Ellen McGirt: The impact of AI on Journalism

December 12, 2023

Our final guest of 2023 is Ellen McGirt. Ellen is the Editor-in-chief of Design Observer, a 20-year old media company on a mission to expand the definition of design in the service of a better world. Previously, at Fortune, she established the race and inclusive leadership beat in 2016 with long form features and “RaceAhead,” a daily newsletter on race and inclusion in corporate life and beyond. The column has received a New York Press Club Award for commentary, a National Headliner Award and the Steven Heller Prize for Commentary from the AIGA. Previously she’s written for Money, Time and Fast Company, where she wrote or contributed to more than 20 cover stories and created the digital series “The 30 Second MBA.” Her reporting has taken her inside the C-suites of Meta, Nike, Intel, Xerox and Cisco; on the campaign trail with Barack Obama and across Africa with Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy. Her editorial mission at Design Observer is to bring new voices and new reporting on equity, business, and society, and a new newsletter called Equity Observer. Ellen is part of an extended community of people dedicated to understanding the root causes of inequity in the workplace and working to forge a path toward true inclusion.

- Hello everyone, I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him. Welcome to the next episode of "Here to Help." For accessibility, I will offer a quick visual description. I am a middle aged man with dark-rimmed glasses and wearing a blue sweater. Behind me is a bookcase with a collection of books and LPs. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day, and what powers that mission is people. "Here to Help" is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My guest today is Ellen McGirt. Ellen is Editor-in-Chief of Design Observer, a 20-year-old media company on a mission to expand the definition of design in the service of a better world. Ellen will bring new voices and reporting on equity, business and society, and a new newsletter called "Equity Observer." Previously at "Fortune," Ellen established the race and inclusive leadership beat in 2016 with long-form features, and "raceAhead" a daily newsletter on race and inclusion in corporate life and beyond. The column received a New York Press Club Award for Commentary, National Headliner Award, and the Stephen Heller Prize for Commentary from the AIGA. While at "Fortune," Ellen helped launch and lead Fortune Connect, a global membership community of purpose-driven executives focused on making the world better through business. Previously, Ellen wrote for "Money," "Time," and "Fast Company" where she wrote or contributed to more than 20 cover stories and created the digital series "The Thirty Second MBA." Her reporting has taken her inside the C-suites of Meta, Nike, Intel, Xerox, and Cisco, on the campaign trail with Barack Obama and across Africa with Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy. I was a regular reader of Ellen's "raceAhead" newsletter, and I've had the very distinct pleasure of talking with Ellen on the other side of the microphone on a few occasions at the Culturati Summit, on Fortune's "Leadership Next" podcast, and earlier this year on the stage at South by Southwest. She is a brilliant journalist and interviewer, but her own story is remarkable. So for this final "Here to Help" episode of 2023, I am super excited to turn the tables and get to ask Ellen questions and share that perspective with you all. Ellen, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Chris, it's so wonderful to be here with you and the whole Indeed family. I'm a little nervous if it was anybody else but you. I don't like answering a lot of questions about myself, but I'm happy to be here. And just for accessibility, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a brown-skinned woman having a very good curly hair day. And behind me is also some books and posters that speak to my philosophy of inclusion and hard work.

- Well, I want to spend a little bit of time on what I think of as the Ellen McGirt origin story. It's kind of like a superhero origin story, and there's a bunch of ways to to get to this, but when we were talking last week, I asked one question and that sort of opened up the entire can of worms. So I'll just ask that same question. Tell us about your first job.

