As media organizations look to revolutionize their business models in the digital age, a number of leaders have emerged in the world of business and product. Anna Nirmala, vice president, portfolio success at the American Journalism Project is among those leaders.
Nirmala began her career outside of journalism, and in this conversation, she shares her experiences coming into the news field to help bridge the editorial and business divides. She describes how she navigated this new type of role, the importance of connecting journalism with other sectors, and her perspective as a woman of color in the publishing world.
This conversation is part of our Women in Journalism series, which you can read the rest of here.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field?
I have always been deeply interested in media and journalism, but as the eldest daughter of immigrants, I don’t think journalism was a field that was really thought of as a place for me to land. I always was steered toward business, engineering, or medicine. When I entered college, I was a double major in sociology and supply chain and information systems. The sociology, the double majoring only came after taking enough courses. Through that work, I got to know someone that ended up becoming a mentor of mine, Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika who is in the Philadelphia area.
My freshman year of college I went to Penn State University. That was a time where Joe Paterno was a coach and he had won his 400th game my freshman year, and then senior year, as the result of investigative journalism, there was a huge scandal at the school, of which he was complicit. I found myself ending up being a part of this local news story because I wrote a letter to my editor at the local ABC affiliate, and just shared another perspective of what was happening. There’s a lot of parachute journalism coming in from mainstream media, and so you saw the CNN news events and things like that. The narrative nationally was that Penn State students are standing by a child abuser and the narrative was wrong. I wrote a letter and just said, “As a student, I want to share a different perspective,” and next thing I know that letter is getting republished in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Then I’m getting interviewed, and all of a sudden I’m a part of this story, which I didn’t even recognise was really happening at the time. The next thing I know is there’s a clip of me where it says that it’s all about the children. It’s all about the victims and we really stand by them. Through that, not only did I see another narrative forming in terms of what was happening at my school, but I saw the impact of journalism within my own family, within my own community, where other people started to talk about their experience with this horrifying topic of abuse. I saw how being a part of the story could impact my community and could impact other people to feel brave enough to tell their story too.
I had this real crisis of consciousness senior year of college because I had already committed to a full time job at PricewaterhouseCoopers and was like, what am I doing? I’m entering corporate finance; this doesn’t feel right. I asked my mentor to hold me accountable and said, I want to go into business to learn from some of the best of the best and then take it into areas and sectors that need them the most. So after four years or so at PricewaterhouseCoopers, I transitioned into media and started at Hearken. That kind of set off this whole whole train of events. That’s how I stumbled into the sector.
The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What appealed to you about the business of journalism?
I was so ignorant coming in. I had no idea about this editorial-business divide and how fraught it was. It wasn’t until I joined Hearken and was having conversations with hundreds of newsrooms, globally and domestically, that I started to get this tension. I also saw that whether it was huge organizations in the corporate space, like the Gannetts and the McClatchys of the world, or the small resource-strapped public media organizations, no one was connecting all of these things like audience, product, and revenue. I was really shocked at the level of senior leadership and that a lot of these newsrooms didn’t have a comprehension of the business.
Because it came from a place of inherent respect and admiration for just being a part of the sector doing this mission-focused work, I then became passionate about helping to solve some of these issues as well. I had no idea that the sector was in as much disarray as it was when I entered. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, very interested in helping to solve problems from a business lens ever since I was a little girl. I was put into the bucket of figuring out business. Hearken really enabled me to enter in through journalists and reporters that really cared about audience and product and I was able to develop a lot of trust with people that were thinking in those ways. I established myself as someone that’s trying to help journalists and reporters that are leading these organizations to solve for some of these issues.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?
I still continue to consider Chenjerai as a mentor of mine. I actually am most inspired often by people outside of the sector, because I think so much of what we’re trying to solve for within the sector has been thought through and figured out by other people over decades. Digital transformation is not just unique to publishing. How many other sectors had to think about operating in a digital world prior to when journalism was forced to start thinking about it in a serious way? I am so deeply inspired by the people that have come up through that audience product world right. We’re finally seeing leaders from what used to be, as I like to describe, the niche conversations at ONA in the midway panel section, to now, leaders that are getting the recognition that they deserve.
