Women in Journalism: Q&A with Kyra Kyles

Chief Executive Officer of YR Media

As a child, Kyra Kyles dreamed of working in journalism.

“I think it was between three to five years old. I was really obsessed with TV, journalists, and TV reporters in particular. My mother used to occupy my time by putting me in front of a mirror and I would do my little TV broadcasts and talk to the viewers. So this was like, super early interest. How many people get to actually work in the career that they dreamed about when they were children?”

Kyra Kyles is the Chief Executive Officer of YR Media, a non-profit production company of young journalists and artists. Prior to that, Kyles served as Editor in Chief and Senior Vice President of Digital Editorial at Ebony.

I spoke with Kyles as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to celebrate women in journalism, lift up their achievements, and share their advice and hopes for future generations. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Before we start, just tell me who you are and a little bit about yourself.

My name is Kyra Kyles. I’m the CEO of YR Media. I am originally from Chicago, but when I took the role at YR Media two years ago, I moved to Oakland, where the headquarters are located. I have a 20+ year career in journalism. I’ve done some corporate communications and public relations, but most of it was multimedia. I’ve done TV reporting, on air commentating,  newspaper and magazine – so kind of like the egot of journalism. I was  super excited for this opportunity, because I got to take all that great journalism experience that I’ve been able to get and work with great colleagues and pour that into leading more of the operational side of this organization. Prior to this, my most recent journalism role was editor in Chief and Senior Vice President of digital editorial at Ebony.

The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field? What appealed to you about the business of journalism?

The interest in journalism came really, really early. I think it was between three to five years old. I was really obsessed with TV, journalists, and TV reporters in particular. My mother used to occupy my time by putting me in front of a mirror and I would do my little TV broadcasts and talk to the viewers. So this was a super early interest. How many people get to actually work in the career that they dreamed about when they were children? I mean, it’s not without its challenges, because even as a child, I did notice, there weren’t very many people who look like me on the television screen. That’s something we’re still grappling with. But I ended up going to Northwestern University, and getting a bachelor’s and master’s in four years there. What was great about it was I was able to do both broadcast and print and at the time that really wasn’t heard. It was almost like a gang, like you ride with the broadcast, or you write with print. I love to create content, I’ve done it across different multimedia columns and on air commentating, things of that nature. 

I think I got more into the business aspect once I joined Johnson Publishing Company, that iconic brand of Black Media. Instead of just writing or just doing air producing, I started being an editor. With that, you get a more of a sense of what it’s like to deal with advertisers, milestones that we need to meet, or the KPIs that we need to hit in order for us to keep creating. I always consider myself a content creator, and I continue to produce and continue to write for other outlets.

I like to think of it as making it possible and making it sustainable for people to be able to create. The young people that we work with are between the ages of 14 to 24. So most of the adult staff are super talented industry professionals, but what they want to do is pour into the young people. None of us are really writing or creating within YR Media, we’re providing mentorship. In order for us to be able to do that and have cutting-edge technology and have the money to pay our youth contributors we really have to focus on storytelling. It is interesting telling the story of volunteers to funders or potential donors. It really kind of ties everything together, because storytelling is what I love to do. And now I’m just doing it from an operational perspective.

Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?

I have so many, but I would say, my all-time influential person that inspired me and I look at as just being a reservoir of wisdom, is quite honestly my mother, who was an educator for 30 years and the most creative person you’ll ever meet. She was interested in journalism, but she grew up in the segregated south. There weren’t as many opportunities for her as there have been for me and I’m convinced that she would have beaten me hands down as a journalist. She would have decimated me. She is just so creative with such a sparkling, charming personality, and no one could tell her anything. I would say the other person is my sister –– such a creative person, super brilliant, super humble. She’s the person I go to when I’m like, “What do you think I should do about this?” 

Additionally, one of the people I really look up to is Angelique Power who leads The Skillman Foundation in Detroit. She was how I got into the philanthropic world, which pretty much led me to YR Media. She is such a gracious, patient leader and a great storyteller as well. Throughout my career, reporters and anchors like Robin Roberts and the people that came before me have really inspired me. The entire board of NABJ Chicago really supported and helped me and emerging leaders.

