“Stories Aren’t Falling Off the Trees Anymore: A Conversation With the Women Running Washington Newsrooms”

From a post on politico.com by Katelyn Fossett headlined “Stories Aren’t Falling Off the Trees Anymore: A Conversation With the Women Running Washington Newsrooms”:

In one part of Washington, women are in charge like never before: Four of the largest newsrooms in D.C.—the Washington Post, Politico, the New York Times’ Washington Bureau and Vox—are run by women….For the relaunch of the Women Rule newsletter, we convened four women in leadership at those newsrooms—over Zoom—to talk about journalism post-Trump and as Covid wanes.

They discussed the difficulty of covering a presidency and a Washington where “stories aren’t falling off the trees anymore,” even if the Trump era was more chaotic and challenging than this one in other ways. They’re still grappling with the return to physical workplaces and what the pandemic has revealed about burnout and work-life balance….

And on the question of what to do about social media policies, most admitted there were no easy answers, even if the problems posed by the question show no sign of abating. We also covered what the impact of #MeToo has been, now that we’re several years removed from the first high-profile stories, and the work newsrooms still need to do on gender and racial diversity.

Carrie Budoff Brown, editor of POLITICO
Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief at the New York Times
Swati Sharma, editor-in-chief of Vox
Krissah Thompson, managing editor of diversity and inclusion at the Washington Post

Katelyn Fossett: I want to discuss the post-Trump newsroom. It’s no secret that subscriptions and traffic levels were at an all-time high under Trump. But it’s a new era. How worried are you about sustaining those levels after Trump?

Swati Sharma: I’m not worried. I see it as a huge opportunity because we can go back to, you know, all the stories that we wanted to cover the last four years and didn’t have time for. And so I just see it as a huge opportunity to really cover inequality, poverty, housing, health care. We have opportunities to do just even more great journalism.

Krissah Thompson: Now I think we have to find ways to continue to deliver, not just on the politics, but on all of the other stories that matter in people’s lives … to continue to write about the fallout from this pandemic and the next pandemic … to continue to tell deep and important stories about climate change. There’s a big interest in wellness reporting, all of those things. So I’m looking at the opportunities, too.

Elisabeth Bumiller: Our traffic is certainly down from 2020. It’s not down from 2019. So that’s a good sign. 2020 was an extraordinary year. Obviously there was a presidential election, there was a pandemic, there was George Floyd.

But it has changed. Certainly the Washington bureau has. I mean, for four years, we were basically hanging on by our fingernails. As you all know, every day five stories would zoom by that we had to grab on to. And it’s both easier and more difficult now. Easier in that every day isn’t an all-out panic like it would go on for months on end during the Trump administration. But also stories aren’t falling off the trees anymore. So we’ve got a much bigger focus on policy with the Biden administration, on foreign policy, on his giant domestic agenda, on pandemic relief.

So those are not natural crowd-pleasers all the time in terms of clicks….And in some ways it’s more demanding because it requires you to be more creative in what we do, and there is more enterprise involved, more thinking. So that’s good. And it’s obviously a lot calmer. There’s not a list of 20 stories every morning when I start work thinking, which one when are we going to do today? So it’s harder to come up with, you know, really good stories.

Fossett: Do you think that your reporters are energized by that, by being able to return to those enterprise stories?

Bumiller: To be honest, some are and some aren’t. I mean that’s all I can tell you. The Biden White House is about as far opposite from the Trump White House as you get….I think by and large, people are relieved and happy to be covering something else and sinking their teeth into some substance, actually, rather than just the latest person to quit. But it’s been an adjustment.

Carrie Budoff Brown: I covered the Obama administration, so this feels very familiar to me. And before Biden was sworn into office, I did tell my newsroom, This is going to be harder, in a different way. This is going to be harder.

It’s just how Obama ran his White House. Biden’s the same. It’s really hard to get behind the scenes. And people have to work a hell of a lot harder and frankly be pretty skilled journalists to get folks inside Biden’s world to talk to them. That was not the way it was with Trump. We would know immediately what was on his mind….

At the same time, we’re facing down a midterm election that’s going to be incredibly contentious, a presidential election with possibly an open field. These are really big political stories that I believe will capture America’s interest and the world’s interest. And people are going to continue to have to understand what’s going on in Washington. That’s just reality.

