re capable of — otherwise, it’s an echo chamber,” says CFO Margaret Chu.
  • Expect this to take time: Chu also shares a personal story: Vox Media’s search for a CFO took eight months to find the best person from the broadest pool of candidates. “They didn’t hire me because I’m an Asian female, they hired me because I’m the best candidate. But they never would have gotten to me if they hadn’t made the effort to see a really large pool.”
  • Pair good intention with action: Camilla Cho keeps a favorite quote from Harvard Business Review top of mind: “if you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.” She explains, “you have to put in the time; it’s not just going to magically happen because you have an open mindset.”

As the session closes, the leaders aim for optimism. “It’s been such a tough year for Asian American journalists and for the communities and, even if it’s been so difficult, there’s been a door that’s been opened a little bit wider for more stories, and we’ve only seen a fraction of what’s possible...I hope those who are considering journalism feel empowered to get their voices out there,” says Curbed Editor Sukjong Hong. Moderator Kainaz Amaria, Vox visuals editor, puts a finer point on it: “Yes, we need you in this field.”

Vox Media’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) Our Employee Resource Groups (or ERGs) are company-supported groups whose members identify or ally with an identity. Today, we’re proud to support seven ERGs, including As|Am.