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

Early in my career, I started out as a local TV reporter, but I quickly realized that probably wasn’t my ministry. I had to think to myself, “Where do you really want your career to go?” I really loved culture, arts, and entertainment. There’s always seemingly a lesson that can be taught by some of that media. I moved more into cultural critique and in-depth feature reporting. I love reporting about music, which is great, because YR Media has a music production studio on site. 

I think now it’s much easier to build your own brand. I feel like we were more tied at that time to working for a certain platform. I do believe there were several key moments where I could have stepped out on my own. I don’t regret anything that I did. I’m glad that I went over to Johnson Publishing Company, because I really liked what they were doing and the mission, and that it was important to have more Black representation in this way. But I would revisit that if I were to do it again and maybe take a little more time out for myself.

People used to ask , “Well, who do you work for?” That was the question. That’s what most people say when they meet you. I think that’s actually a mistake when you identify yourself so closely with where you work, because what if you get laid off? What if that organization takes a shift in a different direction? I think that I’m glad there’s an avenue for self-branding now, because I feel like it also inadvertently helps diversify the coverage of the things that we see because people aren’t waiting to get hired by a certain newspaper or magazine or TV station –– they can do it themselves, and they can bring the nuance to the coverage that they want to bring to it.

How do you feel women are represented in the business/development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?

That’s a great question. I feel that the representation of BIPOC women is the same as it is across all the different departments of media –– not enough. There are definitely these big, cool, outlets and projects, but I think that there are still big barriers and challenges there. We’re starting to see more people overcoming them and I think that the business side is evolving. But again, the pace is slow and we just need to keep pushing and insisting upon equity and not allowing people to treat us as less than when it comes to funding or pigeonholing us. Please don’t just come to me during Black History Month. There are 12 months in the year. If someone is only interested in me in February, I’m not interested.

We’re actually seeing a resurgence, interest, and appreciation that I hope is not a fad but something permanent. I think you’re still going to see a lot of challenges with the advertising aspect because that model is gone. When there are big challenges people are less likely to take a chance. Most women leaders, especially BIPOC women leaders, are considered a chance. Steady means a white male.

What point in your career was the most difficult for you? How did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and where it’s going?

You know, I feel fortunate in that I don’t feel like I had a particularly tough time. But, when I was working with Johnson Publishing Company, we didn’t have tons of resources. We were stretched pretty thin staff-wise and it was a lot of work. One time I saw the sun come up with one of my colleagues who is actually now working with me at YR Media, where we do not do that. That was stressful because you’re tired and stretched thin but also there’s this mission, and you feel strongly about it. A lot of people fell into that, because you felt so empowered by the mission that you kind of allowed it to be something that was draining. It was really common. I have made it a promise to myself and to others that work-life balance is key. I don’t want people to work like that.

Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career? Are there any sacrifices you’ve made that your male counterparts may not have experienced?  

One of the challenges that I faced was where I knew that someone who was a man or was white would not be asked the same questions as I would be asked. There was a situation where my former employer asked me during my interview whether my father graduated from college. And I said, “My father is not applying to work here.” When I got the role I asked the others if anyone asked them that. No, nobody asked them that. 

There was another time where an employer asked me something when I was leading one of their departments. When we would refer people there was a cash incentive, and when I referred someone, it just happened to be a Black woman that I had met. A leader pulled me aside and asked if it was a friend of mine or if I was related to her. I said, “Have you asked anyone else?” I did not care what he did as a result of that. I said, “That person has nothing to do with me. I have no idea where she even lives. I don’t know her. But she’s a good candidate, and I would like to see you ask these other people. There is a blonde woman who brought another blonde woman. Are they related?” Some people call this a microaggression, but I actually believe they’re macroaggressions. It’s very rude and disempowering. 

One of my friends convinced me to go to a pub with the other reporters in the newsroom. The minute I showed up they turned to me and asked me every question they could think of that had to do with Black people. I’m like, what about anything else? It’s just basically letting you know you don’t belong. 

