Publishers’ efforts to diversify their workforces slows in 2023, but heads of DEI point to progress

This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

It’s been over three years since the media industry’s white and male-dominant composition was put under a microscope. Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, publishers have appointed diversity, equity and inclusion leaders, expanded employee resource groups, led hundreds of DEI training sessions and committed to numerous goals to diversify their workforces.

But almost four years later, some of those efforts — at least the more public ones — seem to have lost their steam. Media companies that were publishing their workforce diversity reports at a relatively regular, annual cadence delayed posting those reports on their sites, including BuzzFeed, NPR and the Los Angeles Times. 

BuzzFeed published its diversity reports in October 2020, January 2022 and then not again until November 2023. NPR, which has released its past two reports in October, is not publishing its report with 2023 data until next January. The Los Angeles Times published a report in February 2021 and February 2022, but has not released a report publicly since then. Gannett typically publishes newsroom-level diversity data (including for USA Today) each year, but has yet to release the data for 2023.

“The company has gone through some major restructuring this year, with the sale of the San Diego Union-Tribune, layoffs at the Los Angeles Times and the planned closure of the LA Times printing plant, so our expectation is that we’ll begin publishing a diversity report again next year,” said an LA Times spokesperson.

An NPR spokesperson said the company was restructuring and reformatting their report (such as adding new visualizations and info graphics), causing the delay in publishing. BuzzFeed did not respond to a request for comment.

Company restructurings, layoffs, hiring freezes and other budget constraints appear to have slowed down the rate of improvements to diversify publishers’ workforces this year, with the data showing smaller changes year over year.

However, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress since 2020. As the charts below show, there have been notable improvements, with media businesses slowly becoming less white and male-dominated over the past four years.

Diversity stats from 2020 to now

Digiday has tracked publishers’ self-reported diversity statistics as they were released. The media industry does not have a consistent measurement of this data across different companies. While these stats aren’t the only important assessment of DEI progress at media companies, it is a first step in understanding the demographics of a workforce to see any improvements made in an organization’s efforts to diversify its employee base.

Notably, some companies that released workforce diversity reports this year are based on 2022 stats, while others are based on 2023 stats. The LA Times’ 2023 diversity data on its newsroom was released internally in June and shared with Digiday by a spokesperson.

Here’s how they’re faring, from 2020 to now, based on the latest data these companies have shared:

The largest improvements were at BuzzFeed, Condé Nast, NPR and Vox, all of which reduced the share of white employees at their companies overall by six percentage points from 2020 till now. 

However, year-over-year, BuzzFeed increased the share of white employees by one percentage point. Vox Media had a one percentage point change year-over-year. But Condé Nast and NPR had better improvements year-over-year, with a two percentage point change and a three percentage point change, respectively.

Other companies that had just a one percentage point change year-over-year include Gannett, Hearst, Insider, Vice Media and The Washington Post. The New York Times’ share of white employees at the company remained flat year-over-year. Overall, this trend could indicate that efforts to diversify workforces at media companies has slowed this year, a sentiment echoed by two heads of DEI who spoke with Digiday.

“It’s very hard to make progress if you’re stopping and then starting over… and rebuilding teams,” said Fritzie Andrade, Business Insider’s head of diversity, equity, & inclusion. “Collectively in the industry, there has been a slowdown because there’s been so much of that. We’re lucky that hasn’t happened here [at Business Insider]. Knock on wood.”

Most of the companies in these graphs now have more female employees than male. This is the case at BuzzFeed, Business Insider, The New York Times, NPR, Vice Media Group and Vox Media. 

However, employees at Gannett, Hearst and The Washington Post are still mostly male. Of the companies listed, Gannett had the smallest share of women, at 46% in 2023 (flat compared to 2020).

How economic challenges impact diversity efforts

It’s no secret that 2023 was a tough year for most media companies. Amid economic headwinds and a slowdown in ad spend, publishers underwent budget cuts, layoffs and hiring freezes.

“Maintaining momentum and focus has been challenged by all of the things that we as an organization — like so many other organizations — have been through this year,” said NPR’s chief diversity officer Keith Woods.

However, despite these challenges and the threats they pose to DEI progress at publishers, three heads of DEI work told Digiday they had not been affected by budget constraints this year — at least, not more than any other departments.

Woods said he believed that DEI work in general had “lost momentum” over the course of this year. “But at NPR, we have still been able to keep a very clear focus on diversifying the audience [and] our staffing. It’s been difficult for everybody, but even in light of that we as an organization have been able to hold onto the values that underlies all those things that happen,” he said, noting that his team was not impacted by NPR’s layoffs this year.

