Women in Journalism: Q&A with Errin Haines

For Errin Haines, her identity is her “super power” as a journalist.

“I get to tell stories that nobody else sees because of who I am, the life that I have lived, the network that I have and the community that I have,” she said.

Errin Haines

“I knew [reporting on the Black community] was something I was going to do no matter what my actual beat ended up being. That was a theme I’ve had in my career even before it was my official title.”

Errin Haines is the Editor at Large at The 19th* and an MSNBC contributor. She is also a member of The Lenfest Institute’s Board of Managers.

I spoke with Haines 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 Haines:

Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?

I was not one one of those people that was born with ink in their veins. I came to journalism in college. I needed to choose a major, and just looking at my skills and interests, journalism was a field that sounded like it aligned with what I might be good at. I really didn’t know how to do it, but I did write for my high school newspaper. 

What really got me hooked was when I found a Black newspaper in Atlanta, which is where I’m from, The Atlanta Daily World, that published twice a week. It was the oldest continuously published newspaper in the state of Georgia at the time. I went to this newspaper and asked them if I could occasionally write some stories. I wasn’t really looking for money, but I was looking for some exposure. They basically were like, “Can you start today?”

That was the summer that turned into about a year where I was reporting on the Black community in Atlanta, whether that was the government, local business, or community activists. That was a really foundational year for me because it gave me the confidence to know that I could actually become a reporter, but also made me realize that telling stories about the Black community was something I was really interested in. I knew that was something I was going to do no matter what my actual beat ended up being. That was a theme I’ve had in my career even before it was my official title.

The publisher of The Atlanta Daily World was a woman, so seeing someone who looked like me running the paper was certainly helpful. There were women, and Black women, working at the newspaper. That visibility and representation encouraged me and showed me that was possible for me to do it too.

Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?

Yes! The publisher of The Atlanta Daily World, Alexis Scott. The newspaper was actually her family’s newspaper. Alexis had gone out into the world and worked in mainstream journalism for years and came back to run her family’s newspaper later in her career.

When I came to that newsroom she was the publisher, and she really showed me everything about how that newspaper worked. It was a small operation so I wasn’t just writing stories. I was helping other people edit their stories, pasting the stories onto the storyboard (I know nobody even remembers what that means now!), taking pictures, in some cases even riding to deliver the newspapers. I really learned every aspect of what it meant to get that newspaper out. That really made me invested in what we were doing.

She instilled confidence in me as a young journalist and gave me so many opportunities that I don’t know I would have had at other places. I wrote really big stories when I was there. I was interviewing the mayor, going to city council meetings, all while I was still in college. That wasn’t just because we had a tiny staff. I think it was because she trusted me enough to go and do these stories. So, she really gave me the confidence to believe that I could do this job.

She also introduced me to another one of my mentors, an Atlanta Daily World alumnus, Paul Delaney. Paul worked at the Daily World when he was fresh out of college many years ago and ended up becoming the first Black editor at The New York Times. 

When I met him he was retired at that time but had gone on to help found the National Association of Black Journalists and had a very storied career. For me to meet somebody at that age and point in my career who had been where I was really let me know that I can do it.

To this day, I still talk to him if I’m frustrated or discouraged about something that I’m covering. To hear the things that he covered his life and what it was like for him to be a Black journalist as a young person has been really helpful to me even now in my career. 

What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?

There is a lot of conversation, especially for young journalists, about objectivity and not having bias. I think that can be confused with the benefit of understanding how your lived experience can help you tell better stories. For me, I think I always knew that me being a Black person in this country was going to color how I saw the world, our country, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and the people I wanted to talk to to tell those stories.

Too often you’ve got folks who, if they are not white and male, are thinking they need to leave my identity at the door when they walk into the newsroom. That is actually wrong. Every single one of us has things about us that make us uniquely qualified to tell the stories that we tell. That was something I didn’t fully understand at that time.

As I’ve gone through my career I’ve gotten much more comfortable with embracing the aspects of my identity as assets to my storytelling instead of potential liabilities. 

