Cierra Hinton’s background isn’t in journalism. Hinton, who serves as executive director and publisher at Scalawag, a nonprofit magazine covering the American South, joined the publication because she saw it as a way to drive change.
“I figured out that much like education, journalism and media is an important tool for driving generational change within our society and moving closer towards a more just, equitable, and liberated place for all,” she said.
I spoke with Hinton 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.
Solution Set is a weekly-ish report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. We take an in-depth look at one interesting thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Hinton:
Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
I did not choose a career in journalism. When I applied to be publisher of Scalawag I had been working in in nonprofit since high school graduation, specifically in development. I felt like I had a good understanding of what it takes to run a nonprofit. I didn’t, I just thought I did. I didn’t get the position at first, which was totally fine. I joined the growth team – but at the time Scalawag was still a volunteer-based organization. So I started volunteering as a member of the growth team. Eventually we started to get paid, and all of the founders left. We then hired our first non-founder Executive Director, which didn’t go as planned. The board then asked me to be the interim Executive Director and I never left.
Along the way, I figured out that much like education, journalism and media is an important tool for driving generational change within our society and moving closer towards a more just, equitable, and liberated place for all. I love journalism, I love news, I enjoy all the work that I do, but it’s all to the end of liberation.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?
First and foremost, Tim Griggs. That man has changed my life. He was our Table Stakes coach for Scalawag during the first cohort of the program. I met him there and was vaguely familiar with him. This past year I was a fellow with the Media Transformation Challenge and that is when he became my coach. Scalawag also joined the Facebook Accelerator Program which he leads. He has just been really great about helping me develop, not just a news leader, but a leader in general. He really models leadership well.
Fran Scarlett is another one. As a Black woman, she really owns her power, understands it, and is unwavering in how she moves. She really holds the line around what it is she thinks is right. She has just been an amazing role model for me as well.
The last folks that I will mention are just the amazing women I’ve been able to work with at Scalawag, even the women who are no longer on our team. All of these amazing folks have been with me in the trenches and helped support each other in getting Scalawag where it is today. But there are also folks who continue as they are no longer part of the team, we have each other’s backs. It helps knowing that there are people out there looking out for us.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
Be open and stay curious. In my first year or two at Scalawag my imposter syndrome had me so scared. I felt like people would know or think that I was fucking something up or not know what I was doing. I also was very set on being right and being the leader and having the idea of, “I’m the leader, so I need to know exactly what to do or else I’m not a good leader.” Mindsets shift to curiosity, toward nonattachment to being right, toward learning and understanding that everything is an opportunity to learn more, is really important.
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 remember when I first started as a publisher I felt like when I was walking into a room with other publishers, it was always just a bunch of white men. I know there are other folks out there who look like me and are also publishers. There are not nearly enough women in leadership roles in general. Scalawag is not an all-women team anymore, but when we were, the fact that was such a differentiator is just wild.
I’m hopeful that is shifting as the workforce within the industry turns over and more folks start to advance in their careers.
I think about this all the time for people of color. It is very clear to me how the business challenges within the field impact people of color and I guess some could say it is synonymous with women. I definitely have an understanding of how it impacts women of color. In order to grow and scale a business you need investments – a large sum of cash – to really grow your business in any sort of meaningful way. When that is true, that means you need foundations to either be making large multi-year gifts to help you really grow or you need venture capital money. Women and especially women of color don’t have the same access to those types of investments where large sums of cash traditionally come from.
It means that we are always limited in our capacity, and therefore our news organizations cannot grow in scale at the same rate. I would assume that is true for all women; I know that it is true for women of color.
Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers?
Everybody just works all the time in journalism. I think it is less about how I have had to make sacrifices, but more about how I’ve grown not only as a leader and a person. Prioritizing boundaries and care for myself is super important to me as a Black woman. I need to understand the disproportionate impact of systems of oppression on me and how that can lead to a myriad of challenges that shorten my lifespan.
It is less about my sacrifice and more about wanting to do things differently. The challenge of wanting to be successful but also understanding that I have to take care of myself.
Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism?
I feel like I honestly am very honored and grateful. It’s so weird, because I feel like we are in a place where we hold diversity in a really weird way. Folks want to hear me, a Black, queer woman from the South leading an organization, because they want to be seen as making space for diverse voices. In that way my identity has worked toward my advantage because people, in their own pursuit of being seen as diverse, or inclusive, want to make space for me.
The thing that I feel grateful about is that they keep asking me to speak. I know many folks consider some of the things I say radical. I do not, but they do. It’s been a blessing to be who I am and be invited into spaces and hopefully bring other folks like me along with me.
Also, as a Black woman I believe in the collective, helping others, realizing that someone else doesn’t have to lose for me to win. We can all win. The belief in abundance and being surrounded by incredible women who believe the same thing has been so important. It goes back to being with people who have had my back and I’ve had theirs.
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?
In journalism, the hardest time was the end of 2018 through the beginning of 2020. That is when I was really beginning to understand what it means to be a publisher and all of the things that go into running a newsroom, but also all of the ways that our organization was falling short and what that meant for our newsroom. It wasn’t even about our ability to grow, but our ability to survive.
I can recall many times where we asked ourselves, “Are we going to make payroll? Are we going to be able to pay our writers?” We did every time, but it was hard and stressful. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to talk to many people about it. I was carrying all of this shame, stress, and guilt. It made me resentful. I’m now on the other side of that and am able to understand that none of that was a reflection on my leadership. As the leader, I had to make the decision that that was not the place my team was going to stay. I had to figure out what to change and do to move us away from this reality.
It was helpful to realize I was not alone in this. I was not the only publisher out here who had lost sleep because I wasn’t sure if we were going to make payroll. It’s also super sad.
Access to capital isn’t there for women and women of color as it is for our white male counterparts. For me, it has been a really big push to be vocal about that, and to name that our organization has seen a lot of success, but we aren’t seeing the same types of investments that our counterparts are seeing – that they often see before they even have results. Being very transparent about the struggles we have had has been a big thing, and doing everything we can do to change the future for other people in the future.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I don’t mentor formally, except through coaching. I am always happy to talk to literally anybody, especially women of color, about challenges they are facing, opportunities, and what they might be thinking about and looking out for.
My approach is to be as open as possible, and to let them know everything I’ve learned and make space for them to ask anything that is on their mind. I want to let them know that if they do get to a point where they are losing sleep, they are not alone. It is going to be okay, it all works out.
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 that the people who have the power and money begin to invest in them and give them space to actually dream and imagine. How do we give women the space to think if you’re constantly having to fundraise or worry about getting revenue in the door? It doesn’t give you much time to be imaginative. I feel like if we actually had the space to imagine, dream, and vision, we would get much better, more dynamic, more expansive, more inclusive visions of the future for this industry.