Dutch startup supports women of color in investigative journalism

by Linda A. Thompson
Jan 13, 2020 in Diversity and Inclusion
Woman typing

Like in many other European countries, women of color are sorely underrepresented in newsrooms in the Netherlands. According to a study by the country’s public broadcaster NRC, 94.6% of salaried journalists working in local newsrooms in 2018 were white.

Many women minority journalists who do work for major news outlets do so as op-ed contributors, says Hadjar Benmiloud, a Dutch journalist and media entrepreneur, with experience working for many leading publications. “Of course, you don’t want them not to be allowed to do this,” she explains. “But it’s an unhealthy mechanism that people of color are constantly placed in the op-ed section.”

Last May, Benmiloud launched Vileine Academy, an initiative that seeks to give women of color a real seat at the table in newsrooms as investigative journalists.

Participants in the seven-month training program attend weekly master classes that cover everything that goes into completing a successful investigative project – from formulating a winning research question, to using open-source intelligence tools and protecting sensitive information. The master classes are given by seasoned veterans, many of them journalists of color, who also serve as mentors to the students. 

The women also participate in weekly coaching sessions with Benmiloud, and complete four-month traineeships at a Dutch news outlet where they carry out their own investigative projects. The participating news outlets funded the students’ training at a cost of EUR6,500 per participant, and received free consulting from Benmiloud on their newsroom inclusivity strategy. Next year, Benmiloud said, the funding model will be tweaked because the EUR6,500 price tag did not sufficiently cover the project costs.

The goal behind Vileine Academy is to produce nimble investigative and data journalists who can hit the ground running from day one of their traineeships. It’s also to build the kind of self-reliance and resourcefulness that helps young graduates carve out a durable place in the newsroom. “That way they can say: ‘Hey, this thing is important; we can approach it in X way. Give me two weeks and I’ll do it,’” Benmiloud explains.

Vileine Academy grew out of Benmiloud’s own experiences, who confesses that she spent a lot of time trying to meet undefined expectations as a young journalist. 

“I drove myself completely crazy by trying to fit in, and trying to prove that I was allowed to be somewhere,” she says, “instead of thinking about what I really wanted to do.” She attributes her existential workplace discomfort to tacit race and class dynamics. 

With just five students and two news outlets — daily newspapers Trouw and de Volkskrant — participating in Vileine Academy in 2019, the pilot program was small in scope. But four of the five students were hired by the news outlets where they completed their traineeships, making Vileine Academy a promising model for organizations interested in incremental, but impactful, responses to the lack of diversity in newsrooms. (The one student who didn’t land a job was a freelancer who joined the programme part-time, and who fell ill during the course of the academy.)

Helping members of underrepresented groups break into newsrooms is one thing, but creating an environment that makes them want to stick around is an even bigger challenge, Benmiloud says. It’s precisely why, every week of the program, she checks in with students through their coaching sessions and gauges whether they are producing the kind of work they want to, whether they are finding their way around the newsroom and what obstacles are getting in their way. 

“All these practical, and slightly less practical, things – I think it’s really important to ask people about them because these are precisely the things that often prevent people from succeeding somewhere in the long term,” she says, adding that she also prods news organizations to make changes when necessary based on students’ feedback.

In 2020, Vileine Academy will double in size, welcoming two classes of five students – one will kick off in April, the other in July. Discussions are also ongoing to expand the initiative by launching in another European country, making some of the masterclasses available online, and/or setting up an international exchange program.

The work of the students in the class of 2019 has created waves. Two students, Semina Ajroviç and Sarah Haddou, launched a new data journalism format that has become a fixture of the Saturday edition of de Volkskrant paper, while Iffet Subasi’s investigation into the Netherlands’ children’s pardon gained major political attention. This is a Dutch measure that allows the children of migrants who’ve been refused asylum to apply for a residency permit if they’ve been in the Netherlands for more than five years. Subasi’s investigation brought to light that many families who qualified for the pardon were not able to afford the application fee. 

With these types of outcomes, and with the academy’s overriding focus on journalistic excellence, Benmiloud hopes to nip any discussions about preferential treatment in the bud. “This isn’t about favoring some people over others, because the danger is that outsiders will see it like that. No, this whole thing is about quality, and about adding perspectives and knowledge that are really needed,” says Benmiloud, pointing out that newsroom diversity initiatives are still a fairly new undertaking in the Netherlands. 

“To me,” she adds, “the biggest success of Vileine Academy is that two of the five graduates are making more money today than I ever did in a newsroom just because they have the skills [and] the knowledge, and they deserve that salary. Done.”

Robin Goudsmit, one of the participants from last year, joined Trouw as a full-time, salaried journalist after completing her Vileine traineeship with the Dutch newspaper. For her, the biggest value of the program was that it introduced her to a cohort of people who provided inspiration and support. 

“In tough industries, in ones where there is a lot of competition, in ones with traditional power relations – as in, spaces that aren’t very diverse – it’s really important to have a peer group,” she said. “You’re all starting out. It’s scary, it’s thrilling, it’s exciting and, in our case, we all had non-white backgrounds. And then you have a space in your life where you can talk about everything that’s going on without constantly having to explain how things work. We only needed a couple of words to understand each other.”

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via WOCinTech chat.

An earlier version of this story said the cost per participant was EUR5,000. It has been updated to reflect the correct cost.