NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The weekend conference in Music City USA included some fun – loud music, hot chicken, cold beers and even a dramatic overtime victory for the NHL Nashville Predators.  

But this was no ordinary weekend, nor was this a normal conference. 

The December weekend included a sobering film in the Nashville Library’s Civil Rights Reading Room and a foot-tapping, thought-provoking stop at the National Museum of African American Music. There were lively discussions about the 50th anniversary of Title IX, five nervous speakers and a parade of experts talking about everything from sports journalism hiring and deciphering reader analytics to becoming a newsroom leader. 

For five sports journalists, it was a once-in-a-career chance to become better journalists, managers, leaders and people. For me, it was an eye-opening glimpse of a program I’d heard about but had never seen close up.

Welcome to the launch of Class X of the APSE Diversity in Leadership Program in Nashville. 

As the executive director of the APSE Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2020, I coordinate fundraising for this program, which began a decade ago with a simple but lofty mission: Build and support the next generation of sports editors while promoting diversity and inclusion in sports journalism. The fellowship is the foundation’s anchor, an in-depth course for working, midcareer professionals interested in pursuing a path as a manager (typically a sports editor, assistant sports editor or sports reporter) in sports journalism.

Before retiring in 2019 from a career in newspapers, I’d always believed in that mission and I’d heard a lot about the program. I knew both founders, former APSE President Michael Anastasi and APSE First Vice President Jorge Rojas. I’d met many of the graduates, hired one and watched another of my Seattle Times colleagues go through the program. Everything I’d heard was good, but I’d never attended a session. This was my chance to see it for myself. 

For me, this trip was a fact-finding mission. That it took me to Music City USA was a draw, but little more than background noise on Bourbon Street. This was no junket. I wanted to hear, see and feel if the Diversity in Leadership Fellowship Program was as good as I’d heard.

Take it from a career journalist and lifelong skeptic: It is. 

The weekend allowed me to meet five sports journalists, most early in the careers, destined for bigger and better things. It allowed me to see the business and craft that I’d devoted my life to through their eyes, hear about the obstacles our profession must overcome to become truly inclusive and diverse through their ears. And it took me back to the start of my own career, which turned out to be an unexpected gift.

The five fellows represent the bright future of journalism, but also its uncertain present and lamentable past. Three women and two men of color came to Nashville hopeful and excited, but probably a bit skeptical. 

All the fellows are impressive in different ways and had to go through a difficult application process that included a personal essay. They came from different cities, backgrounds and points in their career. 

Mauro Diaz, who has a master’s degree from Texas-Rio Grande Valley in language interpretation, is a bilingual journalist at ESPN.com. 

J.T. Keith, who has a master’s from Texas Tech, won three APSE best-section awards as sports editor at the Roswell (N.M.) Daily Record, where he was the only African-American in the newsroom, and now has started his own media company. 

Sarah Kelly is a Kansas graduate who landed on the copy desk at Sports Illustrated in September after being laid off five times in six years. 

Maria McIlwain is an Auburn grad and two-time APSE award winner who transitioned from reporting at small newspapers to the copy desk at the Houston Chronicle. 

Em Poertner has worked at the Gannett Design Center since 2016 and is part of the company’s Diversity Steering Committee, which flags issues in stories and headlines and works to reduce bias. 

Members of Class X of the APSE Diversity Fellowship Program pose before the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in December 2021. From left, Mauro Diaz, Em Poertner, Maria McIlwain, Sarah Kelly and J.T. Keith.

Individually, they are impressive. Together, they represent the future of sports journalism. 

I got to know them, chatting over hot chicken and cold beers, talking shop between sessions and listening to their 10-minute personal speeches, the nerve-wracking rite of passage every fellow must go through.

Those speeches were uncomfortable yet uplifting. The fellows fretted and fidgeted, but finally found their voices while revealing their insecurities, strengths and personal stories. One sweated profusely, another greeted us in fluent Spanish and yet another broke into song at the end. 

