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For media organizations to change, equality needs to be a keystone habit

Like many in the media industry, Digiday Media is celebrating Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the last U.S. state outlawing slavery. Ideally, the day will serve as more than an early summer three-day weekend. Ideally, the newfound commitment to diversity and inclusion, equality and opportunity, will outlast this moment, when inevitably protests and passions cool off and attention turns to the next catastrophe — or the ongoing battles with coronavirus and debates over restarting the economy — or the presidential election in November. 

Media companies will be tested in their resolve and whether they’ll do the hard work needed to enact lasting change in an industry where too long progressive words haven’t matched up with retrograde practices. As I wrote last week, whether management likes it or not, younger staffers in particular will not wait patiently any longer. Agencies and publishers will need to face the music and release their diversity statistics, warts and all. Media companies will need to deal forthrightly with not just their hiring practices but also with pay inequality. 

Look no further than Condé Nast, once the byword for the pampered life of publishing. Former Condé execs love to tell stories of the good old days of a BMW delivered to the parking garage across the street after a promotion (no payments needed), a mortgage on a vacation home forgiven, clothing allowances. Sure, the rank and file didn’t get those outlandish perks, but the Condé cafeteria was media glamor. Now, Condé staffers are in open revolt. A salary spreadsheet attracted hundreds of entries. 

Like the #MeToo movement, more companies will be swept up in this moment. We have published a story today about issues employees have dealt with at Digital Trends. The danger is companies will become defensive, turning to lawyers to fight tooth and nail on the bills of particulars, rather than taking the needed wakeup call that change has to happen from within — and start with listening.

The New York Times is forming the typical councils and will also produce a report on diversity and inclusion within its newsroom and reporting. The hope is this will be a galvanizing examination in the way the self-critical innovation report of 2014 led to real change within the organization.

Like most things, the debate on action has tended to gravitate to tactics. There were the presentation layer changes, from statements to blacked out Instagram squares to copy editing changes to capitalize Black when referring to race to, yes, making Juneteenth a holiday. These matter. Symbols are important. But the protests are grounded in structural issues, by definition harder to tackle in a meaningful way. 

That’s why diversity and pay audits are critical. Businesses certainly have an important role to play in narrowing this gap between the meritocratic ideals we espouse and the lived reality for many minorities. Moves like the Supreme Court’s surprising ruling outlawing discrimination based on sexual preference make big dents, but more needs to be done on the everyday level, where businesses can make a difference. 

My belief is that for this moment to be more than a moment media businesses need to come to see equality and opportunity as business challenges. Otherwise, “D&I” will be a lot of window dressing. The business challenge is the worrying inequality gap that’s been allowed to fester in businesses, with an outsized portion of the gains over the decades accruing to the top end of companies and to investors versus workers. That’s why we see staff in open revolt at many companies. The trust is gone between the rank and file and the leadership, and it’s caught the leaders by surprise and led to the furious backpedaling we’ve seen over the past few weeks. 

If media companies truly want to make real progress, they’ll embrace equality and opportunity as keystone habits. Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” recounts how Paul O’Neill turned around Alcoa in the late 1980s by narrowing his focus on worker safety. O’Neill was obsessive about making Alcoa the safest company in the world. Safety was imbued in every practice throughout Alcoa. Meetings would begin with a review of the emergency exits nearby. Alcoa did become the safest company, and its productivity and results were far greater.

This is the approach media companies need to take. So measurement is critical to any business challenge. That’s the only way improvement can be measured and accountability baked in. Then, like O’Neill at Alcoa, companies need to examine everything they do, from hiring to pay to retention to promotion to coverage, with equality and opportunity as a keystone habit. It would be a shame if this time of reflection, brought on by pain and injustice, would be squandered.

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