Skip to content

A few tactics that actually helped diversify our newsroom

This is is not a success story, but we did make some progress.

Zach Seward
Zach Seward
A few tactics that actually helped diversify our newsroom

Quartz was founded by several white men, myself included, which put us behind from the start in building a diverse news organization. Though women always comprised a majority of the company, and we had one of the most globally diverse teams in our industry, we always struggled to hire and retain African-American and Hispanic employees, and our executive ranks never had much racial diversity.

So this is not a success story. But over Quartz's decade as a company, we did improve on the margins, and learned a lot about what it takes to diversify a newsroom. I want to focus on a recent period in that history, from mid-2020 to mid-2022. It begins, of course, with the summer of 2020, when a renewed spirit of anti-racism in the U.S. forced a reckoning within Quartz, like at so many other companies. As CEO, naturally, I wrote a memo and made some promises.

That might have been it, but in fact, we managed to make progress in the two years that followed: Employees of color grew to half of the newsroom and 42% of the whole company, up from 31% in mid-2020. We still had pretty homogenous leadership and failed in all sorts of other ways. Racial justice is a life's work. But it's in that spirit I thought it would be useful to share what we learned about diversity initiatives that actually work, or at least worked for us.

Adopting a formal affirmative-action plan

Most U.S. companies, running scared of discrimination lawsuits, design their employment practices from a defensive crouch. For instance, HR departments often collect demographic data from job candidates, to show the company's hiring process isn't biased in the aggregate, yet rarely allow managers to see that information when making individual decisions about whom to hire.

Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not inherently discriminatory to consider a job candidate's race or gender. Of course, it easily can be, which explains all the legal angst around hiring practices, even at progressive organizations that profess a strong commitment to diversity. But the U.S. government has very clear rules allowing employers to give preference to candidates from groups under-represented at the company. You just have to be deliberate about it and create an affirmative-action plan that adheres to the rules.

When I became CEO in 2019, I started drafting such a plan with the help of great lawyers and our head of newsroom talent, Holly Ojalvo. Here's what we wrote as a preface to a slew of new hiring policies that were formally adopted in July 2020:

Since our founding, Quartz has proudly taken a more progressive and global view of business journalism than our competitors. Key to that approach has been hiring a diverse staff with wide-ranging backgrounds and elevating voices not typically heard in business media. That’s how, for example, we have produced fresh coverage of Indian and African business and of women in the workplace—because we speak from credible experience. In contrast to the rest of our industry, which generally has a poor record on diversity, Quartz has shown that a relatively diverse and progressive workforce is not just possible; it makes for better work.

But that is a low bar to set for ourselves, and reflecting on the past eight years, it is equally clear that we have failed to live up to our own standards in critical ways. In particular, Quartz has long suffered from a lack of racial diversity, particularly in representation of Black and Latinx staff in the United States and in leadership roles. We must fix this problem if we are to succeed at speaking to the next generation of business leaders, who are themselves more diverse than their predecessors and feel strongly about stamping out racism in their companies and industries. To provide credible solutions for them, we need to start with ourselves.

The following policies were created to ensure that our hiring process—whom we consider as finalists, how we evaluate candidates, the ways in which we hold ourselves accountable, etc.—affirmatively seeks to correct for the historic underrepresentation of certain groups in the media industry, across Quartz, and in specific departments of our company. Quartz is committed to taking all reasonable efforts to ensure the below goals are met until this historical imbalance is remedied.

The rest of the document, available for download below, articulated the policies we felt would best ensure progress toward our goal. Included among them—for the first time as an official policy at Quartz, not just a vague understanding—was a requirement to consider applicant demographics, with preference given to members of minority groups, as one factor in a hiring decisions.

Of course, I am worried the Supreme Court will strike down the use of affirmative action in hiring, like it just did for college admissions. That would spell the end of policies like ours that explicitly called for racial preferences, which I think is the best way to address historic bias. But in practice, outside of large corporations and those with federal contracts, affirmative action is already rare. And we found that many other tactics, detailed in the rest of this piece and less at risk of the court's ire, were also effective at diversifying the newsroom.

Accepting applications from anywhere

The policy that had the biggest, fastest, and most positive effect on hiring at Quartz was going remote. That is, we committed to accept applications from anywhere we could legally hire people. We had made plenty of remote hires in the past, but they were always exceptions, which meant most applicants for any new job were still coming from New York and select other cities where we had offices.

It turns out there's a whole wide world of talented people who don't live in New York. Opening our jobs to them immediately increased the quality of our application pools; we had more and better candidates. By definition, going remote also increased the staff's geographic diversity, which had knock-on effects, too, like socioeconomic diversity and diversity of perspective. A less obvious result, but just as striking, was the increase in applications from Black and Hispanic candidates. In retrospect, of course widening our aperture would have that effect.

We actually made this change in late 2019, before the pandemic struck and Quartz became a fully distributed company overnight. But we almost didn't make the change at all. A lot of managers pushed back on the proposal, concerned about how it would affect teams that were concentrated in New York. It was Phoebe Gavin, our editorial director of growth and a remote employee herself, who made the ultimately persuasive case to do it. She argued it was inconsistent with Quartz's values, which included that "a more open and connected world is better for everyone," to exclude most of the world from working for us.

A related practice, in place from the beginning of Quartz in 2012, helped ensure we could make the most of hiring remotely. Unusual for a company of our size, we set up legal entities in the U.K. and Hong Kong, which made hiring in both places much easier. We spent a lot of time parsing labor laws in other countries, too, in an effort to maximize where we could employ people. And in the U.S., we ensured that work authorization was never an impediment by sponsoring visas and helping staff navigate the byzantine American immigration system. Those commitments were costly and time-consuming, but Kevin Delaney, our founder, and Artae Wyler, our general counsel, put it in the hard work to make it happen.

