A ‘Humble Offer’ for media mentorship

She came to New York City, like so many do, to start over again. Something about the city’s mythos — the pictures, the paintings and the movies it inspired — drew her in. That, and it was a center of photography, a mecca for photojournalists like herself.

But to start over in New York meant that Joana Toro had to leave behind the life she’d built in her native Colombia. That was five years ago, when Toro was 35 and her resume was already full of accomplishments. She had been a staff member at several major Colombian news outlets, including Semana and El Tiempo.

Her life in the U.S., however, would be dramatically different. Her English, she explained, was “very, very basic” at the time of her arrival. She had money saved up, but to make ends meet she began to freelance in the service industry, working sometimes as a nanny, sometimes as a waiter. It was hard to find jobs in her chosen profession.

“In Colombia I was a photographer with clients and also a lot of experience working in newspapers,” she said. “But here I come as a student.” She was trying to enter an industry “overwhelmed” with talent, but also one where minorities are chronically under-represented.

It was with people like Toro in mind that professor Duy Linh Tu wrote his viral Facebook post, “A Humble Offer.” Tu, the director of digital media at Columbia Journalism School, had long denounced the lack of diversity in the media. Only now, he intended to do something about it.

His “Humble Offer” was directed at women, people of color, members of the LGBT community and other minorities, and his goal was to offer them mentorship and networking opportunities. Through his personal connections, he would help others get a foot in the door and change the face of the media. He left his email address at the bottom of the post. It was then shared 633 times.

“I’m embarrassed it has taken me this long to realize this, but I can mentor, coach, and connect people with the best of them,” Tu wrote. “It’s high time I start doing that.”

Inspiration struck on a late night this past July, when Tu was thinking about a meme making the rounds online. It was a comparison of two group photos, taken of U.S. Congressional interns. On one side was Republican Representative Paul Ryan, surrounded by a crowd of white interns, and on the other was a group of Democratic interns, visibly more diverse.

“After chewing on it, I realized it’d be too easy to say one side’s evil and one side’s not evil,” Tu told ivoh in a recent telephone interview. “You know what? All of them are privileged. All these kids, on both sides, whether you’re the Democrat’s interns or the Republican’s, because you knew someone who knew someone.”

This realization — that “to get hooked up, you need to know somebody who’s already hooked up” — was the basis for Tu’s post. He understood that he was perfectly positioned to help other journalists rise up the ladder.

“I am the system,” he said with a laugh, referencing his status as an Ivy League professor. “If I don’t work from within to change the system, what the hell am I doing?”

Of course, Tu was once on the outside himself, the child of Vietnamese refugees. But he doesn’t remember feeling less privileged than his classmates and colleagues. Tu got a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and went on to work in the field for over 20 years.

“I never felt like there was a system working against me, and I think a large part of it was that I was just ignorant to it,” he said.

It was only looking back that he saw how personal connections allowed him to advance. A former professor even helped him land his first teaching gig, he said. “If you’re an individual journalist and you’re grinding through, it’s hard to see that. But once you have this larger kind of bird’s-eye view, it becomes much more obvious, the inequity in newsrooms.”

The number of minorities and women in newsrooms is on the rise, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), but it isn’t increasing fast enough to catch up with the shifting demographics of the U.S. population.

Twenty-three percent of the TV news workforce identifies as a minority. For newspapers, that number is only 17 percent. And in radio, it dropped slightly this year to 9.4 percent.  

The result is a skewed “frame of reference” in American newsrooms, Tu argues. That, in turn, impacts coverage. Tu ticks off a couple recent examples: cases where the black victims of police brutality were depicted as “thugs,” and the media portrayal of Brock Turner, the “Stanford rapist,” as an “all-American boy.”

“There’s countless examples of this, and it’s only because there isn’t another voice in the room,” Tu said. But getting those other voices into newsrooms can be difficult. Tu has often heard the argument that hiring a minority journalist would mean passing over more qualified, white candidates.

“When people speak against diversity, it’s often coded as lack of quality,” he explained. He finds that argument meritless. “Oftentimes, when you do the search for talent, you’re not digging deep enough into that pool.”  

Just through his “Humble Offer” project, Tu says he’s found people with “a wealth of experience that I would have never known of. For me personally, this opens up my Rolodex.”

Since first publishing his “late night post,” Tu has heard from media professionals around the world, even arranging Skype sessions to meet with respondents from Uruguay and Croatia. Some of the people reaching out are young and inexperienced, unsure of how to enter the field. Others are older, trying to figure out how to crack the glass ceiling.

One Monday earlier this month, Tu met face-to-face with several of them, including Joana Toro, the photojournalist from Colombia. He offered to connect her with several foundations and NGOs. Toro left optimistic. In the future, she says she hopes “to be spending less time making day jobs, and more time using my talents.”

After his post, Tu received a lot of support from major news agencies, some of which have volunteered mentorship, advice and even job opportunities. Publications like Vice, the Washington Post and National Geographic have all joined in.

“People are like, ‘How do you have time?’ Well, I would be online anyways. It doesn’t take that long to shoot someone back an email,” Tu said. “It’s not really work if you want to do it.”

Tu admits that he has a personal stake in increasing newsroom diversity, even if that means opening his inbox to a flood of messages. “It’s not really a self-less goal. I actually want journalism to be better,” he said. “When you’re bringing people into this fold, you’re helping an industry that I love dearly, that actually our democracy needs dearly.”

The next step he’s planning is to conduct cost-free workshops for those who can’t afford the “insanely expensive” tuitions of schools like Columbia. Doing so means lining up sponsors and getting more newsrooms onboard, but Tu downplays the challenges. He doesn’t believe in dallying.

“If we wait around for change to come,” he said, “the change may never come.”

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