We had the opportunity to speak with Nisha Chittal, the engagement editor at Vox.com, one of the most well-known outlets for explanatory journalism. Her background in social media and digital strategy extends from working at marketing agencies, freelancing for numerous publications, and managing the social media team at MSNBC, before ultimately landing in her current role of leading the audience engagement team at Vox. She spoke about her experience creating her own opportunities in a field that was largely uncharted at the time. Chittal also has her own weekly newsletter. Nisha spoke to The Power Thread about her advice for journalists of color and where she thinks journalism is headed in the future.
What is your background? How did you get started in journalism?
I grew up in Naperville, Illinois, the Chicago suburbs. And I was always really interested, from an early age, in politics. I majored in political science in college and I knew I wanted to do something with politics, but I didn’t quite know what that was yet, and I realized in college that I really enjoyed writing— I was always a person who, if you could choose between writing a 10 page paper for your final or taking an actual exam, would bang out the paper. I realized I really enjoyed that, and this was when blogging was still pretty new and social media was not quite a thing yet. I started a blog, and I got into the blogger community, and then I started doing some freelance writing. I actually never wrote for my college paper. I did apply once for a columnist position, which I thought would have been perfect for me, but I got rejected. Realizing I still wanted to write somewhere, I had to find my own way to do that. The more pieces you get, the more clips you have. And then you can go from writing for like a small time blog to writing for slightly bigger and slightly bigger name sites. At one point I started working for a political blog during the 2008 election called CitizenJane Politics. I wrote a ton of daily news blog posts, like short news items, for that site throughout the 2008 election.
Around that time, people were starting to do social media a little bit more. I told my editor, “I think we should be on social media. That is what a lot of blogs and publications are doing now. It’s a good way to interact with your readers and your audience and hear directly from people who are reading your work.” And so she said, “Sure, go ahead.” No one thought of strategies or things like that at that time. She gave me the free range to go ahead and do it. And I learned a lot about how you engage with readers and how you build an audience and engage that audience and that was super interesting to me. At that point, I was writing for political blogs and wanted to be a political journalist. I graduated in spring 2009, right after the recession, and there really weren’t a lot of journalist jobs. I remember job hunting during my senior year and there were basically no reporting positions.
I realized that I had developed a whole new skill set with managing social platforms for the site that I had worked for, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a whole skill set that people actually wanted to hire for. I ended up going to work for a digital marketing agency, where I did social media management for a bunch of different clients. I ran Twitter and Facebook accounts for them, wrote analytics reports, and helped try new experiments on these platforms. It was a great first job and I learned a lot, but I knew that my heart wasn’t in marketing. That was never for me. I wanted to be a journalist, and I kept up my freelance writing outside of work. I worked there for two years, and then I got a job as a social media manager at the Travel Channel. I saw it as a step in the right direction. I also worked there for about two years and I learned a lot, but it still wasn’t in news, which is where I really wanted to be.
After that, I was able to take all of that experience and get a job as social media editor at MSNBC where I worked for three and a half years and became a leader of the audience engagement team. I also started to broaden my scope beyond just social media because today, I think that social media is far from the only way to reach and engage audiences. There are a lot more ways to do that in 2020.
In my current job, I lead the audience engagement team Vox.com. Vox, to me, felt refreshing because of their approach to explaining the news. There’s so much news out there. When I worked in cable news, it was a constant flow of breaking news coming at us, inundating us all the time. And it was a lot to manage, especially on the social team. I really liked Vox’s more thoughtful approach, which is that we’re not necessarily going to be first to every story and report on every incremental news development that happens every day, but we’re going to focus on taking a step back and taking the longer view and explaining the big things the audience really needs to know.
What steps do you think helped you the most to getting where you are in your career today?
One thing is creating your own opportunities if you feel like you’re running up against institutional roadblocks. When I got rejected from my college paper, I knew I still wanted to be a writer so I started a blog and wrote on the internet instead. Once I developed a relationship with other bloggers, I could go write guest blogs for them. Then I could freelance write for other places online because I could show them samples of my writing from my blog. I think creating your own opportunities is really important these days because it’s a competitive job market and it’s harder to get noticed. Creating your own pathway is sometimes a better route than trying to break into the established, old-school industry.
