“Data’s greatest promise is becoming a roadmap of actions that, when completed, result in the actions we want to see,” Stephanie Lievano wrote on INMA this week. For a 2021 roadmap, it will be worth your time to hear Sherrell Dorsey’s keynote, Audience Data: Creating Inclusive Connections to Grow Your Business, at BIMS 2020 Featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit next week.
“I’ll be 100% honest," Dorsey told me recently, "for the work that we do and the coverage we provide for The Plug, the idea of leveraging data to tell stories of what’s happening in the Black innovation economy… is not separate from the discussion of where business and society are going. It is mirroring some of the overlooked information sources that we have relegated out of the mainstream conversation of tech society.”
Dorsey, founder and CEO of The Plug, a distinct, subscription-based digital news platform, has an incredible knack of making the complicated sound fluid, the challenges sound doable. Even better for her audience next Thursday where she will deliver one of the three BIMS 2020 keynotes, Dorsey has an entrepreneurial mindset in a data-educated journalistic background.
“From a data perspective, we try to ask the questions that are not as easily surfaced or easily accessible and try to create accessibility out of that information," she said. "So that means a lot of times we are conducting our own surveys, or having to do information collection almost in a manual capacity.”
This work has led to some viral moments. After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis this summer, Dorsey worked on a project following the statements that big tech companies were making, in support of inclusion and denouncing police brutality and racial injustice.
“We tracked the statements from each company, [who said it], what time, what date, to really just document activity as protests were erupting,” Dorsey said. “And we cross-referenced that with the diversity and inclusion reports that we were able to pull in from [those] companies—to analyze not just what they were saying but what they were doing internally within their company culture. And that information went viral.
“It was the first time that people saw in a transparent way the back end of companies, and having the diversity and inclusion reports centralized in one location was super significant for companies from a leadership context and also for your everyday user and person who looks at these companies as potential employers or even companies that we’ve used or given our money to. That level of measure and accountability was a conversation that we think was long overdue for sure.”
And so from a data perspective, she said, “Transparency breeds accountability, and that truly is the aim of our work—to look at these trends, look at these pieces of information and to make sense of how they are shaping our experiences and how they will shape the future of our society, and how technology covers that as a whole.”
Where this translates into dollars is pretty simple. A company that follows through on its commitments in the diversity and inclusion space will be much better prepared to reach out to diverse customers.
“There has to be a level of congruency to lead as much internally as you purport to lead externally,” Dorsey said. “There has to be great behaviors at home before going out into the world. That is the task of companies today—and leaders today. How do we create a workforce culture that is inclusive, that is belonging, and that helps to shape the kinds of business decisions we make as companies and leaders moving forward.”
Although The Plug focuses on the Black innovation economy, the strategies and journalism put forward can be “a framework for us all,” to quote Dorsey. The Plug’s homepage says: “Our journalists contextualize information, synthesizing art and science, to deliver insights that bring you up to speed on changing ecosystems and interesting markets.”
“My philosophy is that people are looking for depth and community, and they’re reading and subscribing and willing to pay for information and products and services that they find most valuable,” Dorsey said. “As a smaller publication, being in the niche space in which we are, we deliver a value you won’t find elsewhere…
“We believe that good information as well as quality of reporting is central to building a strong product that helps to inform, inspire and even guide some of the decision makers in how they’re making investments or decisions in their places of work.”
Learning to Think Differently
Dorsey attended Columbia grad school for data journalism, so although young, she sat at the data and analytics table before it got overly crowded. But she refused to take too much credit.
“Working for a startup like Uber, and then Google Fiber, data was just part of the work and helped me to think differently about how these things drive business decisions and campaigns,” Dorsey said. “My goal was, How do I apply this to the kind of reporting and news that I want to bring into the world? But overall, the analytics conversation has been decades in the making, and where the Plug has been most innovative is in bringing that data and insights into a space that gets largely overlooked.”
She touched on other areas that publishers must delve into now—general accessibility, the integration of audio, video formats for all. “We’re having to become more expansive and understanding,” she said. “For your smaller team, sometimes [that can be] a challenge to manage and be as considerate. There are some AI tools that can help us get there a bit more. Sharing best practices across the industry, from that identity of inclusion is significant and important. It makes us better as an industry and helps sharpen us as leaders.”
Dorsey hopes that these times are different, that diversity and inclusion will not just be the “flavor of the month”—that society will not simply revert to “regularly scheduled programming”—and she is using her immense data journalism skills and various platforms to propel her work forward.
“It’s unfortunate, quite honestly, that we’re [still] not being intentional about elevating great talent,” she said. “And we’re still blinded by these challenges to see other people as capable and committed despite the work they put in. I think that hurts us overall. We have a long way to go.
“When we talk about the future of journalism and reporting, you don’t see a plethora or even a minutiae of Black, Latinx or native or indigenous publications, which are some of the most underfunded media platforms right now,” Dorsey continued. “We know that the journalism and information space as a whole is looking for spaces for sustainability, so if we don’t have unique and diverse voices in these rooms, how do we know what to solve for? How do we think creatively about the solutions on the table? We decided to go subscription, and create these revenue-generating platforms in order to ensure our survival.”
Hear more about these platforms next Thursday morning by registering for BIMS 2020 today!
Former writer at The Washington Post, publications manager for Washington Redskins and editor at Newspaper Association of America
Specialties: runs a large arts group at www.meetup.com/ArtHouseDC