Fossett: What does a 21st-century social media policy look like? And what are newsrooms still getting wrong about those policies and enforcement?

Thompson: I have a thought about what we’re getting wrong. And it’s something that I hear from staff a lot and have experienced. Leadership is not online in the way that a lot of our staffers are. We’re just not. It’s a different role. And to set policy and be standing outside of the experience of that kind of harassment, I think, has created a level of dissonance that we really have to reconcile and understand that there are bad actors out there who, by attacking journalists, are looking to attack the media writ large in the free press. We have to be really cognizant of that, and we have a little bit of catching up to do in that respect.

Sharma: Exactly. I think that leaders need to be talking to their staff more, too. That kind of strongman leadership style doesn’t work as well in newsrooms. There are so many changes happening, whether it’s social media, whether it’s, you know, participation in BLM rallies, things like that. And we really should just take this moment to figure out what are the lines.

Bumiller: I think there’s an inherent conflict in what newsrooms want from social media and what happens. Management and certainly the corporate communications people love it when reporters tweet, especially people like Maggie Haberman, who has so many followers that she can drive up the audience on a story just with a single tweet. And so there’s a lot of encouragement to tweet, and there’s an expectation that you should. On the other hand, there’s no editing. And reporters, despite how many times they are told, “Do not tweet anything out that you would not see in the New York Times,” they’re human beings. They don’t have editors. It’s late at night. They’re angry. They’re upset. They’re excited. They tweet out things that are not appropriate.

And inevitably, I get the call. I mean, I can’t possibly have the time to police it, but I get a call from New York saying, Would you please talk to so-and-so? You’ve got to talk to so-and-so. There’s about three or four people. And I talk to them and they say, We promise never to do it again.

Budoff Brown: And then they do it again!

Bumiller: So I don’t see what the solution is here. I think it’s a positive mostly for news organizations that reporters, especially well-known reporters with huge followings, tweet. It’s part of our journalism. But it’s a continuing staff problem….

As a manager, you make like 400 decisions. And everyone of them are judgment calls based on the situation. So that’s a lot of what I do … a lot of psychology, too.

Budoff Brown: A lot of psychology.

Bumiller: Hand-holding and, you know, therapy and stuff.

Thompson: Along with the journalism.

Bumiller: Right. There is journalism from time to time.

Fossett: We’re speaking with all of you today because you’re all leaders in Washington newsrooms, and you’re all women. From the beginning of your career in journalism to now, have you seen more women in leadership in newsrooms, and how has that changed the workplace and coverage?

Budoff Brown: Obviously there are more women leading publications, but I would say for me personally, women have always been very pivotal at every stage of my career….

And I do think women are—it can sound stereotypical—I do believe it’s true that we just have a different skill set and that skill set is very much in need these days. And that’s the skill set of human connection, understanding, empathy. Men have those abilities, too, of course. But I do believe that there is something to be said for the qualities that women bring into leadership positions and that I think are just particularly well-suited for this moment. And I do think there’s a reason why we’re seeing this elevation. It’s not just sort of a moment. There’s thankfully a recognition of what women bring to these roles, frankly.

Bumiller: I came into journalism before Carrie did. So there were less women on my way up. But I do remember Jill Abramson was the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times when I came to Washington in 2001. And she was the first woman to be Washington bureau chief. So that was a big deal for me, I think.

When I came to Washington in 2001, I came as a White House reporter. I had been City Hall bureau chief for the Times in New York covering Giuliani. The Washington bureau was 20 or 25 percent women. And although Jill was the bureau chief, there weren’t a lot of other women on the desk. And that has really changed. Right now, the Washington bureau is 50 percent women, but the desk—the editors and the management at the bureau—is, depending how you count it, 75 to 80 percent women. So that is a sea change.

When I was covering the Pentagon and when I was covering the White House, I used to be sometimes the only woman in the room. And that was not comfortable. It’s just, any time you’re the only person in a room of your type, it’s not comfortable. And I think it’s just different now.

In fact, the men are really in the minority now. Our national security editor in Washington is a woman, our incoming foreign policy editor is a woman, our White House editor is a woman, our congressional editor is a woman, our economics editor is a woman. These are heavy lifting jobs. And I am super proud of that….

