Lessons from Katie

Katie Hawkins-Gaar’s contributions to journalism go beyond The Cohort newsletter. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The newsletter appeared near the top of my inbox, as it always does, on a Thursday every couple of weeks. Yet, the particular edition of this newsletter was special, as it signaled the passing of the baton, and allowed for an opportunity to pause and to reflect on the important work by its author.

I refer to The Cohort, the newsletter written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar of The Poynter Institute. Katie announced this week that she is leaving Poynter on December 15, and that edition of The Cohort, the 42nd one, was the last she would write.

While Katie isn’t going too far (she is going to continue the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, under contract with Poynter among many things), her contributions to journalism and understanding its future has been quintessential, not just for the general industry, but for the people who work in it.

The idea for The Cohort came during the review of applications for the second Academy initiative, according to Kristen Hare, her colleague and editor of The Cohort. Katie wanted to do something for the women that weren’t selected to the Academy.

It was clear straight away that the Academy initiative was in good hands, Hare says, as it was a perfect fit for her skills and talent. Yet, Katie wanted it to be more than that, and wanted everyone to benefit, whether or not they were selected.

“She wanted to bring as many people to the party as possible,” Hare said in a telephone interview. “It was meant to be a way to share what was learned at [the Academy] and it very quickly transformed into this ongoing conversation and support group for women on how to thrive and survive in digital media.”

Samantha Ragland, Manager of Digital Entertainment Strategy for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, was part of the 2016 Women in Leadership Academy class, and says that while Katie knew The Cohort was going to be big, her focus was on one-on-one – making it feel like it was just you and her.

“That woman is a light,” Ragland said in a telephone interview. “It is a light that does not intimidate other people, but inspires. She’s bright. She’s humble.”

Katie’s work however goes beyond The Cohort. In addition to her work as Digital Innovation Faculty she also was one of the people behind the 40 Better Hours initiative, in order to create a better working environment in newsrooms. Hare says that a key lesson from her was about process.

“She is really good at not just building but how to do it – this whole idea that anyone can work smart if you follow a process,” Hare said. “She’s really devoted to helping people figure out processes that make work and life better.”

Hare says that transparency and integrity also stand out with Katie – things that have fit in with the recent conversations surrounding sexual harassment allegations against prominent men in journalism, and how newsrooms respond to it.

When the news of her departure emerged, there were many in the industry (this writer included) that were shocked to hear this. Hare said she had three reactions.

“As editor of The Cohort, I am devastated for that audience because I know that she has a voice that will be impossible to replace,” Hare said. “As a co-worker, I’m lost because she is one of those people who just makes the place better and brighter. As a friend, I’m confident that she is doing the right thing. Her intuition is never wrong. I get the added bonus of having her in my life.”

Despite the concerns, Hare knows Katie’s work at Poynter will be a part of the legacy that she has in enhancing journalism – letting voices be heard.

“Her impact is giving a voice to The Cohort – her lasting legacy still will be amazing,” Hare said.

Ragland says involving as many people as possible and her impact on a number of women in journalism will also be a part of it.

“She reaches behind and brings people up with her,” Ragland said. “Katie set a standard for women in leadership. More and more women are going to feel an opportunity and see opportunities to mobilize and to uplift other women in media. That is going to be an important part of her legacy. The last thing is for us to go backwards. We want to go forward.”

Katie has helped journalism go forward in abundance, but also has given us a necessary reminder of why we need voices like Katie in order for the industry to survive. For Elite Truong, a product manager at Vox Media, Katie’s work is about connecting journalists and making them feel welcome. She makes people feel that they aren’t alone, be it through her writing and otherwise, and Truong says helping people to be better is a part of her legacy.

“It wouldn’t be what it is without Katie,” Truong said.

Katie had one goal in mind with all of this work – to help people to be at their best. That remains a necessary goal in an age where journalism continues to evolve, and how we make sense of its evolution. This was emphasized not just in the work she has done at Poynter, but a message she emphasized in interviews, including one she gave to me for Twin Cities PBS earlier this year. She cares about journalism and its people, and knows how much of a difference it can make, and is not afraid to make that known.

Last year, I argued that Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water in English) was an analogy for journalism. The composition, written based on the speed of ocean water, was a metaphor for the changes journalism was going through, but no matter how far those changes went, journalism would still be a constant.

Based on the conversations I had today and what I’ve heard, I’ll argue that the analogy applies to Katie’s work, in that no matter the changes that are ahead, or the answers that come from the debate on what journalism will be like – her support and her work will always remain a constant to continue to make journalism stronger.

So, here’s to you Katie. Thank you for being the supporter journalism needs more than ever. Thank you for being an idol, showing us that authentic and meaningful things can be done. Yet, most of all, thank you for being journalism’s friend.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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