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Home » Anita Li: The Power of Digital Journalism at TEDxDistilleryDistrictWomen (Transcript)

Anita Li: The Power of Digital Journalism at TEDxDistilleryDistrictWomen (Transcript)

Anita Li

Here is the full transcript of Anita Li’s TEDx Talk: The Power of Digital Journalism at TEDxDistilleryDistrictWomen conference.


Growing up at my house, we had four square meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the news. It was part of my family’s daily ritual: every morning, the newspaper was delivered to our home still smelling of fresh newsprint, and in the evenings, without fail, my parents would turn on the TV to watch the news at 6 and 11 o’clock sharp.

The boldface bylines I read, and knowing faces I saw soon became like old friends. As a curious kid, I trusted them to tell me the most important news of the day, but as a budding journalist, I looked to them from much more than just that. These reporters and the outlets they work for represented the gold standard in news: fast, accurate, and reliable. They loom large in my mind as I worked towards my lifelong goal of becoming a professional storyteller, while running my high school paper, while managing a campus magazine, while volunteering at news stations. Everyone around me reinforced their prestige, especially at journalism school, where these outlets were discussed with open reverence.

So when I finally got to join Canada’s storied institutions – and I reported for several – I felt a deep sense of achievement. My dreams were finally coming true. The experiences I had were invaluable, and I was privileged to work with the best in the business. But, looking around these newsrooms, I noticed there was something missing, and that something was people like me, people of color. I was always one of the handful of visible minorities in any newsroom, and the unfortunate truth is, this isn’t out of the ordinary.

Although visible minorities make up two-fifths of the total US population, they only represent 12% of the newspaper workforce. That’s virtually the same as it was two decades ago. And the number of management roles is even smaller, with only 10% filled by minorities.

The situation in TV news is a bit better, with minorities making up 22% of the total workforce at local stations, but that number has also stayed mostly unchanged over the years. Here in Canada, it’s a bit better, — I mean, it’s actually much worse, is about what I’m trying to say – we actually don’t have a consistent tally of minority representation in newsrooms. Ultimately, it comes down to this: fewer minority journalists mean fewer minority perspectives. So we’re not getting the full picture. Essential voices are missing from the news and so is essential information.

That said, in an industry suffering from heavy job losses, it’s hard for all journalists, minority or not, to find permanent full-time work. So, as a young journalist, I jumped at the first opportunity for something more stable. That ended up being a reporter-editor position with a growing online news publication that now has 42 million monthly unique visitors from around the world. Although I was excited, – “Yay, employment!” – I was also nervous, having come from a traditional media background. I wasn’t sure how others, especially other journalists, would react.

Would they look down on me? Would they think I’d turned to the dark side, condemned to make listicles and cat GIFs for all eternity? Would they even consider– It’s a great GIF. Would they even consider online publications to be legitimate sources of news? But after working in the media over the past three years, the worries I had at the beginning have completely disappeared. I now know that online journalism gives everyone a voice, including minorities and others who aren’t well represented.

So, why is that? In my experience, traditional media outlets tend to have a dozen or so editors who call the shots. They decide what’s newsworthy. Although these editors are highly educated and experienced, they’re also mostly white, and mostly men. So the news is filtered through this lens.

Where I work we also have a team of editors, but we also rely heavily on other tools. We measure and analyze web traffic, looking at how our audience response to stories, and we also monitor online trends in real time. So not only are we considering our own news judgement when deciding the day’s stories, we’re also considering our readers’ news judgement.

The news has now been democratized: it’s gone from an exclusive group of privileged editors to anyone with an internet connection, and the latter is much more diverse. Stories historically ignored by the media are now getting attention. Minority readers demand articles that reflect their experiences. They’re telling us what they want, and we’re listening. I’ll give you an example: last year, I wrote an article about crime-fighting sites targeted to specific ethnicities. These sites were started to fight barriers to funding that minority businesses usually faced.

It’s a fascinating story that received almost no previous coverage by traditional media outlets, even though crowdfunding sites were a global phenomenon and most people already knew about it. When we first published my story, it received more than 3,300 shares. Readers were responding. But that’s not the most impressive part: we also hosted a Twitter chat to discuss my story using the hashtag #StartupDiversity. That generated tens of millions of impressions and at least 1,200 tweets with the hashtag were published in just one hour.

The proof is in the data: people care about these stories. Another example of this bottom-up approach to news was recent coverage of police killings of minorities. When unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a community watchman in late February 2012, media coverage of his death was scant. In fact, it took almost an entire month before the term ‘Trayvon Martin’ even registered online.

But by late March, social media helped propel an overlooked news story into one that was the center of global conversation. Over time, though, the story faded from the headlines. But recently, online momentum has kept minority deaths in the news. When Michael Brown, another unarmed black teen, was fatally shot by a police officer last August, media coverage was consistently focused on police killings of minorities: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, and many others have not disappeared, and that’s largely due to online chatter. At this point, you may be thinking, “Anita, traditional media outlets use analytics and other digital tools, too.”

And you’d be mostly right, but old habits die hard. Editors still have the final say on what makes the front page, and producers still have the final say on what leads the newscast. In comparison, readers drive the layout of our home page: the stories they click on the most move to prime spots. Readers decide themselves what they think is important. One major criticism of online publications is that they pander too much to readers.

When we see an influx of twerking videos or goat pics, if we give the people what they want, this criticism is legitimate and one that journalists and industry watchers frequently debate about, but the pros outweigh the cons. Fun, frivolous content may rise to the top, but so will important stories that wouldn’t normally make front page of a newspaper or lead the newscast. This shift away from prioritizing the judgement of a select few is so necessary.

We need to keep up this momentum and continue producing stories that everyone cares about. We need to listen to all voices. Let’s embrace a new front page.

Thank you.

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