Young people need to hear that. They think they can’t be Latina or Black or Muslim in the newsroom and it’s like, no you can, and you should. Diversity and representation matters for the stories that you see and the relationships you have with your communities. It only helps, because otherwise we would just be telling the same story. And who wants that?

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?

Women are not nearly represented enough in political journalism, especially when you consider the fact that women are the majority of the United States population and the majority of the electorate in this country. You would think that we are some sort of special interest group. That is how women are treated – like only certain issues matter to women. Like no, all issues are women’s issues. 

That really is the reason The 19th* exists. We wanted to change the narrative around gender in politics and policy. That has expanded to include not just women but marginalized people, period. We know that LGBTQ folks also have been unseen and unheard in this democracy for way too long and they are absolutely interested in the governing that affects their daily lives and what they need to know and how they need to get involved to make sure that their agenda is prioritized too.

Even going into the 2020 election, for example, we had the most diverse field of candidates the Democratic party had ever had, and yet the same narratives around race and gender were there. We know that because the people telling those stories and the people who were responsible for making the decisions around those stories have been too white and too male for far too long.

That is really why we just had to start over as a newsroom. That was the fastest way to fix that problem for us. That said, we are a nonprofit, independent newsroom. I do feel like our business model allows us to be very intentional and deliberate about creating the kind of newsroom that a lot of us wished we had earlier in our careers. 

That isn’t just from a coverage standpoint. That’s also from an organizational culture standpoint. We have one of the most diverse newsrooms in America – we are 92% women. If I choose to have a child, I get 6 months paid leave. If my mom got sick and I needed to take care of her I would get months of paid leave to be there with her at the end of her life. Nobody else is offering that. These are the kinds of barriers that are up for women in the workplace and especially for women in journalism as they try to move up in their career. These are the things that can sideline women and keep them from continuing on their career trajectory.

Also, I’m based here in Philadelphia and our newsroom is based in Austin. We were a virtual newsroom before the pandemic. We have reporters all across the country, whether that is Des Moines, Los Angeles, New Orleans, or Orlando. We are everywhere, and that is because women should be able to work where it makes the most sense for them. You don’t have to be in Washington, D.C. to cover politics, especially because we are actually trying to focus on the people who are being impacted by these policies. Our priority is being in proximity to them, not to Washington, D.C.

Our CEO is a wife and a mom. You have to be intentional about these things, they don’t happen organically. They don’t happen without very deliberate action and commitment to say, “We are going to do these things. These things are a must-have for our newsroom” instead of “Oh, it would be nice to have these things.” No, we are doing this. This is part of what we believe it means to be successful as an organization. 

From the beginning – way before the pandemic and the national reckoning around race and gender – we were thinking about equity as the center of our newsroom, and embraced it as a core value of what the The 19th* is. We are named for the 19th Amendment, but if you’ve ever seen our logo it has an asterisk at the end of it. The reason is because when the 19th Amendment was passed, Black women were omitted so that white women could have access to the franchise. That asterisk, for us, is a reminder of the people that are excluded from our democracy and what we need to do to always be thinking about how to bring them in at all times. Equity is a huge part of what to think about that on a daily basis.

Many leaders are not prioritizing this. What we know is that this pandemic showed the inequality for women, people of color, and marginalized folks. These folks are not willing to go back to the status quo before the pandemic. They want not just a new normal, but a better normal for themselves and in the workplace. No one is going back to work unless these conditions change. We know the childcare piece is part of our infrastructure as an economy. It’s not just up to people as parents to figure it out. We need to figure this out as a society because it impacts people’s ability to return to the workforce.

If you are not thinking about the barriers to participation and the disparities in who is able to, or not able to, participate, and why, then we didn’t learn anything this year. The pandemic was unequal, and the response also has the potential to be unequal unless we make different choices. And for newsrooms, if we are writing about these issues but not thinking about them internally, we have missed the point. 

Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers? 

No. What I think is that I have been overlooked for opportunities. I honestly don’t know how much of that is race and how much is gender. That’s part of what it means to be a Black woman – you’re at this intersection where you can be discriminated for one or both of those things and you honestly never know how much of which is happening to you.

