Steve O’Hear (Zapp, formerly TechCrunch)
Media and journalism have always played an important role in agitating and facilitating the narratives, conversations, and movements that lead to change. Where DEI is concerned, we need to create systemic change at a variety of levels. This will only be achievable with sustained storytelling. Smart, sophisticated, strategic communication skills are essential for presenting a narrative in which systems are seen as open to change, controllable, and redesignable. We chatted with the tech journalists Amy Lewin (Sifted) and Steve O’Hear (formerly TechCrunch) to learn more broadly about diversity in journalism, as well as the perceived responsibilities of journalism in creating greater levels of diversity in the venture capital industry.
Interviewed March 2021
Diversity in the Journalism Industry
Erika Brodnock (EB): Tell us about your world, tech journalism, and the issues around discrimination, equity, and diversity that you perceive to be there.
Amy Lewin (AL): The journalism industry as a whole is not very diverse. Look at the number of editors of big publications that are women or people of color. Historically, tech journalism has been male dominated, especially on the gadget and big tech company side of things. I am very proud of the fact that at Sifted, we are nine women and six men on our editorial team—and these are regular editorial contributors. It boils down to access to the opportunities you need to have to get into the industry in the first place. People need to have done an internship or several to get into journalism. Most media publications are based in London, if we are talking about the UK. It is not cheap to do an internship in London, as many of them are unpaid. The standard problems with diversity that you find across many industries are also present in journalism, which is partly the reason why we have the status quo as it is.
Steve O’Hear (SO): When I first entered the industry, I was taken aback. It was very stereotypical, with male journalists going to press events hosted by female PRs. I’m not sure that much has changed in gadget and consumer tech journalism. In the world of tech business journalism, however, the gender balance has slowly improved over the last decade. I am not sure it is so bad now in terms of regular reporters, but it gets worse as you go up the hierarchy, as is the case in many industries. Journalism is still heavily private-educated, Oxbridge, middle- to upper-class dominated to this day. That is strange, because in digital media, the proof is in the writing. I always tell other young journalists, if you want to be a journalist, just start writing.
EB: Given how few people at Oxbridge are diverse in terms of ethnicity, social status, or socioeconomic class, what are your thoughts on diversity of that nature in journalism? Is there anything that could be done around tech journalism to open doors so that new people come to the fore?
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AL: Many internships are not being paid and most people need to come to London to do them. There is a great organization called PressPad, which got some money from Harry and Megan (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) this week [in 2021]. They help people find accommodation while they are doing internships so that they can get the experience they need to break into the industry. We need media publications to be paying interns the London living wage, at the very minimum. We also need more examples of best practice around internship schemes. I run our internship program and every single time, I want the people who apply to it, and the people who are interviewed, and the people we select to be as diverse in all these different areas as possible. I still am clearly not spreading the word in the right places to get as diverse a pipeline of candidates as I would like, although we are getting a good mix. I would love to be able to speak to other people who run these schemes, who can say, you need to share it in these places or connect with this community. I do a lot of that legwork, but I know there is so much more to do. The answer is not easy to find. There is not a long list that says, “Contact these people, share it in these places.”
EB: There is also a disconnect from people to communities that have historically been overlooked where they do not know who to reach out to. There is this gulf in the middle that needs to be filled.
SO: There is a pipeline problem, and it is hard to reach parts of society that you do not reach through your existing network. Journalism is terrible because there is an even worse hypocrisy. Journalists increasingly write about diversity and are supposed to be bastions of objectivity. Yet journalism is not made up of the people it serves, so how can it report on the important stories and/or in a representative way? How can it find the hard-to-reach stories if it cannot even find the hard-to-reach aspiring journalists?
EB: Is there pushback on the fact that there is a pipeline problem? Are we suggesting that there are not enough good journalists graduating, or are they not graduating from Oxbridge and therefore not given the opportunity?
AL: You do not need a degree from a red brick university to be a journalist. That is not a problem. A lot of journalists are very lazy when they are recruiting, and they will just email City University, which is the gold standard of journalism. They will say, “Anyone on your courses want our internship?” This is not the answer. You do not need a degree; you just need a passion for writing and to be really nosy.
Journalism’s Responsibility and Impact in Tech and VC
Johannes Lenhard (JL): Let us shift our views slightly away from journalism as an industry that has its own problems towards what tech journalism can do with diversity more generally in the venture world and in the technology startup world. Do you think there is a certain responsibility that journalists have with the DEI agenda, and a responsibility to advance this? What can you do as a journalist? Do you see that space for you?
SO: One of the main reasons for journalism is to hold power to account. In any inequitable society, that means the power is concentrated with the privileged and not with the many. Tech journalism has a responsibility to hold diversity of companies and investors to account. I don’t say this out of some sense of doing good. It is basic 101 journalism. At TechCrunch, we had a reporter that focused almost exclusively on diversity and inclusion. At the same time, we also had an editorial direction, which is that for any news story, we will consider the D&I angle. It is not just a separate topic.