I do think that in general, women do have attributes that are much needed right now. Now, men have them, too. There are a lot of men who have those attributes as well. But I think overall, more women have them, on average. Women listen, generally—not all do. But women listen. Women are collaborative. Women are less apt to speak up … You know how in grade school, the guys are always raising their hands and saying, Call on me, call on me. And then the teacher would call them and they would say, Uh, I forgot.[Laughs.] You know, women don’t perform in meetings the way men do. Or least that’s the case at the Times. But I do think there’s a really serious competence. And you can see that.

Thompson: We are in a pretty cool place at the Post, having just hired our first female executive editor, really exciting to finally make that history here, but also to be in a place where our leadership team … Three of the four managing editors are women, some of our strongest leaders in the newsroom [are women].

And so with women at the fore, I think one of the questions is how we continue to open up the doors for others. And so, you know, as the industry has changed, are we bringing in folks with varied perspectives from across the country, and in terms of gender diversity and racial diversity?

Sharma: I think there is a lot more change that’s needed, especially when it comes to racial diversity and inclusivity. We have a long way to go and not just in terms of diversifying our staff, but also the culture at these places. And I think that happens from the top.

One of my core beliefs is that you should be who you are. Like, I don’t try to be a man. I love wearing makeup. I am who I am. But I do notice that, for instance, the people in meetings who are not the most vocal … I do try to create an environment where they are who they are, but then they can still speak up. So I’ll Slack them on the side and ask if it’s OK if I ask them to share their idea if they have one. I try to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable.

Budoff Brown: I want to make a point about style of leadership. There has been a mold of leadership that has been demonstrated by men. And then when women choose to lead in a different way, convincing the men that your style of leadership is effective … There is a way of leading that may not be that familiar to maybe some men, and that is lacking.

I lead in a certain way. I don’t lead like I’m a man. I’m a woman. And I have a style of leadership that’s my own, and I believe strongly that you have to be yourself, too. You were hired, hopefully, because they want you.

But I’ve noticed a tension, right, that sometimes my style of leadership or the way that I lead can be viewed as maybe soft or too touchy-feely or this or that. And I just disagree. That is how I’m choosing to lead. I obviously change my style depending on the room. But who I am at my core is that, and I don’t believe that’s a weakness. I believe that’s a strength. And so I lean into that.

Thompson: And there’s the idea that I think women have perfected, but now I see more men in the newsroom doing it, too: amplifying someone else’s good idea and giving them credit for it.

These are some of the cultural changes that I think newsrooms need. And it’s in part because what I see from this younger generation of journalists coming in is that is their expectation for what a workplace would be like.

And so I have so much love for the old school—I came into the industry where we were a newspaper first, and there’s a kind of attitude and beautiful cynicism that comes with that. But at the same time, as we evolve and as we look to bring in some of the great ideas from younger journalists, I think we also have to own that some of that wasn’t great. There are ways that we, I think, have engaged and not been as open to some ideas as we should have. And so this moment of women leading in newsrooms, I think is also an opportunity to make some of those cultural shifts that are probably overdue.

Fossett: I want to shift a bit to coverage and how having women leaders affects coverage. One of the big stories in gender and politics in the past few years has been the #MeToo stories that came out starting around 2017. And now we’re actually kind of removed from that; it was a few years ago now. So looking back on that now, what do you think the impact of that was in newsrooms and how newsrooms treat stories of sexual misconduct in politics and, broadly, gender in politics?

Bumiller: I think it had a big impact. I mean, I wasn’t part of that coverage; that was out of New York. But Megan [Twohey] and Jodi [Kantor] did unbelievable work on that. And of course it had an effect on our workplace. It came into our workplace and I had to deal with it in the Washington bureau. And so I think it’s completely changed behavior; at least what I see in our newsroom.

I do think it’s died down. But we take it seriously, and people are certainly careful in the newsroom now. And they’re dealt with in a way they never were in the past.

Budoff Brown: Well, one, there’s just, you know, a template. We have an understanding of how to land these stories now in a way that may have been more challenging prior to #MeToo. We know how to get a story out into the world. It’s absolutely changed.

I think the long-lasting impact of #MeToo is the expectations of newsrooms and workplaces. #MeToo has just fundamentally changed how people expect their workplaces to be in terms of bad behavior, bullying, sexual harassment, improprieties. It has changed and risen expectations of how we need to lead and how people expect to be led and cultures within the newsroom.

