For many women in journalism, it feels like they are constantly having to prove themselves as they work to advance their careers.
“I really hope that we could get to a place where women’s excellence is kind of almost taken for granted as opposed to women having to be twice as good to prove themselves,” said S. Mitra Kalita, CEO and Co-founder at URL Media and Publisher at Epicenter NYC.
I spoke with Kalita 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.
Mitra was most recently Senior Vice President at CNN Digital and led the launch of Live Story, a tool that helps audiences follow stories in real-time. Recently, she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. She also sits on the board of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Mitra:
Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
I was in a minority journalism workshop when I was 16 years old, after my junior year of high school. Just attending the workshop helped me see the need for people of color in journalism. It exposed me to the inner workings of newsrooms and it pretty much changed my life. It was around then that I realized this is more than just the school newspaper or a hobby; this could be a career.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?
I certainly have friends across the industry that are friends turned mentors. I also count some of my early editors who took the time on me to just get my copy into shape. That feels like a really big piece of it. I feel pretty blessed that when I think of my mentors, I think, well where do I start to count them? There are so many people who have enabled my career.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
At the beginning and middle of your career, you’re looking around a lot to see what everyone else is doing and how you measure up. It’s really important early on to get a sense of who you want to be as a journalist and what propels your ideals and career. This way you can look forward as opposed to looking behind you or to the side of you at others.
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 think it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I think our numbers in leadership remain obviously behind our percentage of the population; it’s not 50/50. On the other hand, I think there’s attention to these issues like never before. Certainly, the workforce is demanding systemic lasting change from leadership in a way that I am very hopeful about.
Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers?
I don’t really dwell on that too much anymore. I got pregnant before I was going to go overseas to cover a story. I don’t even remember the story, but I do remember I have a child, so that gives perspective on what really matters in life. I think the asset that I see is that my kids are such a part of how I view the world. Their perspective on the world is so informed by me clearly bringing my work home, and it’s a little bit more fluid. I just tried not to be focusing on the resentment piece of that.
Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism?
My kids definitely shift my perspective as a mother. I think I’m biologically wired to care about something greater than myself. I also think women are inherently able to multitask better, we follow routines, and we lead with empathy and compassion. I really do see it being an asset. I think that the problem with womanhood is not women’s problems, it’s everybody else’s problems that they’ve created.
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 would say there have been many moments. The death of George Floyd really made me rethink objectivity and how we take police reporting at such face value. But I also thought of that a few years ago with the death of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. Every now and then, there’s something where you think, are we really here again? You can get very demoralized but you need to get back up and think about what can be done. That is the role of the journalist. I always say if you eschew idealism, this isn’t the job for you. We are so much about this belief in news and information as a way to share power, so you have to believe in that power and its ability to change things.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I am currently thinking about, what do I say no to? I want to lift up other people, but if I take every request of me, I’m never going to be able to focus on the work that I need to get done. I think that we ask a lot of each other. The number of times that I get interviewed as a successful woman of color is really nice, but it also means that the pressure on me to give back is constant. White men don’t have to do that. They get to be considered excellent without having this extra burden. For me, dozens of hours a week are spent on this extra work.
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 really hope that we could get to a place where women’s excellence is kind of almost taken for granted as opposed to women having to be twice as good to prove themselves. I hope that we get to a place of seeing potential and excellence as opposed to focusing on “She’s great, but…” It’s such a simple mindset, but it really could be revolutionary in what it means for the advancement of talent.