How the Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force Used Focused Listening

by Emily Poole


During the summer of 2016, The Tennessean introduced the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, a group open to the entire newsroom that tries to tackle the issue of diversity by speaking honestly about newsroom blind spots. The task force ensures that The Tennessean is accurately reflecting the demographics and needs of its community in its coverage and newsrooms. In addition, the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force also hosts focused listening events at The Tennessean to better understand, connect with, and cover diverse community groups. From these focused community listening events, the task force learns directly from the community about where the coverage is lacking. So far, the task force programming has talked to young American Muslims, gun owners, and veterans.


Project Goals: According to David Plazas, Opinion and Engagement Editor of the Tennessean, was responsible for forming the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, the project “seeks: 1) to add diversity meaningfully in coverage, the language we use and how we engage our community; 2) to act as a sounding board for concerns and ideas regarding how the newsroom fulfills No. 1; 3) to provide recommendations on relevant standards and policies; and 4) to champion diversity efforts throughout the newsroom.” Plazas says the main project goal was to use focused listening events to learn how to create “an open environment that values people of different backgrounds and points of view.” To ensure that those goals would be met, the task force concentrated on self-reflection: “One of the keys to our success is about really speaking honestly about what are your blind spots?” David said. “Our monthly meetings are mostly about talking about the coverage of stuff that’s working and what’s not–Are we listening to certain groups?” The task force gets direct responses to these questions at the focused listening events.

Tools and Technology: The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force did not use Ground Source or Hearken but plans to use those technologies with future projects. “I would like to go in that direction, of using more technology, but we haven’t been that active,” Plazas said. The Tennessean used social media platforms to promote their project and provide a medium for feedback and conversation. According to Plazas, Facebook has been the most effective form of community engagement, but The Tennessean also used Twitter and Instagram to announce and showcase their projects.

Impact: The impact of the task force manifested in many ways.

  • The task force’s subsequent news articles received a lot of attention. “I’ll sometimes write columns. I wrote a piece about gun owners and got many thousands of page views and that was one measure of engagement, one measure of success,” said Plazas. “The measurements are more qualitative than quantitative.”Another way to measure the attention generated by the task force is through their recognition from the American Press Institute (API). “Our efforts were documented in an article I wrote at the request of the American Press Institute. The API was very pleased with our work and held a national listening summit at The Tennessean,” said Plazas. “The fact that the American Press Institute chose The Tennessean to host its summit on Tuesday was a big deal because it was a validation of the fact that our efforts are having some significance.”
  • The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force sparked community interest and engagement. Community members called newsroom staff wanting to be a part of the conversation, especially when the conversation topics reflected marginalized community groups. When it came to formal events, one measure of success is that all the available seats are filled and the weight lists are full.
  • The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force addressed the issue of diversity in the newsroom. Plazas said the coverage at The Tennessean needs to reflect the community, but so does the newsroom itself. The black population in Nashville is around 30 percent, and David shared that the percentage of black employees at The Tennessean is less than that. The Tennessean is actively working with the Tennessee Student Journalism Collective, an organization that links student journalists from Tennessee State and Fisk University, which are historically black colleges, and Vanderbilt and Lipscomb University to work on projects together. “That’s one way we are able to hopefully create a future pipeline for work and success, “Plazas said.

Organization Background: The Tennessean is the second largest daily newspaper in Tennessee and is the only newsroom in Tennessee with a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. Plazas says The Tennessean reaches 55 percent of the digital market in the Nashville area.

Project Resources: The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is comprised of Tennessean journalists who agreed to dedicate more of their time to the diversity cause. The additional time required to sustain the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force includes a monthly, hour-long meeting and one-to-two hours for each focused listening session. “It’s not insignificant, but at the same time it’s not daunting,” said Plazas about the staff time going into the task force. “There is so much in the work that we do in the Diversity Task Force that is relevant to a lot of the work we are doing on housing and civility. So, it makes for a nice intersection, so that things blend in and it’s not just an outlier.” The extra effort put into the task force doesn’t stop the momentum of Tennessean journalists: It creates building blocks for the journalists to use outside of the task force. The Diversity and inclusion Task Forces hosts in-house programming. The finding needed for the task force to host community events comes from The Tennessean, a commercial publication that makes money from advertising and subscriptions.