- It is a good one and it is a good icebreaker question. My first real job was I was an 11-year-old Avon lady, and that job explains everything about how I got started in life. It just takes me a couple minutes to get there but it's going to be worth it, I promise. So I grew up in a chaotic home and a chaotic time in history, the 1960s and '70s in New York City. It's a wildly diverse neighborhood that now that I really reflect on, it was kind of a miracle that it existed. It was the southern most part of Harlem at the time, now it's really the Upper West Side, but my neighbors included Holocaust survivors and Black Panthers and immigrant families from the Dominican Republic and every kind of person and family and configuration in between. And I loved living there, but my mother was white and my father was Black, and he served in World War II in the segregated Army, came back home, couldn't vote, all of those things that we know in history, migrated up to New York as part of the Great Migration and ended up, the few veterans benefits he could get included education. So he became a social worker and an attorney, and he worked for the Children's Aid Society. And I actually have some news about that, I'm going to tell you later. And the shock of my mother, who's fourth generation New Yorker from an Irish immigrant family marrying a Black man was just too much for my grandmother in particular. So she had done two things, is that she had decreed that nobody else in the family in my extended white family knew who I was, and so I didn't meet my cousins until I was in my 30s. But she also took it upon herself to make sure that I could work as hard as I could to overcome the handicap of being Black and mixed race, which was one of the few things that she and my father shared. He was very worried about me. He thought that my prospects would be limited, excuse me, I could be a nurse or maybe a teacher, but mostly keep my head down. They were on the same page about that, she didn't like my hair. She was worried that if I didn't learn to play golf and tennis, I wouldn't meet good people. So that was sort of the message that I was getting at home. But the big problem was, is that there was, I grew up in a violent home. My father, looking back, I'm not sure what made him blow up so often, but after a decade of really tough violence and near lethal violence from my mom, she and I escaped, and we were sort of couch surfing for a long time. We were adrift for over a year. And she finally got a job and we finally found a little apartment that we could afford in Connecticut. And this is where I get into the Avon lady part. I was 11, in the laundry room, there was a corkboard, with a sign on it from a woman named Renee, who we knew because she was our Avon lady, that she was giving up her route, sort of it was like a paper route. And I had to get up on the washing machine to pull it down, and I brought it to my mom and I said, "I'm going to do this. Like how hard could it possibly be?" And it ended up being such a formative experience for so many reasons. One was, is that the apartment complex that we lived in in Branford, Connecticut was not the kind of place where people whose lives were going well ended up. So back then in the '70s, if you, I mean you needed your Avon lady, like there wasn't easy access to good cosmetics, and you know, the grocery store didn't have them. And the department stores were far away and your Avon lady had free samples and discounts. And I took it on really, and I was a kid, kid, Chris, like, I was small. I was in no way an influencer. I was still playing in the woods behind our house with my friends every day after school. But they took me so seriously. I read all the material, I took all the courses that Avon offered. And I just would call all the customers. I would tell them what was coming and I would pack up their orders and I borrowed a little red wagon and I would deliver it. But as I mentioned, if you lived there, you were in trouble. Like there was a lot of things that were not going well for you, but maybe you were also the kind of person who would use the N word and not think about it or use Jew as a verb without thinking about it. So these were also the mothers of the kids that made the Black kids table in middle school necessary, right? Like this was a tough, chewy environment. And even though I came from a tough home, I did not come from a tough community. So this was new for me. But those women showed up for me, like they knew what I was trying to do. They knew we didn't have enough money. We knew that we didn't have enough furniture, that we knew that I couldn't get school supplies if I didn't have this. And they sat through my demonstrations and they referred me to other people and they accepted my advice and they accepted my discounts. And it was a early, strange, and wonderful lesson in how people who are very different from each other and are sometimes on the wrong side of issues from each other can really get together to do something very simple. And I would've been lost without them at that time in my life. And so now that I write about diversity and inclusion and I think about race and all the stuff that's happening in business, I do remember them and the pathway back to grace, even when issues of race and language and identity are unfamiliar to you. So that's my Avon lady story.

- It's amazing and it does inform a lot of your world for you and what you bring to your stories. So I'd love to, there's this then long and interesting middle part. I'd love to hear a little bit of the story of how you ended up in writing and the sort of that detour along the way that sort of pushed you in this direction.

