Rebekah Monson

 VP/Product, The New Tropic

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You recently participated in the inaugural class of the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Tell us about that experience

It was transformative. When I saw the list of the women in our cohort — not to mention the faculty — I was floored. These women are as accomplished and as brilliant in person as they are on paper, and they each have a unique understanding of how our industry is evolving. I wanted to bolster my management and business skills, and the training delivered. But, the most valuable takeaway for me has been a richer network of smart, driven, and collaborative women leaders who who are committed to helping each other succeed and to making media more diverse.

The success of this program has been swift and staggering. Everyone in our cohort has achieved at least one immediate goal that we addressed in that week of work. They’ve negotiated for promotions or better benefits, they’ve been hired into new positions, they’ve taken on new challenges that align with their goals, or they’ve tackled tough management issues within their teams and organizations. The academy helped us level up, and I think that’s key to building better, more diverse and more excellent media companies. We can solve our diversity problems with vigilance and persistent effort to create training and support networks for diverse journalists at every stage of career growth. I’m excited to see our industry doubling down on those solutions.

ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media inaugural class.

ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media inaugural class.

In a recent blog post, you commented on the fact that more than 500 women applied for only 25 slots in the Leadership Academy and noted that we need to be doing more as a community to provide more of these types of opportunities. What are the key ways in which women are under-served and what are your ideas for improving the landscape of opportunity?

Diversity is intentional. We have to work at it. If we want today’s women and people of color and LGBT people to have better experiences and to grow into great leaders, we have to make it so with mentorship, training, networking and opportunity. One or two programs or conference sessions can’t change the system. It’s not enough just to “lean in” to our own careers. We have an imperative to reach back and help the next leaders along too.

There’s a ton of scholarship out there about obstacles for women and people of color, and why diversity and diverse leadership makes better teams. We have to dispel the meritocracy myth and the idea that traditionally male characteristics are best for leadership. Both of these ideas are false, and we should scrub them out of our culture. There are also simple, small steps each of us can take:

Broaden and amplify your networks.

Little acts and genuine interest in someone’s work, ideas and success can go a long way toward empowering more people. This isn’t altruism. Diverse networks make us smarter, faster and more curious about the world. Go to meetups. Scour social media for interesting people working on interesting things, especially in analogous fields. Ask for introductions, and introduce others in turn. Publicly applaud work well done. Err on the side of generosity. These are tiny choices, micro-connections, but in aggregate, they matter and they keep you on the edge of your work.

Be an active mentor or ally.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with women and people of color to collaborate, to learn about their work, and to offer support and share my knowledge. The people I meet tend to be truly awesome people at all different points in their careers, and I learn a lot from them. I have recommended some for jobs or fellowships, and I hope I get to hire some of them some day. I’ve been giving and attending more talks aimed at diverse audiences and I volunteer for free and open workshops to share what I know. If you run a conference or a group, be sure you have a code of conduct that encourages inclusivity.

Hire and promote smarter.

Women and minorities often self-select out of advancement opportunities simply because we write terrible job descriptions and do a lousy job of recruiting. Hiremorewomenintech.com is a good place to start getting ideas about how to do all of this better, and it applies to media too. I think structured interviews can also help correct bias in hiring and ensure that we’re all working from the same expectations. Having diverse people in your hiring process is also ideal.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of journalists learning to code. Some believe ALL aspiring journalists should learn to code. Others believe it’s still a niche skill. What are your thoughts?

There are plenty of shortcuts here, but I think it’s a good idea to understand how the web works and be able to build stories for the web. To me, this means at a minimum we should be able to embed media, make rudimentary interactives, and tell a story for the web within whatever (generally terrible) CMS you get saddled with in a news organization. You can get really far on basic knowledge of HTML, CSS and jQuery. There are simply fewer opportunities for those who can’t do those basic things. Also, I highly recommend that you learn version control because it will save your butt at some point. (Protip: A good way to learn all of this is to build a little portfolio site on Github Pages.) I also think all journalists need some basic data and statistical literacy in order to properly check sources and find stories in data. That doesn’t require code, but a little programming know-how can make the work easier.

