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‘I Don’t Lead Like I’m a Man. I’m a Woman’: A Conversation With the Women Running Washington Newsrooms

2 22 0
25.06.2021

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. And after four chaotic years of Donald Trump and a pandemic year that made us rethink how we work, these leaders will chart the way forward for journalism in the new Washington. 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. “It’s been impactful for me to hear from some of our highest-producing editors say, ‘There were four years where I didn’t see my family for dinner,’” one editor said. “And now, to be able to take that break and then come back ... I think rolling that back for some will be quite difficult.”

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.

This discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Participants:
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: I agree with everything that Swati said. I think she’s absolutely right about all of the areas that we can now devote more resources to in terms of coverage. 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. And there’s still a few Trump stories out there.

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. So we were expecting that.

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. But I’m very proud of the journalism we do in terms of the economic coverage of this administration, for example. But it is a gargantuan change in the Times’ Washington bureau, compared to what we were doing a few years ago. 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. It does not lend itself to palace intrigue stories and people stabbing each other in the back and bizarre behavior behind the scenes and a president raging at all hours and tweeting it all. I mean, those days are over.

So if that was or if those are the kind of stories you like to cover, it’s a real big change right now. And if you’re not that interested in economic policy or foreign policy or Biden’s domestic agenda, you know ... 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. And this requires a lot more effort.

And so I would say the same thing: It’s calming in a way that we all sort of longed for on many, many days in the Trump administration. But even for me, on these calm days, I’m agitating my team of editors, on, like, how are you going to tell a really interesting story about infrastructure negotiations for the 50th time? During the Trump era, we had to constantly come up with a way to tell a major earthshaking story five times a day. So it’s just a different skill set.

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........

© Politico


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