By Jenni Carlson

To understand how the APSE Diversity Fellowship has always been willing to adapt, you need only look at the current group.

It’s the fellowship’s 10th class — a decade of Diversity Fellows — but because of the pandemic, these Fellows aren’t following the same routine of years past. They weren’t selected until January, what has normally been several months into the program. They haven’t had a Fellows’ retreat, something that will likely come later this year.

But the Diversity Fellowship is adapting and changing to better fit the needs of everyone involved.

That’s how it’s always been.

“The program was designed for mid-career professionals, but the Fellows have skewed young,” said Jorge Rojas, who helped launch the program. “Part of it is the people who have applied, and part of it is the sports media landscape shifting more toward social media, podcasts, video — which are just as much young-person skills. 

“We started out looking for sports editors and columnists. Though a writing and editing focus is important, we’ve also ventured into continuous news editors/producers, social media specialists, video reporters and designers.”

And yet, as the Diversity Fellowship celebrates its first decade and looks ahead to its second one, the mission has not changed. It’s still about preparing, training and supporting minorities in sports journalism for leadership and advancement at all career levels.

The foundation of the Fellowship is still largely as Michael Anastasi imagined it in 2010.

A year or so before he became APSE president, he began thinking about his goals. He knew with only a year as president, he would need a strong plan coming in if he had any chance of getting anything done.

“Establishing the Fellowship program was my No. 1 priority because its need was painfully clear for so long,” Anastasi said. “I attended too many industry meetings where editors said they wanted to support diversity, but they didn’t know any candidates.

“Talking is great, but we needed action.”

Anastasi had long been associated with the Sports Journalism Institute, dating to 1995, and he was always impressed by its intrepid leaders, its rigorous curriculum and its familial bonds. The interns who come through the program always seemed better prepared not only to work but also to find support in each other.

“I thought that was a great model for a new program that focused on journalists already in the business … feeding the leadership pipeline as opposed to SJI and its focus on the entry-level journalist,” Anastasi said. 

At the APSE Convention in 2011 when Anastasi became president, he used his speech to announce the creation of the program.

“APSE’s history of aggressively supporting diversity efforts is unquestioned,” he said then. “A founding partner of the Sports Journalism Institute, APSE, under the leadership of many presidents who have come before, has aggressively worked to improve the dismal numbers we all know.

“But it is a long fight. We’ve had some successes and many failures. We must do more.”

He told everyone gathered that night in Boston that he hoped to be standing on the stage the next summer in Chicago with the graduates of the Diversity Fellowship’s first class.

So it was.

And so it has been every in-person convention since.

“Boston was my first APSE conference, so it’s been a joy to watch the program grow from the ground up,” said outgoing APSE president Lisa Wilson. “When I think of the fellowship, I think of Fellows like Reina Kempt. She was a designer when I met her and is now the only Black woman running a sports section at a major metro. She was a panelist at the Vegas convention this week. Stories like these are exactly what Michael had in mind when he envisioned the fellowship.”

Anastasi and Rojas, who partnered in the Fellowship’s early days, say the program has evolved. Rojas always tells people the first class was the best because the Fellows, Adena Jones Andrews, Carrie Cousins and Ed Guzman, were largely guinea pigs.

“We weren’t really sure how it would go,” said Rojas, who Anastasi credits with securing a $30,000-plus grant from the Knight Foundation that propelled the program forward in its early days. “But I remember the curriculum was good, and that year helped us determine what was good and what needed work.”

That kind of evaluation and adaptation has continued.

“There really have been two eras of the program so far: the ‘Indianapolis era’ — that’s when we held our diversity weekend, our three-day offsite retreat, in Indianapolis — and our ‘Nashville era,’ which began in 2016,” Anastasi said. “The first few years, we were figuring out what would be most beneficial for the Fellows. Good things happened, but we instituted a pretty significant overhaul of the program when we moved to Nashville, providing much more relevant instruction and a better overall experience.”

Now, Fellows meet in Nashville sometime in the fall or winter, attend contest judging in February, and partake in APSE regional meetings and other rigors leading into their graduation at the annual convention. There are many chances to learn as well as connect. Bonds are built, not just with APSE members but also with the other Fellows.

Networking would have been difficult during the pandemic. Zoom is great, but it has its limits. That’s why Class 10 —Mauro Diaz, J.T. Keith, Sarah Kelly, Maria McIlwain and Em Poertner — has had to adapt as much as any group of Fellows ever.

They embody the change that has long been part of the Fellowship.

And no one in the class is a better representative of that than Keith, who was unable to attend this year’s conference for contact-tracing-related reasons.

He was the sports editor at the Roswell Daily Record in New Mexico, the first Black journalist in the newspaper’s history when the class was announced in January. Then he decided to leave the Daily Record and buy two weekly newspapers. 

“But I realized I didn’t want to be consumed with something out of my comfort zone in doing the A section,” Keith said.

So he pivoted again.

Keith launched LifeNSports, a website in Roswell with hyper-local sports coverage and “an old Sports Illustrated feel,” he said. He has landed some advertisers but expects to be largely sustained by subscriptions.

Keith isn’t the only entrepreneur to emerge from the Diversity Fellowship. 

Jones Andrews, one of the members of the first class, worked for years in traditional roles in sports journalism. Columnist at ESPNW. Writer at CBS Sports. Deputy managing editor at Bleacher Report. 

But in June 2019, she started Another Lane, a marketplace for exclusive sneakers. She is the CEO, and according to BlackEnterprise.com, she is one of the most influential sports professionals of color to follow on Twitter.

The trajectory of their careers has not been in a straight line.

Same goes for the Diversity Fellowship.

But with the creation of the APSE Foundation, Anastasi and Rojas believe big things are ahead. The non-profit exists to support the Diversity in Leadership Fellowship, already securing grants from the likes of Gannett and McClatchy and donations from Major League Baseball and the NFL as well as support from APSE and several past presidents of the organization

Additional fundraising efforts are in the works.

The hope is that more funding equates to more Fellows, the program’s next big change.

“As we move into our second decade, the need for the program is even more clear and we want to graduate more Fellows,” Anastasi said. “Having graduated 43 Fellows and being on track to graduate 48 Fellows over 10 classes is significant.

“Let’s make that no less than 100 over the next 10 years.”

Class 10

Mauro Diaz is a bilingual journalist who has been at ESPN.com in Dallas since 2009. He started his career at the Dallas Morning News.

J.T. Keith was the first Black in the newsrooms at the Roswell (N.M.) Daily Record, where he was the sports editor, as well as Kingman and Cottonwood, Arizona. He now runs LifeNSports, a hyper-local sports website in Roswell.

Sarah Kelly joined the copy desk at Sports Illustrated in September. A survivor of five layoffs in six years, she was also the sports editor for The Washington Post Express.

Maria McIlwain transitioned from reporting at The Bryan College-Station (Texas) Eagle to the Houston Chronicle’s copy desk in November 2019. An Auburn alumna and cat mom, she has won two APSE awards.

Em Poertner has been at the Gannett Design Center since September 2016, where the USA Today Network Sports Designer is part of the Diversity Steering Committee.

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