Women in Journalism: Q&A with Snigdha Sur

April 2, 2021

April 2, 2021

Snigdha Sur founded The Juggernaut, a subscription-based news site covering South Asia and South Asians living around the world because she saw a gap in coverage and an audience that was hungry for news.

“When I look at the journalists who succeed most, they carve their own path in terms of specialty or beats because many of the beats that exist today might not be the beats of tomorrow,” Sur said. “My best advice for people looking to enter journalism is to find a place that feels authentic to you, double down on it, become an expert on it, and just fight on because even if people don’t see the value today, they will.” 

I spoke with Sur 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.

Sur is The Juggernaut’s founder and CEO. She previously worked for McKinsey and advised media companies in India. 

Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Sur:

Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?  

I initially chose not to do a career in journalism and then I kind of found myself back to it. I used to run my high school paper and then I wrote for the Yale Daily News in college. I really thought I was going to be a journalist or a novelist. That’s kind of where I always thought I was headed. And somewhere along the way, I felt as if I couldn’t pursue the profession because I came from an immigrant family. 

I could see the journalism starting salaries and there was just no way my parents could support me if I went on that path. So, I ultimately majored in Economics and South Asian Studies. I did a very immigrant thing and I went for the safe route and worked at McKinsey for two years as a consultant. I spent a year advising media companies in India and then ultimately went and got my MBA at Harvard.  

When I realized what I still wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to have an impact, it was in the world of media. I just felt that it needed smart people and it needed people who were willing to tell the stories that weren’t being told. That’s kind of where the Juggernaut started. I found myself back in journalism, which is great, but on my own terms, with my own business and hopefully being able to encourage more people to take that risk. 

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

Yes, I mean one of the people you’re already featuring is Mitra Kalita. She’s somebody I’ve looked up to for a really long time. When I was younger, I was part of the South Asian Journalism Association. There was Sree Sreenivasan and Mitra Kalita and they were just so well-known, and Raju Narisetti, too. 

All of these people were known for really pushing the boundaries of what you could do in journalism because they not only were journalists, but they also took on leadership positions in the newsrooms, started new publications, and worked on the business side. I’ve always been interested in that kind of mix of both business and creativity. 

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

For me, looking at where journalism has gone and seeing all the people who are a few years out working there, so much of it is to trust your own gut and to develop your own taste. If you find a story that you find interesting, if you find a sector that you find interesting, trust your gut. It doesn’t matter if other people think it’s valuable; it matters if you think there’s a story there. People are always looking for specialists in something and that can become your specialty. You just create your own space. 

When I look at the journalists who succeed most, they carve their own path in terms of specialty or beats because many of the beats that exist today might not be the beats of tomorrow. My best advice for people looking to enter journalism is to find a place that feels authentic to you, double down on it, become an expert on it, and just fight on because even if people don’t see the value today, they will. 

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 would say that in terms of media representation, women are just held to a higher bar when it comes to even running a media organization. I think that you’re seeing the genre of the female founder takedown. Many of these female founders are not perfect, as no human is perfect. I wouldn’t say to tamp down on this kind of reporting, but I would say, how do we bring the scrutiny to all founders, not just female founders? When we depict a woman as bossy or aggressive, that’s not the same verbiage we’re using for other founders. 

I would say that the depiction of women in the media is definitely very much in line with some of these problems that we’ve seen, even in the depiction of female politicians and the coverage of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary Clinton. So, I think my push here would be how do we tell those nuanced stories and get comfortable? Because that’s really how we can move forward. I think that all of these stories are really complicated and it’s just too easy to make it a little bit more exciting, spicy, or sensational without stepping back and understanding the context in which we play. 

We’re really proud of Juggernaut where our entire executive team is women and over 80% of our freelance journalists and illustrators are women. It’s not something we set out to do. It’s kind of interesting because we just found that we enjoyed working with other reporters who had the same mission as us. One thing I found is that it’s really important to have those diverse perspectives. So many of these journalists would tell me, “I pitched the same story to other places and they would just say no.” So, listen up when people pitch and understand why they’re sharing the story, and if you’re not comfortable with it, do some of your own homework. 