- It was literally a detour too. It was a very long road trip. I had left school, I went to Brown. I was very lucky. It was a interesting experience. And I had connected with some people who were in the gallery museum business. You know, RISD is there, it's a very sort of artsy town. I was making a very deliberate choice not to join the Reaganomics generation there. Most of my friends went into banking and finance. So I gravitated towards the arts and non-profit work, which is a wonderful experience. But I did always want to be a writer and I didn't always want to just be writing wonderful labels for beautiful artwork. So I decided to take a risk. I had been selling art for quite a while and I ended up accepting a job offer 'cause I'd put it out there that I wanted to do something else. And I decided I wanted to write about or create some sort of media property around women and women in financial safety and financial health. So I accepted a job. I was living in New York at the time with a person who used to buy art from me, who's based in San Diego, who had a brokerage firm, a small brokerage firm, a boutique firm, which is something I thought I was familiar with living in New York with all my friends in finance. And my plan, my nominal plan was I would work there for a couple of years and get fluent in the language of money and investing. I didn't want to go back to school and I would create something. The internet was pretty new and I didn't really have a clear plan after that. But I thought once I had a foundation, I could go from there. Well, I had to fast track my plan because the firm that I joined ended up being so different from what I expected. All my due diligence questions got me nowhere. They were in fact a firm that invested in junior mining stocks, gold stocks, silver, nickel, working through some of the smaller developers around the world and some of the smaller stock exchanges around the world. Some might call them pump and dump. But I think that is a pretty fair description of what it was that I suddenly found myself doing. I'll give you one fun fact for this brown-skinned New York City liberal. Then the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, one of our biggest clients, was that was an amazing thing to discover. And as I'm doing all of this soul-searching and figuring out that this is not, that investing in fact is not that complicated, the kind of thing that I wanted to have conversations with women about, I just went for it. I just started, I worked with some developers, I learned enough coding to be able to get something up there, and I created a five-part series called "Cassandra's Revenge: Women, Wealth and the Ultimate Revenge," which is really just getting yourself up to speed, listening to your inner voice and taking good care of yourself and your family. That was wonderful. And it took off because things took off in the world back then. AOL had created a site for women called Electra. They hired me immediately as a brand new writer about all of this, one chapter ahead of the class to write regular columns for them. And then September 11th happened, and that was sort of the second big soul-searching moment. I had lost a lot of friends in New York, again, so many friends in finance. And I was just beginning my writer's journey and thinking, "My gosh, I have not been to most parts of the country. I don't really know who my fellow citizens are. I don't know how they live. I don't know what they care about. I don't know what they think." So as a brokenhearted writer only will do, I rented a car, I recruited a friend, and then I drove 16,000 miles zigzagging across the country, interviewing people about their lives, what they cared about. We did a gift chain along the way. Just tell me something about you, give me something that represents you and I'll give it to the next person. I got a lot of confidence talking to people who are very, very different from me, which I thought I already knew how to do. But you spend three days snowed into the poorest county in the United States, which was on the Pine Ridge Reservation, you really understand how big and wonderful and strange this country is and the myth that everybody has a voice and everybody has a path. So that was wonderful. But that's exactly how I got into mainstream journalism. I rolled into New York with like $18,000 on my credit card, which is just an unimaginable number for me. No job. I was publishing a little bit as I went and I got a call from a friend who worked at "Money" magazine and I literally just pulled up in front of Time Inc. with my car, just filled with boxes from all around America and just waited until it was my turn to go up and look reliable enough to get a job. And I did. And that was June, 2002. And that was when I entered really the grownup media world.

- There's a lot that happens in there. But then I want to jump ahead to sort of how you, I guess, maybe pulled together your life experience and perspective into what it was that you were writing about. You got a DM in 2015 about an opportunity. Can you tell sort of like leading up to and what that story was and where that led you?

- So I spent six years at "Money" and I overlapped at "Fortune" 2007 at the same time within the bigger Time Inc. And I, again, wanted to start writing about other things. I brought real diversity and diverse voices, diverse stories, diverse people, ideas into everything I did. But I sort of had it with the magazine grind and I was taking some time writing this book, and I got a DM from then the Editor-in-Chief of "Fortune," Cliff Leaf, who has since gone on to do other things, a person I hadn't talked to in seven years, a person I love and trust. But he had a different role at the time. And the question was, do you, "Hey Ellen, how have you been? Any chance you want to write a story about why there's no Black men in the executive ranks in the Fortune 500?" So I was so intrigued and I was very skeptical as Chris, as you know, that this was going to go well, that I was going to become part of a machine, an editorial machine that was nervous about race, or was nervous about how corporate America thinks about race, or how our advertisers think about race and what is it going to be, that it was going to be a bigger battle than I was prepared for. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't. And we did produce a really interesting story. My conditions were that we could only do it if we were willing to examine the systems in place where we lose talented men from birth to C-suite. And that meant school, that meant food, that meant maternal health, that meant the healthcare system, that meant school to prison pipeline. You know, we had to mention all of those things as nodes on a journey that most declarations and new initiatives and board word announcements and recruiting efforts are not prepared to address. And they said yes, it was a sort of a surprising perspective. We couldn't just write about the outliers who've made it through. They don't have as many lessons for us as we might think. And the story went very, very well. But again, I was very suspicious and I was happy I was proven wrong.

