CAMP 2015: S. Mitra Kalita Keynote

By Casey Hynes, 2015 JAWS Fellow

S. Mitra Kalita takes the stage at Journalism and Women Symposium’s Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP). (Photo by Cassey Hynes)

Figuring out what works — and what doesn’t — to improve diversity in news coverage and newsrooms has been key in the career of Los Angeles Times managing editor S. Mitra Kalita.

Here’s what she’s learned over her career, which includes stops at The Washington Post, Newsday, the Associated Press and Quartz: “There is no path forward for any of us until there is a space for all of us.”

Women and minorities get ahead through “conviction and being professional,” she told a group of about 200 journalists during her keynote, “The Women Feminism Left Behind,” at the 2015 Journalism and Women Symposium Conference and Mentoring Project.

When they do reach positions of power, women must help others in their communities achieve as well, she told the group at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, Mont., for the JAWS 30th anniversary CAMP gathering.

Kalita’s own diversity awakening happened courtesy of the “Boyz n the Hood.” While watching the 1991 movie with a group of fellow Dow Jones diversity interns, Kalita was struck by the character Doughboy’s words on the media after his brother’s murder doesn’t make the news: “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”

Until then, Kalita said, she never saw herself as an “other.” But she realized at that moment that women and people of color constantly look at news stories, at panels and in their immediate surroundings to see if they’re represented. And too often, the answer is that they’re not. She and the other interns resolved to improve representations of diverse communities, but often found that news outlets were more interested in shallow stories about food and festivals.

But now that she’s the boss – Kalita is the managing editor for editorial strategy at The Los Angeles Times – she’s constantly thinking about diversity and how the people she hires will help fulfill her vision of what the news organization should embody five years from now.

“I think the way forward is going to be our talent,” she said.

She also discussed her approach to metrics, which is to look at both the stories that are getting millions of hits and those that perform less spectacularly. She views this as an opportunity to better package the stories that don’t play well so that they resonate with the paper’s audience.

She also spoke to the importance of mentorship and said women should have at least one male mentor – “or at least a salary buddy to know what men are being paid.”

Kalita shared that “there is no work-life balance in our house” for her and her husband, artist Nitin Mukul. That’s why Mukul and their two daughters had front-row seats to her CAMP keynote. They blend their professional passions and family time. “Our work is our life,” she said.

Some JAWS women expressed skepticism about this approach and asked Kalita if she expects her staff to adopt the same mentality.

Kalita said she knows that she sets the example for her team. She assures them that she doesn’t expect emails answered at all hours and sees the work-life question as an individual one.

“I do work a lot. I also live a lot,” she said. “It’s important that people see I have a life with my family that has a lot to do with my journalism and how I cover our great city.”