What do you think are the best strategies for connecting and engaging with an audience?
To build your voice, you have to have something to say. That goes for really any platform. You have to have a point of view and something to say. I think it’s about what you want to use your voice to say, and being able to say that concisely and in an interesting way and in a compelling way that people want to listen to. A second point is consistency. I see a lot of people who start a newsletter and then abandon it after two weeks because life got away from them, or they didn’t have time or they weren’t seeing immediate return. It takes time and patience to build an audience; you have to be in it for the long game. It takes patience, it takes time. You have to be consistently creating some kind of content, whatever the platform is that you’re on. Whether it’s a newsletter or Instagram or Twitter, you should be consistently creating content and saying something and putting something out there. And that’s a huge draw for people to follow you. They’re not going to follow somebody who isn’t active anymore. You have to be patient in terms of growth, because growth doesn’t happen overnight.
Do you have any advice for other women of color interested in journalism?
Publish online through newer non-traditional platforms. When I hire people, I always look for writing samples or work samples. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be from a traditional outlet. I don’t necessarily care if you had an internship at a prestigious outlet. But I want to see that you have done the work and are a good writer, video producer, social media manager, etc. I don’t think you need to go through gatekeeper-y traditional outlets to get experience; as a young person, I would look at non-traditional platforms, creating your own platforms, putting your work out into the world in whatever way you can and showing that you have the passion and the skills. It’s totally fine to be a self taught video producer— if you can create interesting things and put them on YouTube, that is definitely something that I think hiring managers are always interested in.
I also think there are a lot of resources and communities online now for journalists of color and so I think connecting with other people is really important. Finding that support network will be really, really helpful to you in breaking into the industry and growing your career in the industry. You need to develop your network. And developing your network to me doesn’t just mean people who are important executives that you ask out for coffee once a year, but having a network of your peers too is really helpful. That’s a good place to find out about jobs and find people who can help make intros for you to certain companies – it’s a great way to connect with other people in the industry.
What does being powerful mean to you?
Power comes in a lot of different forms. You don’t necessarily have to have a big job title in order to have power. You can have influence without necessarily being the most senior person in the room, and I think that especially can be challenging when you’re young and you feel that you don’t have a lot of power because you’re one of the more junior employees. I think there are still ways to have influence. You can be the person who organizes things or the person who project-manages things or the person who pitches ideas that are really good and people listen. There’s a lot of other different ways to lead and to have power and influence that aren’t necessarily about being a CEO.. I think that the trick for a lot of young women is thinking about what are those sort of creative ways that you can expand your influence, even if you don’t have a senior job title.
What do you think the future of digital journalism will look like?
I’m trying to be optimistic, but I’m a little bit nervous about the industry. Especially with the pandemic right now. I’m sure you’ve seen that lots of digital media companies have had layoffs, and that is really unfortunate because I feel like we need good journalism now more than ever. A lot of companies are struggling to find a business model that can sustain that. I think there’s a lot of urgency to figure out business models. Advertising alone is not keeping a lot of media companies afloat, so they need to diversify and figure out e-commerce and events, which were put on hold because of the pandemic.
But in terms of the actual journalism, the product, one thing I’m actually heartened by and find encouraging right now is there are a lot of conversations happening about how we make newsrooms more diverse and also how we make our news coverage reflect the diverse communities that we cover. Newsrooms have historically been dominated by white men and news coverage often reflected the perspective of white men. I think in this moment, a lot of journalists of color have spoken out about the racism they’ve experienced in newsrooms; they’ve talked about being overlooked or being harassed or all different kinds of things. And there’s really been this sort of public reckoning for the media industry. Some media executives have had to step down as a result and, with a lot of companies, it feels like they’re finally listening and trying to make a change and trying to make their staff more diverse and also make their coverage more diverse in the types of stories they tell and the communities they cover. I think that’s really exciting. It’s long overdue, but I’m glad it’s happening now. I think it’s increasingly important to the future of journalism— journalism is not going to survive if it only speaks to one narrow subset of Americans. I think companies will be much more successful if the people who shape our coverage look more like the people that we are covering and the people we are writing for.