- From that story, it sort of changed, I think, what you thought maybe your focus might be, and talk a little bit about how you ended up in the role at "Fortune" and with "raceAhead," and in a time I mean, so you had this beat from, if I'm correct, 2016 to just the beginning of this year, an extraordinary time in this country to be thinking and talking about in a very, very direct and public way, what race in America looks like. How did that transition happen? And talk a little about your experience on that beat.

- I am astonished. I would never have pitched it. I would never have pitched a story about Black men in executive ranks because I'd had bad experiences with Time Inc. in the past. I had mentioned that the "Money" magazine, the world's most boring and most useful and most wonderful personal finance magazine for a long time wouldn't put Black people on the covers because they had research. This was told to me, to my sweet little surprised face, that we had research that said that people don't think Black people are good with money so we can't risk it on the newsstand. Newsstand sales are really important to us. This is sort of pre-internet, but still, these kinds of assumptions and researches are baked into the systems and how we market what we do and how we present what we do. But out of nowhere, the story did so well and it was so emotional and it hit so many notes and it got a conversation going among Black professionals, particularly Black men, who felt for the first time and reported that they felt for the first time that people were seeing their issues and that they were, for all the women's conferences and all this conferences and all this conferences, there was a conversation about the experience of Black men in corporate life that they hadn't heard before. And "Fortune" seemed like a humane business magazine that were really focusing on human issues. It was very gratifying. And so I suddenly, PWC, who I'm will always be grateful for, called up, called through the switchboard and said, "I see this was a wonderful piece. We're interested in race and equity in the workplace. We'd like to underwrite a daily newsletter on race." And I became I think the fifth or sixth newsletter that we started to produce and just, you know, I signed into the back to the WordPress engine and like, that's it. That was it. There I got, there I went. And we had a nominal machine then to produce these newsletters, it's much more robust now. And I just went where I went and I think, so my joke is by the time they noticed what I was writing about, it was like too late. I had a big audience, it was a profit center. We had other advertisers sign on, in a moment of real advertiser courage, we're going to go right in. That said, my first interview was Valerie Jarrett. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president. You know, I thought I thought I had time to sort of develop a philosophy and develop a beat and begin to create the kinds of connections that I needed to. And it was just emergency from the get-go, the rise of Donald Trump's specific version of hate speech, the rise of white grievance that I'm talking about police shootings, I'm talking about violence, the things that I was never prepared for. I don't know that anybody was really prepared for that. It just took me a direction that was so deeply human. And I'm looking forward to recreating some of that with some more people on board at "Equity Observer." But the thing that I will always be most grateful for are the people I discovered who needed this information, who needed to know how to be better at whatever they were trying to be, or who felt seen for the first time, or who were helping me figure out how to talk about psychological safety in the workplace or figure out, talk about how the politics of this is affecting you. There was just nothing that was off limits, even if it took me a minute to figure out how to say it correctly. And I would never have thought that I could join a community already in progress in that way. And I'm enormously surprised and grateful.

- So you started earlier this year as the Editor-in-Chief at Design Observer. Talk a little bit about how you ended up there and what it is that you hope to bring. How do you want to transform this role and what is it going to allow you to do as a journalist?