Here’s how it happened

After attending a conversation on diversity hosted by the American Press Institute at Temple University, Plazas and his boss, Michael A. Anastasi, wanted to apply their learnings at The Tennessean. With support from his boss, Plazas formed the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. The first group that the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force carefully listened to was young American Muslims in March 2017. The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force was able to synthesize all the information gathered from focused listening and not only write about the event but use what they learned from the young American Muslims to change their future coverage on the Muslim community. As Plazas writes in his article, “One important takeaway was that our guests want journalists to cover them not just when Islam makes the news, because of a terrorist attack or vandalism at a mosque, for example, but in everyday stories on education, transportation and housing.” The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force then met with gun owners in June 2017 and with veterans in March 2018. The task force’s goal for the rest of this year is to host three more community listening sessions, with hopes to meet with disenfranchised voters in partnership with Lipscomb University.

Here’s what worked

1. Create a model that is sustainable

Before anything else, creating and adopting a formal strategy is crucial to maintaining diversity efforts. David Plazas says that most diversity efforts fail or fade away because they are seen as someone else’s problem, so he made the issue of diversity the Tennessean’s problem. All members of the task force constructed, approved and adopted a strategy that would outline their responsibilities and hold them accountable. The task force’s strategy is designed so if David, the chief champion, were to leave, the task force could still sustain their diversity efforts, and someone else could transition to the Champion position without disrupting the task force’s momentum.

2. Listen to all communities

The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force worked hard to select diverse community groups to listen to and learn from. Through the focused listening sessions, the task force was able to connect with and understand their target audiences, and incorporate their findings into the reporting they do. From each community group so far, the task force has learned where their coverage is lacking from the affected community members themselves. When speaking with gun owners, the task force learned that the gun owner community feels that the only coverage they get is when there is a mass shooting or when someone improperly uses a firearm. The gun owner community would like to see more positive coverage to balance all the negative, which gives the task force insight into the future coverage of gun owners.

3. Create excitement

The Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force started off small and had big ideas. Now, the size of the group has nearly doubled and their ideas are bigger and better. The growth of the group helps validate the task force’s efforts and allows for more ideas to be brought to the Tennessean table. With the success of the task force, more people want to be involved and be a part of that success. When formal events are hosted, the seats are filled and the waitlist is full. Another way to measure the excitement generated by the task force is through their recognition from the American Press Institute. “The fact that the American Press Institute chose The Tennessean to host its summit on Tuesday was a big deal because it was a validation of the fact that our efforts are having some significance,” Plazas said.

Here’s what could work have worked better

1. Be visible

Plazas shared how the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force started off as a core group of journalists “that seemed to be the secret group and we didn’t want to be that.” By the end of the first year, it was more known and seen as something that others could be a part of. “We don’t just want the core group to be there. We want all our journalists there,” Plazas said.

2. Priorities can change

The task force hoped to host four community listen events last year, in 2017, but was only able to host two. Speaking for himself, Plazas shared that with staffing changes and the “**Costs of Growth and Change in Nashville” series taking off, priorities shifted and too many things got in the way. “Sometimes these are things you can foresee,” Plazas added.

3. Think about partners early on

The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force has recently opened the door to partnerships. As a new project, the task force wasn’t sure what direction they wanted to go or where they were going to end up. “A lot of it was just one of those learning points. We were just navigating through new waters and we weren’t sure,” said David. With more time to develop the project, it was easier for the task force to see where they were headed and who would be a good partner. Now, the task force has a partnership with Lipscomb University, with hopes to engage with disenfranchised voters. The Tennessean is a partner of Tennessee Student Journalism Collective. The task force hopes their partnership with the collective will lead to more newsroom diversity.

Here’s what else you should know

  • A strategy is important: Write on paper what your mission is. Ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish? What are your values? When you do, make sure it is agreed upon. “It holds people accountable,” Plazas said.
  • Backing from top leadership: Having support and direct access to top leadership is very important. David suggests that the top editor doesn’t need to always be in the room, but knowing they have access to the editor and have his or her support shows commitment. Backing from top leadership also helps keep people on task and focused on the project’s agenda.

Learn More

To learn more about this project, send David Plazas an email, say hi on Twitter, or subscribe to The Tennessean’s newsletter.