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

I think my male coworkers need to keep up with me. Let’s be real, childcare and emotional baggage and emotional care still fall to women in several heterosexual relationships. I’m not trying to put that down, but I think this framing of “we have to keep up with their male counterparts,” I find a little bit like a false dichotomy. 

I do think that all people need to keep up with each other. What has helped me is, “How do I work on the most important things and not get swept away by what might seem urgent but not important?” That’s something I hold dear and near and dear because, especially during Covid, it’s so easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking “I have so much more time, let me do more work.”  

That just leads to burnout, and as someone who’s gone through burnout, during Covid especially, it’s been really important for me to actually start saying no more, to have more boundaries, and to lead by example. I need to take a vacation so my team feels comfortable taking a vacation. It’s really been important to me through the pandemic to create those boundaries for everybody. Work is not our life; it is part of our life. Work is a key part of my life and I want to continue to be ambitious there but it can’t be everything. 

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

Yeah, the ability to see the stories that other people might miss. I think that no matter which gender you identify with, you are taking up a certain space and that means that you will see and hear stories that other people might not. We hear this in venture capital or finance all the time where so many investors, for example, were shocked at how well Peloton did in the stock market this year. But if you talk to any woman, she’d say she could have called that from a mile away. It’s really important to lean into the stories we know that other people might not find important and tell them. 

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? 

When I was in college, that was an interesting inflection point where I chose not to do that path because I didn’t feel like it was a viable option at that point in my life. I realized that it’s important sometimes to feel safe and not take risks. What I needed was to have maybe a couple of degrees under my belt and have a little bit of savings and to know that I could take a risk and start something, but if I failed, I had my own version of a safety net.  

In terms of where I’ve felt the safest, it’s those periods of being able to fight for yourself, save up some money, and take on some more education. Those are the moments that you can use to then think about “Now that I feel a little bit safe, how can I add a little bit to my risk?” That’s something I always also encourage because it’s really easy in any career to feel safe but sometimes, it’s those moments of challenge that really took growth, and so I haven’t been afraid of those either. 

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

I’ve grappled with the term mentorship because, for me, I found that sometimes mentorship implies that somebody has more experience or tenure than you. But during Covid, I’ve really learned that people forget how powerful their peer network is. So, I would say, I really have leaned into that peer network of my fellow female founders. my fellow non-female founders, and my fellow nonbinary founders who might be at different stages than me, or might be a very similar stage with the same problems. It’s been really nice to be able to run ideas by them and understand what’s going on. 

I have Fridays earmarked as pay-it-forward days. I really try in every single field where I think I have a sphere of influence to figure out how I can encourage or improve numbers. Female funding, for example, was at an all-time low in 2020 and I actually closed a seed round in 2020, so I read a ton of Y Combinator applications that female founders wrote specifically because I wanted to help boost those numbers. And I had to learn to say no because anyone who wanted my advice I had to say “I really have to focus on getting the female founders numbers up so this year specifically, I’m going to just read those applications.” That’s really important sometimes to take on those positions because otherwise, we’re not going to have that systemic change.  

We also had internships and we work with young journalists sometimes and give them a chance and I think that’s really important. How do you give people a chance and make their ideas feel great? Sometimes just making people feel heard is just so valuable and I think that’s one of the ways where people can pay it forward and give others more chances. 

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?  

Oh, I’m so excited for them because journalism has changed so much in just the past 15 years. I think of it as, in life, what are the things that will always change and other things that will never change? What will never change is the human desire to belong and the human desire for a good story. And what will constantly change is the media through which we consume it, whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or TikTok, or Facebook.  

So, my advice is to never forget to chase a great story — you’ll know a great story when you hear it; it has tension in it and questions that you want to answer — and then just get really smart on the different media you get excited by. Go test out TikTok or Twitter or Instagram. Find an experiment, because that’s really going to be the future — experimenting across formats. But remember, a great story is always a great story. That’s kind of how I think about the future.

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