The slowdown in new hires can especially set back diversity efforts, said Richard Prince, a columnist at who covers diversity in the media. BuzzFeed didn’t include data on new hires or promotions in its report this year, due to the “hiring freeze, recruiting deceleration and postponed mid-year promotions,” CEO Jonah Peretti wrote. Business Insider’s 2023 report included 113 new hires, compared to 345 in 2022 and 239 in 2021.

“The economics of news organizations has been negatively affected by the economy, and there’s less hiring going on. And when you have less hiring, you have fewer opportunities to implement diversity,” Prince said. But he called that an “excuse” companies use to “not do more” to diversify their organizations.

Even with all the leadership changes at CNN over the past two years, Johnita P. Due, evp of integrity and inclusion for CNN Worldwide, said that DEI efforts have not been negatively impacted.

“There’s been some leadership changes, but from my view our DEI efforts have been a thoroughfare and consistent thread throughout all of that. It’s been really important to us to demonstrate to our employees that our commitment in this area and our efforts in this area never wavered and that they are always supported by leadership and by management,” Due said. “Through whatever leadership was in place… we were able to move full steam ahead.”

“When times get tough, DEI [can get] pushed to the backburner a little bit… [to focus on] bottom lines and making money and making sure everything’s afloat,” Andrade said. “There’s periods of slowdown, but as long as there’s not a stopping then you can keep patiently moving the needle forward.”

Andrade noted that she has not experienced this at Business Insider. She was promoted from overseeing DEI work in the newsroom to leading those efforts across the whole company in December 2022, and her previous role was filled. 

However, Andrade admitted some initiatives took longer to see through this year than she’d hoped. For example, she was pushing for ERG leaders to get compensated for their work in January 2023. It didn’t happen until October – but Business Insider will now pay stipends to all ERG volunteers, Andrade said.
 “This work already can take a while to progress. But it’s important that it doesn’t stop,” she said. “It’s moving forward. It’s still a priority. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.” 

How heads of DEI are measuring progress

Despite the slowdown this year, DEI leaders told Digiday they made progress in a number of ways this year — even if that progress can be difficult to measure.

Woods said it was hard to “nail down” which programs at NPR have progressed the most since 2020, as improvement in his eyes is the ability to “embrace the full range of work” that his team oversees tackling a myriad of challenges.

Chris Clermont, head of DEI+ at Vox Media, agreed that it’s not always easy to measure the success of the different DEI programs at Vox. While the company conducts surveys with specific DEI-focused questions and asks for feedback from employees, at the end of the day, “a lot of it is personal,” he said.

“It’s not about giving us credit. It’s for the employees. Sometimes we don’t know the results,” Clermont added.

Anecdotally, Woods has seen more teams at NPR engaged in DEI work across the organization, which is crucial, given his small team of three manages these initiatives for nearly 1,000 people, he said.

But there is data to back up Woods’ claims. Though NPR hasn’t publicly released its workforce diversity data for 2023, a spokesperson told Digiday that 43% of its staff this year are people of color, up from 33.5% in 2019. On average over the last five years, 55.9% of new hires at NPR have been persons of color, they added. Of NPR’s svps and C-suite level execs, 46% are people of color. 

In September, NPR promoted Whitney Maddox to vp of DE&I. Maddox, an NPR employee for three years, had led twice-monthly, company-wide antiracism workshops (called STAR) that began in the spring of 2021, with more than 1,000 staff members participating. 

This year, NPR launched a program to train others in the company to lead DEI conversations, in order to expand the organization’s capacity to have those discussions beyond the people whose jobs are specifically about DEI.

That’s similar to Vox’s recent strategy shift to focus on a more localized and decentralized infrastructure focused on teams, which began in September, Clermont said. Now, there are over 40 managers who help develop a specific DEI roadmap for different parts of the company and report up to Clermont, he said. They are viewed as “advocates for culture on their teams,” Clermont said. Sometimes, their solutions or ideas can then scale up across other Vox departments. For example, a pronoun workshop was held initially for just one team, but now the company has held over 35 pronoun workshops, he said.

Business Insider, which has three active ERGs, will add four more by January 2024. The ERGs will help “rebuild community” among Business Insider’s hybrid workforce, one of Andrade’s goals for next year.

The challenges that remain

DEI leaders at media companies will likely continue to face challenges in their work next. Andrade said the biggest challenge for people in her role is diversifying staff at the senior level, especially at a time when the company has slowed hiring. One of the solutions to this is helping current employees develop their careers so they can be promoted to more senior positions, she said.

Woods said DEI work can be “demonized” across the country, and that expanding what it means to be “inclusive” can be met with resistance from some communities. But he was undeterred.

“We are a public media organization whose core responsibility is to serve and reflect the public and whatever the challenges that might be presented — by everything from economics to societal trends to politics and all the other pieces that go into that — we still have that core responsibility,” Woods said.

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