If you look at people like Amanda Zamora at The 19th, Ashley Alvarado at KPCC or the leadership teams at Outlier and Documented or Ju-Don Marshall at WFAE. These are people that have been talking about engagement and audience for years and really were able to see the importance of it. Of course, I’m missing people, Jennifer Brandel at Hearken, and there’s so many people that I could mention that really live in this space that I think are the leaders in terms of pushing journalism to be more sophisticated in how they’re thinking.
To credit also how I came into AJP, John Thornton who’s one of our co-founders and comes from the venture capital and business world, him and I really connected over these things. Him and I were like the only people in the room at one time at a summit that had this background and experience. I remember the moment when we both were talking about similar things and kind of connected with “Okay, we do need to think in a long term way.” Someone like him, who still is few and far between, I think is also a person that has helped me kind of find my role here in this space.
What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?
How important it is to have your own community within the space, whether that’s different leaders or peers. I’m really inspired by people like Anita Zielina at CUNY and Ariel Zirulnick, who was formerly at Membership Puzzle Project. These are all people that I’ve never formally worked with, but to have them as people that I can talk to and share with and learn from has been really important. It’s really lonely, I must admit, there aren’t many of us in this space. The advice that I would have given myself is not to worry and try to create spaces largely outside of the sector where I can continue to learn, continue to feel support, and not feel like such a lone voice within the spaces that I’m in. So, really establishing and finding that community outside of just where you work.
How do you feel women are represented in the business and development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
I actually do think that we are seeing a lot of women in leadership in journalism. I think it changes when we start talking about race, but I have been inspired as to how many women leaders we are seeing lead newsrooms and lead organizations. I feel like there’s been a ton of movement there. I think part of the unfortunate but also fortunate kind of transition of legacy really facing a deep decline has also brought opportunities for new leadership and women leading organizations. Particularly when it comes to the business side, that’s still such an emerging area within the sector, there’s so much opportunity there. In development and philanthropy we actually do have a lot of women, [but] what we need to do is diversify across race. The work still has to continue, but I am feeling encouraged based on just how many leaders we do see in this space that are women.
I actually think business challenges impacted representation for the better because this ability to start new organizations [and] have an emerging sector especially in the nonprofit news media system. I actually think it’s impacted it for the better as these legacy institutions have begun to crumble and die, then new things have been born from it. I think that’s actually been really beneficial to a lot of women in the field.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you? And how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going?
I think because there are so few people within this sector that come from for-profit private sector work, outside of media, outside of journalism, outside of just the nonprofit sector, it creates a very lonely environment where it can be hard to perhaps show or be an evangelist for some of the thinking and strategies that are very well-proven outside, but there aren’t enough people inside that can speak to that. So how do you effect change? How do you drive change, when maybe you’re the only voice in a certain room or scenario? That takes a lot of empathy. It takes a lot of patience. I think it takes a lot of being willing to prove things out first, versus getting buy-in around things that just might seem a little bit too outside of the norm. That’s been a big challenge. But I think it’s also been really exciting to be able to bring people along and show them what’s possible, by thinking through new ways, but also just by bringing in more people into the sector that come from those worlds.
For example, I’ve been really passionate about what I’ve been helping to do with some of the organizations in my portfolio with this role of the chief revenue officer. The chief revenue officer oversees all of revenue, not just one aspect of it. We’re finding that people can come from sales and marketing and other sectors. Even if they’ve had media experience, there’s these disciplines from other kinds of areas of work that are really helpful and build out senior leadership teams in ways that have never been done before — an ability to be data informed and ability to have capital and marketing experience, and just understanding the strategies behind that. That’s been really empowering because now we’re bringing in more practitioners that come from these sorts of worlds.
Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you faced in your career and are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make that your male counterparts may not have had to?
In this field, I’ve actually worked with a lot of women which is great. Hearken is a woman founded and led organization. I don’t know if I can actually speak to challenges with being a woman. I certainly think there have been challenges with being a woman of color, but I haven’t really experienced as much just based on gender.
I’m a woman of color on the business side. That alone puts me in a very unique space and, I think that’s been tough because just being on the business side and not being a journalist or a reporter, I think it instantly brings up questions of a potential distrust at first, because of XY and Z reasons. I think also we’re dealing with a sector that is very wide and has a lot of elitism within it. There’s multiple factors across class and race. I think gender is actually in many ways, the least of it for me, in particular the sector and environment. Again, I think this sector is so unique in many ways, largely, because of the lack of external accountability in the sector, since this is the sector that holds everyone else accountable. There aren’t these outside forces that hold media accountable in the same ways that media holds education or finance or other things accountable. I think it creates a unique environment for navigating some of these challenges just because it is so insular and small in many ways.
I’ve definitely noticed how men can be bombastic and have strong perspectives, even if it’s not based on evidence. If a woman does the same sort of thing, it can be viewed as not being collaborative or not being engaging. I definitely have witnessed and experienced firsthand where a man can say things a certain way or act in a certain way and is not held accountable, but if a woman does those things, it’s interpreted differently. I think the ability to engage with that does largely depend on past experience. Ironically, I think those issues have happened more sometimes with other women than actually with men.That’s been really interesting to have to engage with and interrogate.
What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?
I don’t know if I’ve experienced advantages within the sector because I’m a woman. Much of my experience and how I approach the work comes from having an intersectional life and an identity that is as such. Growing up as the child of immigrants but also growing up as the child of immigrants that came at different times to the United States, there’s so much there, and then of course, being South Asian, being dark skinned, and being a woman. Again, I think being a woman does not rise to the top for me as much of being a woman of color.
In the start of my career, I was working with people in retail and consumer and telecom and healthcare, in all types of companies and industries. I think that enabled me, and also the work that I did in undergrad as well in the sociology space, just helped me to come with a level of being able to stand in other people’s shoes, regardless of where they come from, what their life experiences are, and translate that into an ability to hopefully help drive change. I think that really has impacted my experience within the sector. To be able to be a voice that’s often again, going back to the audience product stuff, some of us have been talking about these things for years. To be able to be ahead of the curves, have those conversations and potentially some foresight into ways to solve things, I think that’s deeply impactful, and I credit that to a vast array of experiences prior to coming into space.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I have a couple mentees that are under me, some within the space, some outside of it. But I’m thinking of the two women in particular, both are women of color. That’s what gives me life — to see that there are other people that are wanting to grow and develop in this space. I dream of the day where I am looking around the room and there are so many people that are coming from different backgrounds and experiences, coming from other sectors, or people of color, women of color, versus still often being one of the only people in the room that that has these sorts of experiences or even working in these certain ways.
As the product of mentorship — I have several mentors, some old, some new, working in different ways — I think that is the biggest and most important aspect of life, being able to receive guidance and counsel from others. I constantly am looking for opportunities to give back and to also learn from mentees. I don’t think it’s just a one-way approach, but how can I facilitate them being able to grow and learn and continue to find the success that they’re looking for in this space? I get deep joy out of being able to find those types of people and work with them and I dream of the day when there’s just a lot more women of color working on business problems in the sector.