Sharma: I think one thing that I really live by is that your journalism is only as good as a culture in the newsroom. You can’t have one without the other. I think we did for a long time. And I think that #MeToo has helped that change a lot.

Thompson: I think it has also just empowered women in different parts of the culture to tell their stories. We had a big piece of reporting last year on the cheerleaders who worked for the Washington football team, speaking up about what their experiences have been. And as Carrie said, we know how to tell these stories now. Things that had been rumored for years or that reporters had heard and weren’t quite sure how to go about—both verifying this journalism and telling the stories in a big way—we’ve done that. And I think you’ll see newsrooms continue to do that.

The other thing that is important to raise is that it has been important to have women in leadership, as line editors on these pieces, as contributing to the reporting throughout. That has been an important aspect making sure we have varied perspectives at the table that can add a lens and an eye to these pieces.

Fossett: Covid has changed a lot about how everyone works, but newsrooms have also changed dramatically. What changes do you think will stick and what do you think will fade away?

Bumiller: I think we’re going back in September, three days in and two days out, but each department at the Times got to pick its own three days in and two days out. They don’t match in a lot of cases, so there will be chaos, but that’s OK.

But I do think those three days in—that’s not about health, because we’re all going to be in together and we’re all going to be out together mostly. I mean, you can also come in five days if you want. So that’s more about easing people back in who liked working remotely….

Sharma: Hopefully there are going to be more conversations around mental health and burnout. And I think that is probably one of the biggest—I hope—a legacy that remains. I’m guessing all of us checked in on our staff throughout this past year, made sure people who were alone were OK, who had young children were OK. And I’m hoping that that kind of practice of caring about your staff’s mental health remains, and that we do have an emphasis on people having lives and not burning out and taking care of themselves more than we have had in the past.

Budoff Brown: I feel like the one thing I would love to still be a reality a year from today is that people take the time they need for their families; that the work schedule maintains some flexibility so people can still, to whatever degree they can, have dinner with their family or see their children.

My concern is that life will just return to normal. Elisabeth, I was at a book party last night. Lots of people all around me. So I think the crowded holiday party is going to come back. And so then I worry what else is going to fade away. And I do think then that’s on us as leaders to say “no.” Like we discovered something about ourselves in our workplaces, in our country in the last year, that this kind of balance is really super important to people. How do we maintain that? But I think the verdict is out on that.

Thompson: I agree with all that. I hope that the hybrid technology, having been in a couple of hybrid meetings, gets better very quickly, because I think that will drive people back to the office. So that’s something that we have to work on….

Fossett: Yeah. We’re still seeing a lot of news stories about the new normal, but it’s still really unclear what will last.

Thompson: Well, we have to create some equity, too, though, right, to make sure, as Swati was saying earlier, that when you’re running a meeting, the people who are in the room and those who are remote are just as important. And that you’re hearing from everyone. Because I think that power differential—being able to sway the boss or get the story because you’re physically there—is what will drive more people back. So if we’re able to manage through that, I think it’ll make a big difference.

Fossett: For the last question, I want to ask: What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten throughout your career?

Budoff Brown: Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. It took me till my young 30s as a reporter … I had a lot of men who were great reporters I was surrounded with, and they had a style of reporting that I thought I had to emulate. And it wasn’t until I realized I didn’t have to be them; I could be myself, and that was a moment of acceptance….

Bumiller: What I have picked up over the years and the things I sort of live by are: Share the credit, take the blame. Empower people who work for you. Listen. And no surprises for your bosses. I mean, those are the things that I probably do every day. And I’ve learned some of those the really hard way.

Sharma: Mine is, in one to two sentences, know why you’re here; why you’re a journalist. And any time you have a tough decision or something bad is happening, just stay steady on your goal and why you’re here. My personal reason why I’m a journalist, I apply it to every job opportunity. But even when I’m just assigning a story, I think, Does this fit my overall mission? And so create that for yourself and keep it close to you. And it’s going to make your life as a journalist a tiny bit easier.

Thompson: Your voice matters. And I think it’s for a lot of the reasons that Carrie laid out. If you’re the reporter who is putting the piece together, your perspective, your life experience matters. If you’re in a meeting, if you’re leading, your voice matters. And I think that the counter to that is the voices of others matter. So listening and being able to push the good ideas of others forward is also important.

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