- You know, I had a small role at a big company and now I have a bigger role in a smaller company that has always been aligned with a bigger view that stakeholders are the way forward, that if you bring different people to the table, we can solve some big problems and have some fun and enjoy the beauty of the world and express ourselves, which sort of marries my earlier experience in the gallery and the museum business and also in non-profits. But I had about a couple of years ago, I was a guest on their podcast "Design of Business, Business of Design." It was like Donny and Marie, I was the business person and it was a wonderful experience. I got to know my now partner. And as we were getting to know each other and getting to know our philosophies, a couple of things occurred to me. One is, as much as I loved and appreciated a lot of my experience in corporate media, there was no amount of work or no amount of attention or awards or relationships that I could make or provide that would ever get me a serious opportunity to lead something. And that's just, it happens to so many of us. And I decided that if I wanted to end my career in a position to have real impact, to work with a team, to lead a team, to develop the voices of other people and to be sort of a safe and useful place, then I was going to have to take a risk. And it took about, it was about a two-year conversation on a regular basis with Jessica Helfand, who was one of the co-founders of "Design Observer." When we decided that not only did we like each other, that we could build something that honored what she had been trying to do for so many years as a practitioner and as an artist and as a journalist. It started as a blogging platform between four friends and just as many people wanted to get on and talk about what they were doing and how the world could be better. They allowed it and they encouraged it, but we could do something interesting. And so I did an assessment of everything I had done in the last seven years, the people I was contacted with, the privilege that I had to have access to powerful people who were doing interesting things, the privilege I had to have access to people who should be more powerful who were doing interesting things, and think, can we stitch something together here? And it was a nice slow burn. And it's not like in the movies where someone taps you on the shoulder and says, "Hey kid, I'm going to make you a star, or throws you the keys to an organization." Like you really have to build it. And it's been a wonderful experience. And as an armchair editor-in-chief for many, many years, it has been both humbling and exhilarating. We're small, but we're mighty. And I'm very excited.

- I want to close by just talking a little bit about what has been clearly, I think the most interesting business story of the last year, which is AI. So I'm curious from your perspective, between the hype and what you're actually seeing right now, like what do you worry about and what do you think the actual impact of generative AI and other forms of AI on journalism looks like and might look like?

- The big picture view of what I'm mostly concerned about and what I continue to be concerned about is the underlying engine around how technology has been created, particularly in the last 20 years. This move fast and break things, which is without any regard for what the actual consequences might be and has never been fully addressed. I am a slow down and understand things person and this, it just feels like we're just, all the things that have created enormous harms to vulnerable people, social platforms with hate and disinformation, a couch surfing app that has upended the housing market, a taxi replacement app that put community safety and labor protections allegedly in the backseat, pardon the pun, all of these same impulses are in place before the technology is viable and ready continues to alarm me. I'm a believer that art and craft and performance and journalism and the things that people make will continue to be valued. You have to continue to find an audience for them, and I think that will make that human thing more valuable. But I agree with you that the bigger issue is always going to be when the broad unified theory, the hype mode of what AI can be, and it can be everything to everyone, who are we going to miss in the mix? And I feel like it's my human journalist job to continue to bring attention to the vulnerable workers who are always being replaced by checkout scanners and call center tech and losing them to the degree to which those were entry level jobs and a gateway to something else, and paying attention to that gateway. I'm very worried about it. And for every application that's doing a great job in detecting hard to detect tumors, which is a wonderful thing that make an actual technician an actual expert, their jobs easier. I'm worried about the people who will never get access to that technology because the technology, the system is not designed for them. The technology won't recognize their skin or their tissue. And to the same degree that we're using the same algorithmic genius to profile people in low-income housing, to profile people in the criminal justice system, which is not a system. So it's moving very fast and it's become everyone's job to ask better questions about how it's going to be applied in your life or what's around you. You don't need to be an expert in the complexity of AI to ask better questions. I'm hoping that this will be a way that we can all pay better attention to how it's unfolding. But I am less worried about me and I'm more worried about the vulnerable people who are being written out of the future of their jobs. We can't new collar people fast enough to overcome what the billionaire class wants to do.

- My final question always is the same. And that is despite everything going on in the world and frankly despite everything that we've been talking about, what is it that leaves you with hope for the future?

- Now that I've gotten some rest, I remain enormously energized by the resilience and the energy of individuals to connect with each other around things that are good. And when they're connecting with each other around things that are not so good, I remain hopeful that they will be able to sort out what the underlying impulses, but connection is good and connection is real. And I resist the call to make it generational. Like the young, the up and coming people don't see color. The up and coming young people don't see this. I don't think that's quite true, but I think that there are people of all ages, of all persuasions, of all shapes from all parts of the world who are looking to connect with each other about the simple joys of doing everything better and bringing more people along. And I think we outnumber the small number of people who want to keep us apart.

- Well, that is a beautiful way to wrap things up. Ellen, this is such a treat. I have so enjoyed every conversation that we've had, but this is a really rare thing to get you to open up the way that you have. And I really appreciate your willingness to do that. And I just want to thank you, thank you for joining us today, but thank you for everything that you do to help everyone who is open and willing to see the world in a different way. And happy New Year.

- Happy New Year.