I am not somebody who looks like the people who have traditionally excelled in political journalism. I am not somebody that a white, male editor is going to take under his wing because I remind him of himself at their age. That is how this works, that’s how the pipeline happens.

I came into politics because I covered race and I was able to make the case that if we are talking about politics but not talking about race, we’re not really talking politics. Those two things are so linked and have been for the entire history of our country, but there is a new chapter of that happening right now. So if people don’t get that they are missing some of the story. I was not a politics reporter. I was a race reporter that ended up covering politics.

Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism? 

It’s my super power, it really is. I get to tell stories that nobody else sees because of who I am, the life that I have lived, the network that I have and the community that I have. Just this election cycle alone I’ve been able to tell the stories of Black women, candidates, organizers, and about women being the deciders of this election. Not everybody was telling those stories, but there are questions about race and gender in the appeal of President Biden or Vice President Harris and I was able to unpack that and talk about those things with authority because of who I am. It sets me apart and makes me a journalist who has trust in those communities but also expertise and authority that is respected.

I absolutely think it is to an advantage to be where I am. It’s not that being a Black woman isn’t great, it’s about how other people choose to treat you that is what becomes problematic. But it’s great to be a Black woman.

We have to be clear, yes we celebrate Women’s History Month, but with that progress there are a lot of challenges. This pandemic has been devastating to women and we have to be honest about that. We know that it has been devastating because this system is unequal. But, at the same time, yes there are good things that are happening for women. Women are making progress but that progres is very much hard fought and earned. Women are pushing. Women are making shit happen, frankly! That is how we get here. It is worthwhile to talk about the things that we have fought for and won.

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 think that would be the first time I had what felt like a professional setback. I have had an amazing journalism career. I have gotten to tell so many kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I’ve gotten to go so many places, meet so many people, see so many things that I don’t think I would have gotten to if I had done any other job.

But there was a point in my career where I was at a professional crossroads. I was  questioning whether I was good as I thought I was. I was the same journalist I had always been, but I was being made to feel like I wasn’t as good as I actually was or that my journalism instincts were off. As a woman in this industry, when your confidence is shaken you have to claw your way back from that. If you make the mistake of internalizing that and believing what some people say about you it is very difficult to recover from.

The good news is that I did make it past that period. I am thriving and things have never been better for me in my career. But that is the dirty secret of people who are successful in this business for women and women of color. At some point you are going to hit a wall. It is what you do and what happens after you hit that wall that determines everything else.

Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship? 

There are some young women who I am probably there for on a consistent basis, but if I’m being honest I probably do more drive-by mentoring for someone who might need help in the moment thinking through a story for example. Speed-mentoring is my jam. 

It could be as simple as being in a press conference with other younger women and remembering how it felt to be young and scared to raise your hand to ask a question in a room full of people and not want to sound stupid – just nudging them and saying “Hey, ask that quesiton. Raise your hand.” It helps them realize that they do have the same right to be here as everyone else.

What I’ve come to understand is that I am now one of those people that I admired when I was their age, but I don’t feel that much older. I have had a career that people respect and aspire to. Whatever I can tell them, whether that is in a day, over time, in a moment, I want to do that.

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? 

Domination. I want them kicking ass. I’m serious. Women’s representation across industries is not where it needs to be, but obviously I am especially concerned about my industry. 

When you own your story, you seize your power. The more women that own the story, the more different the stories are. We are already seeing it. Our newsroom is already doing it. I want to see more women in the White House briefing room, on the campaign trail, and more women being respected as authorities on our democracy. We already are, we’re just not given the platform and the opportunity to showcase that in the same way that white men are. When that starts happening is when I will know we are getting to equity.

And, of course, the equal pay is one thousand percent part of that. I want women to get paid what they deserve and what they have earned. We shouldn’t still be thinking about this. This should be a thing and those women should be looking back and us and thinking “Man, there was a time where we weren’t getting paid the same as men? That sounds crazy!”

I can’t wait until that day.

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