If you want certain jobs (the ones for which we happen to see exploding demand), you need to be able to think and work proficiently in code. You need more UX/UI skills, and you should know how to make things with data — like d3 visualizations or simple web apps with databases. When you first build things, you’re really mostly learning concepts and how to learn a programming language or framework. As to what language you should learn, I’d say don’t stress out about it. Certain shops prefer certain languages and frameworks. Python and Ruby are probably the most common, but a lot of the young’uns are building cool stuff with JS frameworks like Angular. I’m most proficient in good old PHP because my company runs on WordPress. (Two-thirds of the newsnerd universe just made an audible barfing noise when they read that.)

Developers love to talk smack about other languages. Tune all that out, because it will paralyze you for no good reason. Every language or library or framework has sucky parts and great parts, but if you learn one really well, you can learn another one much faster. I am a pretty mediocre developer, but I can figure out how to make anything I need to make (even if i make it super gross), and I know enough about the basics now to find answers when I am stuck. That’s the most important part of “learning to code,” in my experience.

Tell us about your most recent project, The New Tropic. What inspired this multimedia upstart, and how has it been received?

The New Tropic makes a daily email newsletter to help people keep up with what’s happening in Miami, we do original journalism on all sorts of local issues, and we create events to get more people active and involved with Miami itself. Internally, we think of this approach as experiential media — connecting all kinds of people to their community through digital and IRL experiences.

We came upon this idea through a lot of experiments. We started WhereBy.Us (the New Tropic parent company) as a little local meetup that aimed to get people brainstorming and executing small-scale solutions to big Miami problems like transit and sea-level rise. What emerged were some fun projects and a lot of people who cared enough to DO things that could change Miami for the good. They wanted more ways to connect, to keep up with what was changing, and to contribute. We did a big human-centered design research process to understand user needs and motivations, and we thought there was an opportunity to create a different kind of local media company to meet their needs.

So far, we’ve been doing pretty well. We’re growing a lot, and we’re rapidly iterating over how and what we make. I meet new Miamians every day who rely on the newsletter, who look forward to our events, who read our stories, who share their ideas. It’s thrilling and challenging and incredibly gratifying to make things in the world that people love to use, and it’s incredibly humbling to try to make those things better every day for the users.

What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced as an entrepreneurial journalist?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as an entrepreneurial journalist is one that our industry faces writ-large — trying to figure out an effective business model for local journalism. The business is in great peril, and I think it will continue to  erode as long as ad views are the gold standard for how we make money online. It’s an incredibly hard problem, and I find that really exciting.

As a young journalist, I had a sort of hubris about being walled off from the business side. But I learned pretty early on that none of our journalism and community aspirations can happen if we can’t generate revenue. I’m constantly trying to balance those needs now. If journalists don’t get willing to start testing new ideas on the business side, we’ll lose the opportunity to do the work we love.

We’re iterating on a sustainable business model in Miami now. That’s no small feat, but we can’t stop there. If we can find a model that works at scale, we get to try to make more local journalism and build community for millions of people in cities where local journalism has been hurting.

What advice do you have for aspiring multimedia journalists who may not want to work in traditional newsrooms?

I think most journalists are going to be free-range in the future, so way to be a trailblazer. The baseline is that you need a solid set of skills and you must be a badass learner. If you’re striking out on your own, you need to do a lot of things well. You’ll report, edit, make product and sell it. You’ll be learning to do new things all the time, so work now on how well you learn, test and adapt to change.

To me, the secret is that any success we have at making journalism starts with digging into the community. Know your community. Make stories with them. Make products with them. Test everything with them. Kill your darlings with them. Start and end with your community. No matter what kind of organization you work in, having community at the center of the work ensures utility, value and impact. Stay true to it.

You also need a support network of people — very smart, very kind people whom you can trust to teach you, to check your assumptions, to take you to the woodshed you when you need it and to encourage you when you hit your inevitable “trough of sorrow.” Some of these people will be above you (mentors or bosses or professors), others will be peers and coworkers, a very valuable few will be your actual friends. Hold them dear. Media is a tiny world. Work hard. Act with integrity. Make good journalism. If people know you for solid work, for hustle, for ethics, you will find plenty of support in this industry, no matter where you work.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2015 at 11:30 am and is filed under PROFESSIONAL PERSPECTIVES. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.