AL: I see this as my responsibility and Sifted’s responsibility. I was the first employee at Sifted. Right from the start, I have tried to ensure that we focus on this and we do what we can to represent the startup ecosystem that we would like to see in our reporting. There is still a long way to go with that. It partly comes down to the criteria for inclusion that publications have. If your number one criterion is how much money has this company raised, then inevitably, you will not be featuring a very diverse set of founders. You have to change your criteria for inclusion. We focus a lot on what we call startup life, including hiring or organizational processes. Everyone has those kinds of jobs, and there is a much broader pool of people you could speak to, if you are writing about mental health at startups or about hiring and firing challenges. That is one practical method other publications can use if they realize that they are struggling to speak to diverse voices. You need to think about the reasons that you are not speaking to them in the first place, and do those barriers need to be there. There are other things you can do for events, such as making sure at the very least you have a “no manel” policy, meaning you must have a panelist who is a woman. If you want to go even further, include somebody who is underrepresented in another way on the panel. If you feel that you are struggling to find a woman for your panel, then your publication has issues, and you need to widen your network and range of sources. As Steve said earlier, you are not doing a very good job of reporting on what is out there if your network is in that state.
EB: You both have done a huge amount of work with your writing and raising awareness around important topics, some of them with the D&I steer. Are you content with the impacts that you have? What, if anything, is missing to make you feel as though you are making a difference?
SO: Do I make a difference? I don’t spend too much time thinking about that, as it is hard to quantify. I get lots of lovely feedback, which can just boost someone’s ego. Where journalists need to double down on making a difference is in two areas. There is a creep towards sort D&I washing, similar to greenwashing, whereby people exaggerate the company’s D&I efforts or progress, because you get an incredible amount of PR. I find that at times disingenuous, and slightly creepy. For example, I am not sure that the first thing I want to read in a press release about a potentially amazing company is the D&I credentials of the team. I am going to judge the company on their product or the market they are attacking. That is what I do every day. PRs will come in where they have almost weaponized D&I, which I think is something to watch out for. The second thing that I struggle to grapple with is that the D&I agenda as a whole has fallen into a trap of importing US identity politics, which is quite easily hijacked by people that want to fight a culture war. I do not see coverage of D&I that starts with, why is it important to have a diverse and representative workforce? I would suggest that in a more traditional British progressive politics context, it is about social mobility as much as anything, which is making use of all the talent in society. It is about removing barriers so that talent can come through.
AL: Sifted is a place where people know they can find stories on D&I. However, we have not figured out how to make people care about diversity who do not already care about diversity. Often, I feel that we are sharing information with the people who already know it. I do not know how much we are changing hearts and minds or getting information to people who really need to think about this topic. More generally, we need more data. So often, you are writing a piece and you want to go and find stats on what is the percentage of founders who are x or what is the percentage of investment that went here. It is there for gender and it is coming for ethnicity in the UK, but not in Europe. As Steve said, then when you get to socioeconomic background, there is nothing. It is almost completely homogeneous—so many people who have been to private school, Oxbridge, and worked at an investment bank or consultancy. It is utterly ridiculous that a sector that only requires you to have a laptop to get started is full of people who have had such privileged upbringings. It does not need to be this way.
SO: The debate has largely been framed around identity politics, so it is not really surprising that socioeconomic status was not mentioned until about two years ago. If you start from a progressive position of wanting to advance social mobility, you would not miss that at all.
Bringing Intersectionality into VC Reporting
EB: At Extend Ventures, we showed that you are able to capture demographic information. One of the things that we found was that 42% of the money that is invested at seed stage goes to graduates of Oxbridge, Harvard, and Stanford. There is a flywheel that has been created. The thing that is overlooked is intersectionality and what it means to be four of the traits, such as if you are Black, trans, female-presenting, and working class. What could be done in terms of bringing that intersectionality to the fore, as well as raising the issue of social mobility and class?
SO: VCs, especially in Silicon Valley, used to talk a lot about this notion of pattern matching. When you think about pattern matching on a personal level, that is almost confirmation bias meets unconscious bias, and within VC is promoted as a feature not a bug. I do not know how you deal with intersectionality in the context of pattern matching! Within journalism, you should also be making sure that you work hard to reach out to people that are not always featured. You should also focus on not just what you write but also the images that you publish, and other ways of making sure you do not miss the opportunity to represent the ecosystem fully.
AL: I do not have a good answer on intersectionality, either, but a lot of this comes down to journalists working harder. We need to ask more nuanced questions. If an investor says their team is 40% women, ask, is that the investment team? What percentage of your team are university educated? What percentage of your team have previously worked at a consultancy or an investment bank? Every time someone presents you with a stat, dig into that a little bit more. Continue to widen your network. Go to events, join Slack communities for people of color or women in tech. Use Twitter. There are many ways you can find different voices. When you are in a more senior position, be the person at your company who champions this, taking it upon yourself to educate other people or to share resources with other people so that they can get a better grasp of these issues. Make that part of the culture of your whole organization.
SO: It is really important to explain why it matters, not just that it does matter and how it is not happening. If the technology industry is not made more accessible to every part of society, then we are missing out on so much talent. We will all lose. It is not just about saying, “We need more diversity.” It is going back to basics and saying why. As journalists, if we are not covering enough underrepresented groups, we are not giving them the same access to amplifying their mission or message, and we all lose out.