Requiring genuinely diverse finalist pools

The Rooney Rule, famously, is a policy adopted by the National Football League in 2003 requiring that teams interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching and other senior roles. It is literally the least they could do. But perhaps because of the NFL's popularity in corporate boardrooms and the simplicity of the requirement, the Rooney Rule was quickly copied by lots of companies.

My first instinct was to copy it, too. But Katherine Bell, then our editor-in-chief, had previously worked at Harvard Business Review and shared a striking headline from her time there that immediately prompted reassessment: "If there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired." The study found that candidates who were the only member of their demographic group in a finalist pool were often seen by hiring managers as token candidates and assessed through that lens. Adding just one more woman or person of color dramatically increased the chance that any of them might be hired.

So that's what we did: The new rule at Quartz was that finalist pools, meaning people interviewed for the job, had to include at least two people of color and at least two people who identify as women or non-binary. Thanks to other policies, this wasn't particularly hard to achieve for most job openings. It also eliminated tokenism and helped managers consider race and gender, per our policy, as just one of many considerations in their hiring decisions.

Standardizing our interview process

While the two preceding policies helped diversify who was considered for a job in the first place, other initiatives were focused on giving each finalist a fair shot. Katherine and Heather Landy, our executive editor, crafted a new process for evaluating candidates for newsroom positions once a finalist pool was assembled. Perhaps even more important was the work Heather did to ensure that we held to the process, which led to better and more infomed hiring than we'd ever had.

The process itself was nothing fancy: For each new position, we picked a hiring committee, which met beforehand to discuss what we were looking for in the role. They agreed broadly on interview questions, often assigning different members of the committee to focus on one topic or another. And they met quickly after interviewing all the finalists to compare notes and pick a candidate.

We could have been even more rigorous about it, but really, it was having a process at all, as opposed to the more haphazard way in which most hiring is conducted, that made the difference. Going into and out of the hiring process with common criteria holds everyone involved accountable to the goal of fairness. There's less room for subjective criteria that can introduce bias. Working as a group often helped clarify the qualities we were really looking for and avoid resorting to squishy standards like "cultural fit" or how a candidate made us "feel" during the interview, which notoriously leads to homogenous hiring.

Reading memos from finalists blind

We usually asked finalists for editorial roles to write a memo with story ideas and other notes about the job. Requiring memos like that is sometimes criticized, but as Kevin often said, strong story ideas were the best predictor of success at Quartz, so we kept asking for them. Heather's insight was that evaluating the ideas on their own merit, without knowing the author, made for more fruitful discussions. So we started taking names off the memos before reading them.

Of course, reading resumes and cover letters "blind," without knowing the candidates' names or demographic groups, is an oft-suggested practice for ensuring fairness in hiring, though it can backfire. We never went that far and were not interested in judging candidates in total blindness; indeed, other policies required the opposite. And of course people could often guess and ultimately did find out whose was whose. But the simple measure of removing names from the memos, at the stage of reading and evaluating them, focused us on the task at hand, which was identifying the candidate with the best ideas.

Working with the union to craft these policies

Finally, it was never a formal policy, but something I discovered in the process of crafting our new hiring rules was the benefit of doing so collaboratively. However well-intentioned my efforts might have been, employees are right to be skeptical of any new initiative handed down from the top, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The risk of management bullshit is just too high.

An obvious way to get over that skepticism is by involving staff in the process. We held listening sessions and invited feedback on policy proposals directly and through anonymous channels. Staff who showed particular interest were encouraged to contribute even more. I've already mentioned several people who were instrumental at the time. (Though her tenure at Quartz was long before this period, I'd be remiss not to mention Mitra Kalita, whose greatest legacy was doing the hard work of recruiting traditionally overlooked talent and pressuring colleagues to do the same. Ditto for Mitra's deputy, the late Lauren Brown.)

Another crucial group was the Quartz Union. Like many digital newsrooms that organized over the past decade, diversity was a top priority of Quartz's guild. They wanted to see more concerted effort by the company to diversify the newsroom, particularly along racial lines within the U.S., and more accountability for the results of those efforts. And they wanted Quartz make those commitments as part of our first collective bargaining agreement.

Kira Bindrim, our managing editor throughout negotiations over that first contract, represented management at the bargaining table. She had previously been the head of newsroom talent, knew a lot about the practical challenges of diverse hiring, and was not the type to make empty promises. We pushed back on some union proposals, but quickly found a lot of alignment. The union wanted to require that at least 40% of all finalists for union positions came from groups historically underrepresented in media. That sounded right, and why not make it 50%, and apply the rule to the whole company? Sure, it's a deal.

The unity over diversity initiatives, I think, helped build credibility with rank-and-file staff, whose participation in recruitment and company culture would be crucial to making any progress. We even found utility in monthly meetings with the union about newsroom diversity, another provision of the contract we agreed to but, to be honest, expected to be a bureaucratic waste of time. Though that was sometimes true, the meetings also helped build trust, empathy, and cooperation over a difficult issue we all cared deeply about. Most of all, it helped ensure diversity remained a shared goal of labor and management.

As the white guy running management then, I'm really not the right person to write this story. Fact check my narrative with employees of color because there's no doubt we failed in lots of ways to which I'm still oblivious. But at a moment when a whole lot of nothing got done with corporate diversity programs across the U.S., I'm proud that we found a path to incremental progress.

Here are all of the hiring practices we followed from July 2020 until May 2022, when Quartz was sold and came under a new company's policies. This document was only ever distributed internally, but I thought it could be useful for anyone considering similar initiatives. If so, please feel free to use the text at will.