When we were in college, I told my sister about some of the issues I was facing in college where the mostly white student newspaper staff was assigning me what they believed to be Black stories. My sister was relaying this to someone she knew, and the person was a white woman who said, “Well, why doesn’t she just go work somewhere Black?”

What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?

At all the different organizations I’ve worked with or collaborated with, I think being in the room and being able to provide and emphasize my lived experience is valuable. I don’t look to be the designated spokesperson for any group of humans, but I do think it’s helpful to have me there. 

I think that my sense of humor has helped me because some of the things that I told you about that were negative, I responded to them with humor in a way. I feel like it helped the person realize their own mistake. I noticed that it was a change in the way I was treated when I would bring this to people’s attention, but with a little bit of dry humor. 

My father was a very smart businessman, my mother was an educator, and my sister is a superstar marketer and entertainer. I feel like I have a grounding that will not allow people to make me devalue myself. My mother taught us early. She bought us brown Barbie dolls. I wasn’t coming into a situation where I wasn’t aware of what race was. When some people talk about raising their children colorblind, I feel sorry for those children –– especially if they’re brown children because they’re in for a wild ride. That doesn’t serve anyone to do that.

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

I feel we should help other people as best we can. I also feel like mentorship is a two way street. I don’t feel like just because I have longer years of experience than someone that they can’t teach me something. I think you should always be open minded and think about what you can learn, and not just tell people what is. Also, times change. So, the advice you’re giving might not even be relevant. When I try to mentor people, I really try to talk through a situation and come up with a solution with them.

I do have some young women of color that I meet with them on a monthly or every other month basis. We set up time to talk on LinkedIn and I try to be helpful to people and help them network and connect. Through YR Media we help lots of young people in general, just as part of our mission and model, and also through some of the work I’ve done with the National Association of Black Journalists. As journalists we’re helping emerging journalists, but it was also going the opposite way. 

I also just try to lead by example. I really feel strongly that you can say whatever you want, but people watch exactly what you’re doing. I can’t tell my team I don’t want everybody working from 10am to 2am and then send emails at 1am. I just try to be really cognizant of that.

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? 

It’s interesting to see when people ask about returning to office, that women, particularly women of color, are less eager to do that because that reinforces some of the inequities that they’ve been experiencing. I think what business leaders can really be zeroing in on is how we come back, and instead of getting back to so-called “normal” –– how can we get back to something better? How can we improve the experience? How can we be more flexible? How can we be more cognizant of where a hierarchy doesn’t make sense? How can we revisit the structures that we think are just commonplace? 

Sometimes we look at it as a privilege to be a journalist. It’s a privilege to be doing anything, but you need to pay people for what they’re doing. You can’t pay the leader of an organization 100 times more than everyone else when the people that are on the ground doing the work are not being paid fairly, and especially if they’re BIPOC content creators. So I think those shifts are happening. We try to be very forthcoming with our salaries as a result of that, because we’re all about equity. 

I also think the makeup of newsrooms is shifting. If you want your newsroom to really shift you have to change policies and practices. It’s not just about hiring people, it’s about making them comfortable there so they can stay and advance in their career. One of the ways I can tell that we’re doing well at YR Media is people share links of open jobs. That’s one of the key indicators and something business leaders need to think about. How do we make people feel like they belong there, and how do we make it so that they want even more people to come in and that they’re willing to go into their networks and bring in more people like themselves that bring a really important perspective. You’re not doing anyone a favor, you’re actually representing what the world is.

What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What would you like that space to be like? 

I would like the space to look like America. You can’t claim to be doing coverage of a community and nobody in your newsroom or in your organization represents that community. My hope is that women of color, and women in general, will be not only welcomed into these organizations but will advance within the organizations. That they  equitably, and receive experiences they need to professionally develop and create their own organizations if they want. That’s also opening doors for others. You’re creating not only a better workplace, but you’re also creating a better feeling of solidarity. I just want to say there’s room for everybody. We need to move over to make that room if it’s not there right now. I want to see women leaders really stepping into it and getting the same opportunities, or even more than their counterparts who have been receiving these opportunities this whole time, and sometimes without even working very hard to secure them.

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