Women in Journalism: Q&A with Akoto Ofori-Atta
As a journalist, Akoto Ofori-Atta is always trying to uncover stories that are not being told.
“I came into journalism at a time where there was so much opinion and aggregation on social media,” said Ofori-Atta. “Everyone on social media talking about the same thing was the currency. There are always things outside of the main discourse that require attention and probing.”
Akoto Ofori-Atta is the Executive Editor and Co-founder of Capital B, a nonprofit local and national news organization that will serve Black Americans. Prior to that, Ofori-Atta was Managing Editor at The Trace.
I spoke with Ofori-Atta as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to shine a light on the successes and struggles of women working in news, lift up their stories and achievements, and share their words of wisdom to guide young women in the space toward finding their own success.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Ofori-Atta:
Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
I liked to write when I was younger. I was winning awards when I was 10 for writing, and I literally asked my parents, “What can someone who likes writing do when they grow up?” The first thing my parents said was, “You can be a journalist.” And that’s really it!
As I began majoring in journalism and working in newsrooms I realized it can be a challenging and tiring career, especially for reporters and editors of color. It can be triggering and exhausting, but also incredibly rewarding when you think about the power that journalists have to have an impact and do things that reflect positively in people’s lives.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?
Yes! My friend and one of my very first editors, Teresa Wiltz, who is now at Politico. She just launched a new race newsletter. She is someone who shared a lesson with me that I still carry, which was to always be thinking about your voice and how you want to convey the reporting and bring it to life. That, and those standard lessons like accuracy. It is one thing to go to J-school and learn all of these lessons, and it is another thing to have hands on experience working with an editor on all of these things.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
I think what I would say to my younger self is always try to uncover the stories that are not being told. I came into journalism at a time where there was so much opinion and aggregation on social media. Everyone on social media talking about the same thing was the currency. There are always things outside of the main discourse that require attention and probing.
I’m so grateful and happy that work-life balance is a thing journalists are paying attention to right now because it was not always that way. Anyone who started out when I did, or before I did, will tell you that there was a lot of guilt for taking sick days. You were expected to not think at all about how it might be affecting you and your work.
I don’t even think I had a framework for how to take care of myself back then. It is really, really fortunate that people are preaching this and trying to put it into practice now.
Trayvon Martin happened in 2012. Working at a Black publication during that time, you are going to report on a lot of the challenging issues Black Americans are facing and some of that work that me and my colleagues were doing is heavy, frustrating, and exhausting. I didn’t think about what that meant for my own being.
This surely didn’t come up in J-school. No one was talking about wellness when I graduated from journalism school.
I led a project with about 200 teen reporters who were reporting on other young people who had been killed by gun violence. We should have done more, but we did do mental health check-ins and shared lessons on how to cope with this sort of trauma that you can experience when reporting on this stuff.
When I was in high school and college there was no one talking to me about this stuff. I felt grateful for an opportunity to have them recalibrate their expectations for what balance should mean and how important it should be when you are doing this work.
How do you feel women are represented in your area of reporting? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
I’m an editor, and I can say with certainty that newsrooms suffer when there isn’t an adequate representation of women in leadership. Point blank, period. It is clear that the work is better when your newsroom is more representative and diverse. I think the industry has a long way to go with women, specifically women of color, being sought after, and trusted with making decisions.
It is part of the reason why Lauren [Williams] and I decided to start Capital B. As two Black women leaders, we believe in the value we bring and the experiences we have. We believe that those experiences are very applicable to what journalists are facing today.
Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers?
Right now, no because it is just me and Lauren – which is great! But yes, I have heard friends and colleagues feel the need to compete as their only shot at upward mobility. But it’s also just the other really small ways that not being a fully representative newsroom is unfair.
If you are the only woman in leadership, sometimes it is like double dutch – just trying to get in when you can. There seems to be a flow happening amongst others that you are just trying to hop into.
There are women who feel like they have to compete but there also are women who just can’t. Often there is not a real entry point where you feel like you can compete.
I get angry talking about this stuff sometimes because, you know, look at where we are. You can draw a direct line from our failure to diversity newsrooms to everything we experienced in the last four years. There are perspectives that were missing from discourse that we just didn’t have because there were women and persons of color who locked out from being able to do that.
Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism?
Anyone who is marginalized can see things more clearly than those who are not. The more marginalized you are, the clearer you probably see things. You can see the inequities all way up the chain. At the top of the chain you don’t have that perspective.
There have been many times where I saw something in a story or a photo that was inaccurate, not fair, not as clear, or needed context. I’ve been able to offer up my context. That is 100% because I am a Black woman.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you (either an age, certain role, or specific instance) and how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and where it’s going?
I have the most fun in journalism when I’m working in diverse newsrooms and when I am working with people from different backgrounds. When I’m not in that space, that is when it is the absolute most challenging.
When I think about moments where I was not in a diverse newsroom, I think about how that experience is compounded all across the industry. One thing I learned from that experience is that things don’t get suddenly undone when you hire someone of color. There are tons of things that happen in majority white newsrooms that get codified and they congeal over time. You have to start to undo that. Who you are bringing in and who is leaving while you are doing that affects how quickly things are going to move.
The biggest lesson I learned from that is that the longer you wait to aggressively address making sure your newsroom is fully representative and inclusive, the harder it is going to be to do it. Take it seriously as early as you can, and then you have a better shot. You have to go beyond what you think is comfortable.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I have always thought of mentorship as giving newer journalists feedback whenever you can. Early in my career I had situations where I wasn’t getting enough feedback. That can cause a whole bunch of tumolt. I’ve tried to be cognizant of where challenges are and how to address them.
I try to make myself available to do more mentoring. It’s one of the things I really want to do more of. I have been following Mitra Kalita. Everytime she writes or tweets something about mentorship I devour it. I think she’s great. She is doing a lot of smart and innovative things. That is something I hope to do more of.
What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field. What are your hopes for them? What would you like that space to be like?
I hope they are listened to and trusted. I hope that the industry gets itself together enough that we can tell young women of color that this is a viable career path, and we can support and nurture them once they are here. I hope that we can take their perspectives seriously.
There is a lot that we still need to do better on. Young women of color need to have advocates, and quite frankly, their most obvious advocates are other women of color. I’m thinking about all the ways that white men can just start a job and are given ambitious things. Women and women of color start jobs and they are not getting the same expectations.
I’m really hopeful for all the Clack-led local news organizations that are existing and persisting and making things happen in this moment. I surely look to them for support and I think that as the industry tries to adjust the moral compass they should look to those organizations too.