I don’t want to speak for being a mentor because I would want that to come from mentees. But as a mentee, I deeply value the time of anyone that’s willing to talk with me and coach me. I really value thoughts and experience, people pushing back on my thinking, people saying, “Hey, here’s another perspective.” I never take it too personally when a mentor is like, “Well, I don’t know about that.” I grew up in an environment, especially in management consulting, where you don’t take anything that personally. You can spend a lot of time on a piece of work or a deliverable and it can get ripped apart and you just engage with that. I think that was a little surprising to me in terms of the culture of feedback and being able to take and give feedback without being too overly personalized. As a mentee I’m always seeking the thoughts, feedback, and pushback on my thinking. Tell me if there’s another way to look at this, I’m happy to be wrong. Then there’s others that are more peer mentors and peer coaches. The relationship does change when it’s peer-to-peer relationships versus someone that has significant experience and really is functioning as a wise guide and mentor.
Publishers are looking for new, sustainable business practices given the ever-changing nature of the journalism industry. In what ways do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism?
I think this whole digital transformation world that we are in is the biggest opportunity for cultural change. We’re working in new environments where we’re needing to think and operate in new ways, the flow of information is completely different now than it was before. With that comes a lot of opportunity to rethink structures and systems and design solutions in a brand new way that brings about tons of opportunity, tons of roles. If we’re really thinking about running sustainable media organizations and businesses, we need to start looking outside of the sector and to how well run businesses occur. What does it entail? Who are the companies that have the happiest workforces? I think the news organizations that last, make impact, have reach, are building audiences, and maintain the highest ethics of journalism are the ones that are already leaning into this stuff.
[If] you look at an organization like The 19th for example, in terms of a national news organization, out of the gate, they really were prioritizing a lot of the things that many in the sector are still struggling to do. Of course, they had resources and they launched with a good amount of funding, but I do credit their senior leadership team [for] planning and operating with intention. I think that’s been an example for a lot of others to say, “Okay, what does it mean to have a good benefits package? What does it mean to operate with a mindset of abundance and thinking innovative ways to drive solutions?” I think we’re seeing that happen, and I think organizations are rising up [and] really leaning into doing and thinking and working differently.
I think we would be remiss to not mention that whether it’s in community or ethnic media, there have been examples of organizations that perhaps were prioritizing some of these things, like leaning into audience engagement, that perhaps mainstream media wasn’t noticing as much and giving credit to and that preceded the audience products emergence. Community and ethnic media had been engaging with their audiences since day one over decades and decades, so I do want to make sure to note that a lot of these good things have existed outside of the mainstream conversation.
What are your hopes and dreams for the next generation of journalists? What would you like the space to be like?
My hopes and dreams for the next generation of journalists that are women and people of colour is to really get curious and embrace understanding what it means to be a journalist and reporter within a well-run and sustainable organisation. Journalists and reporters need to be reflective to understand “What is my role in contributing to this organization thriving outside of just writing stories and getting the reporting done? Do I actually understand the economics of this model? Do I understand how my salary gets paid and what it means?” There’s a lot of privilege to be able to just do work and not think at all about who’s raising the money so that I can get paid. What are the systems, technologies, and operations that make it so that I get my paycheck on time? All of these things that I think historically, people often had no idea about how those things were working. When we don’t know these things and we’re not curious about it, it’s hard to be empathetic about the challenges that happen, too. My hope and dream is that we don’t have these silos that perpetuate unsustainable operations and that we really work in a collaborative way so that we can all have our roles, maintain independence, and make sure ethics and integrity are top of the list.
I think gone are the days where people should think that they’re going to go into journalism and reporting and aren’t also accountable for the health of the organization in some way, whether it’s contributing to culture or, bringing forth their own ideas and solutions as well. It would be a mistake to think that it’s just a calling of passion and just doing good work that doesn’t actually have real kind of implications in terms of the economics and business of it all too.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that I may have missed?
I’m grateful for the interest and the focus. I really am inspired by by peers and leaders in this space that are being the change that they wish to see, and thinking and operating in new ways. I feel like we’re well on our way. I feel really good about the state of women in journalism and media right now. I think it’s the best it’s been in a long time at least. Again, I’m just speaking anecdotally based on my observations, but I feel like we’ve got wonderful women leading organizations.