“The speeches have evolved to become perhaps the most memorable rite of passage of the fellowship program,” said Anastasi, one of the founders. “Public speaking is a crucial skill for leaders and most of the fellows have limited experience doing so. It’s intimidating for most of the fellows, and the speech is meant to launch them on that journey in an environment of friends. It’s so rewarding to see them conquer their fears and everyone always does a terrific job. I think going through that experience also makes them feel a little closer.”

Anastasi planned the weekend and watched Class X like a proud father. 

“The 10th class of the Diversity Fellowship Program marks a milestone that all who have supported the program — and that is a remarkably broad group of people — should be proud of,” he said. “It’s been remarkable to see our 43 prior graduates progress in their careers and become supporters of this work themselves, and I know this class of five will follow in their paths.

“We work hard to continually update our curriculum, to ensure the lessons we provide in strategic leadership, career development and audience science are cutting edge. We also work hard to have fun and develop the close bonds that have characterized every one of our classes and the culture of the program overall.”

The presence of Sean Henry, president and CEO of the Predators, was no accident. He has supported the program for five years, allowing fellows inside his boardroom and day-to-day job as a highlight to each group launch. When the program resumed after a year-long pause because of the pandemic, Henry showed his commitment by traveling to the APSE Conference in Las Vegas last August to greet the new class, voice his support and participate in the conference. Adding financial support in the past year is a diverse group that includes the NFL Foundation, Major League Baseball, the Gannett Foundation, McClatchy, the Tennessean, APSE and its members and past diversity fellows. 

Day 2 was bookended by a discussion on women leading newsrooms by Jessica Davis, digital director of USA Today, and a talk about the personal side of leadership from Mark Russell, executive director of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. There were deep dives into analytics, audience, leading for the first time, planning and strategy. The weekend was an APSE national conference, an APSE regional meeting, a newsroom huddle and a leadership seminar crammed into two intense days.

“One of my goals during this fellowship involves developing an overall vision as a leader, so the sessions in Nashville on management philosophy, metrics and audiences really resonated,” said Diaz, the diversity fellow who works for ESPN.com. “I also enjoyed spending time with the other Fellows and picking the brains of established leaders during the Diversity Weekend, especially during the more relaxed moments.”

McIlwain, from the Houston Chronicle, agreed. 

“The diversity weekend experience was a great way to get to know my classmates better and learn from some of the industry’s thought leaders,” she said. “I hope to apply these lessons soon in my newsroom and continue developing bonds with the rest of Class X.”

Keith, who lives in New Mexico, called the weekend “one of the best in my professional life. Only through a program like this is it possible to pick the minds of people who have been where we are trying to go in our career.”

Yet this is only the first stop for Class X. Next they gather in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 21-23 as judges evaluating the work, sections and websites of journalists from around the country alongside some of the top sports editors in the nation. They also will participate in virtual training sessions, and their final stop is the APSE National Conference in Indianapolis June 15-18, when they will attend more sessions, have more conversations and make more connections. 

Where will it lead? Based on my two days in Nashville, it will be one more step toward making sports journalism what I’ve hoped it could be since a naïve kid from Idaho joined a small newspaper in Yakima, Wash., 45 years ago and stumbled into management eight years later. More diverse, more inclusive, more prepared, stronger, better. When I began my career, we only covered men’s sports. The few women in sports departments weren’t even allowed in locker rooms. Few women and journalists of color were in leadership roles back then. Diversity was rarely discussed. 

We’re a long way from where we need to be, of course, but we’ve made progress. I’ll go back to my home in Seattle with renewed energy and focus so we can not only fund but expand this important program. 

Nine previous classes from APSE’s Diversity in Leadership Fellowship program, 43 journalists in all, are working around the country, making a difference. They are reporters, editors and leaders at newspapers, websites and nonprofits. 

Now five sports journalists who traveled with me to Nashville are following in their footsteps. Today they are back in their newsrooms, effecting change. 

Don Shelton retired in 2019 after 43 years as a newspaper journalist, the past 32 with The Seattle Times, where he was sports editor and executive editor. He now is the executive director of the APSE Foundation and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Idaho. 

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