Kary Perez, Chalkbeat’s senior marketing manager, introduces Chalkbeat’s chief people officer
News organizations are not known for their investments in human resources. Performance reviews and professional development efforts are sporadic at best, and HR professionals often fall into the category of compliance police. In December 2019, Chalkbeat hired its first-ever chief people officer (CPO), a leadership team position at the same level as editor in chief and chief revenue officer. The principle behind the move was simple — a recognition that Chalkbeat’s people are its most valuable asset and that in creating a people-first culture, the organization will flourish.
Here we get to know Jennifer Bramble, Chalkbeat’s first-ever CPO.
Tell me about your role as CPO at Chalkbeat.
Taking care of people means everything from providing basic employee needs, such as competitive salaries and benefits, to more nuanced efforts such as ensuring entry-level employees have a voice and are treated with the same level of respect as more senior colleagues.
Chalkbeat has a unique networked structure, with bureaus in eight different states and a national desk. That can be a challenge, since each location has its own identity while adhering to the same organizational values and standards. Part of my role is to be intentional about creating one unified culture, where each Chalkbeat employee is held accountable to the same standards of behavior and cultural values.
Most recently you worked at a school district in Virginia, and before that your experience was in health care nonprofits. What do you find is the same and different about a newsroom?
The longer I work in my field, the more I realize at the end of the day people are people. And organizations share common themes and challenges, no matter their discipline. Here’s one: the tendency to become siloed and not focus on cross-functional lines of communication. Another challenge I’ve encountered at Chalkbeat is one I’ve dealt with at every job: strong performers being promoted to leadership positions without necessarily being provided with the training or tools to be successful in leading other people.
One difference about working with a newsroom is that journalists have a deeper level of commitment to their craft. Journalism is a calling rather than a job that people stumble into. I have to honor that.
As CPO, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are a major focus of your work. Could you tell me about steering Chalkbeat’s DEIB efforts?
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DEIB has always been part of Chalkbeat’s work, both internal and external. But Chalkbeat wanted to be more intentional about equity and inclusion, and decided to hire a CPO who would oversee DEIB efforts. To have someone whose job is focused specifically on DEIB makes it that much more meaningful for the organization. It’s not just virtue signaling.
Before I joined, well-meaning employees came together to create a DEIB task force, but it was an aside to everyone’s day-to-day work. Having a professional on the leadership team with DEIB in their portfolio means it’s no longer a tangential initiative.
DEIB plays a major role in how we think about recruitment and hiring at Chalkbeat. According to Pew Research Center data, 77% of newsroom employees are white and 61% are men. Expanding the team at Chalkbeat means hiring staff from newsrooms where these old-school cultural dynamics still exist. Dynamics such as managers and editors reinforcing a top-down organizational structure where women and marginalized groups are hired simply to beef up diversity numbers, and power rests in the hands of white males.
We know that simply hiring non-white journalists is not the answer. We are making every effort to strengthen Chalkbeat’s culture by adding diversity at every organizational level, starting with our board of directors and our leadership team.
What do you think people might find surprising about your role?
I am much more than compliance police. I help people navigate thorny issues. My job involves supporting folks because of where we are as a society today: the civil unrest, the pandemic. A lot of people are struggling. Folks are struggling, and it’s real, and it’s happening very quietly. A lot of my job involves giving people support, and if I can’t support them myself, I can direct people toward resources.
Being Chalkbeat’s CPO is about lifting people up and enabling them to do their best work by creating an environment that supports them in doing that.