Fast Companys Stephanie Mehta On Why Transparency Makes For Reliable Journalism
September 2, 2021
Stephanie Mehta is the Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company and has been overseeing its print, digital and live journalism since 2018. Previously Mehta was deputy editor at Vanity Fair, an editor at Bloomberg Media, and worked at Fortune for 14 years. She began her career as a business reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and was a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal.

Here she shares how Covid-19 accelerated the trajectory of digital transformations and why Fast Company’s transparency makes for reliable journalism.

How has the role of design and creativity in technology impacted businesses as they've navigated through this Covid era? How has it changed as we’ve shifted from crisis to recovery to adapting to a new normal?

I’ll start with technology because that’s such an obvious one. We saw a lot of digital transformation at companies get accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Many organizations were in the first or second inning of digital transformation, trying to move more of their operations online. As a result of, in some cases, entire workforces having to work from home or remotely, companies invested in going to more fully digital operations. One survey I saw said companies accelerated their digital transformations by an average of six years. That’s almost half a generation’s worth of work done in a year. So that’s one way we saw it.

In terms of creativity, there’s no question that companies had to get creative about how they could be remote and still work collaboratively. In a lot of cases, companies had never worked that way before. The word that everybody is using right now is asynchronous. We saw many organizations look to global companies to learn how to work together when employees are working different hours and unable to get on the phone together.

What role did journalism play in helping to address the healthcare crisis? How does Fast Company’s approach to sharing news differ from other publications?

One of the things the healthcare crisis and all of the other challenges we went through in 2020 did was underscore for consumers and our journalists the need to ensure we were putting accurate, fact-checked information out there. At Fast Company, we redoubled our efforts to be cautious about the information we were providing to people, especially regarding COVID-19. I’m thinking back to March and April of 2020; there were so many half-baked ideas out there. There were a lot of studies and surveys being released that were not peer-reviewed studies.

We choose to be incredibly cautious about what we’re sharing with our readers because there’s not enough time to cover every twist and turn. So we tried to take a more holistic approach and only write about stuff that had been either approved or had been peer-reviewed, in the case of a study. It is a priority for us to apply real journalistic rigor.

What types of stories get the most traffic on Fast Company? How does Fast Company decide what to cover?

I always feel like I need to caveat a question like that by saying, traffic isn’t the only metric of success at Fast Company. That’s something I try to tell the staff and our counterparts on the advertising side all the time. We do many stories at Fast Company that may not get a lot of traffic, but we know they are important stories, and they are core to our beat and our coverage. Often, we will pursue projects and stories because we think they’re important and good. And if they get traffic, that’s great, but if they don’t, it’s still important for our body of work to do stories like that. Specifically to your question about the stories that do best for us, stories that jump on the news do exceptionally well. Due to the nature of online journalism, people are looking for information about something that’s happening in real-time.

We’ve had a lot of success with stories that help people understand good, verified, non-profit organizations they can turn to if they want to help in a crisis. For example, many of our readers are currently asking, 'how can we help Afghan refugees?' What are some aid organizations and nonprofit organizations supporting either the refugees or women and girls in Afghanistan?' To respond, we’ll do a round-up of organizations that we know to be reliable places if you’re looking to donate or contribute in some way.

What are some benefits of remote work that you hope will continue as people start going back to the office, particularly for working parents?

There’s been a big change in corporate attitudes about this. You know, kids get sick. And it was well known that in the past, if people’s kids got sick, they wouldn’t feel comfortable being open about sharing that. They would call in sick themselves instead. They would much rather say 'I have the flu' than admit, “I have to take my kid to the doctor.” In a lot of organizations, we’ve started to see remote work open up the conversation for people to bring their full selves to work.

What leadership skills have been most beneficial to you as you navigated your team through a global pandemic? And what are your thoughts on transitioning back to the office?

A sense of humor has been really helpful. And I don’t mean to be glib about it. I’ve been through an incredibly challenging year and a half. Still, it is important in my world, to not take myself too seriously. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nurse, I’m not a frontline worker. At the end of the day, I have to have some perspective about the real work that is happening in the world. So for me, as somebody who is a colleague and helps lead a team, it’s essential to not take oneself too seriously.

Other helpful skills are compassion and flexibility. Reflecting on it now, during this time where everybody is challenged in so many ways, whether working parents or people with immunocompromised family members—the thing that got my team and myself through was being flexible and really cutting people some slack.

My advice would be to have solutions at the ready. It’s not just about giving difficult feedback; it’s also about providing solutions to address the issues.

What are some pain points you’ve experienced during your career as an editor, particularly in terms of gender equality?

It’s no secret that media has gone through a rough couple of decades. The pain point that resulted is that we’ve been resource constrained. That means I’ve had less time to nurture and mentor the next generation of editors, particularly women editors and editors of color. I would love for us to be a place where young people can come and develop as journalists, which has been a big part of Fast Company’s legacy.

What is your favorite part of your job?

It’s getting to work with young writers. I love getting raw copy, seeing the story, and helping the writer find the story. It’s a little bit like a puzzle; you can see the pieces are all there, they’ve done all the work, but the material needs to be reorganized. We need some topic sentences. We need to show, not tell the reader. All the stuff you learned in school as an editor and as a writer - that’s still my favorite part of the job.

Do you have any advice on how to give and receive feedback?

I would like to say be more direct, but I’m one of those people that’s guilty of the compliment sandwich where you give the good feedback and then you sort of sandwich in the bad news. I intellectually understand the need to be more direct, but culturally and personality-wise, I tend to do the sandwich.

My advice would be to have solutions at the ready. It’s not just about giving difficult feedback; it’s also about providing solutions to address the issues. One of the things that I ask of people I work with is, don’t hesitate to come to me with problems, but to the extent that you can, please come with some potential solutions as well.

What are some mistakes you’ve made during your career? And what did you learn from them?

For me, nine times out of ten, it’s been not trusting my gut. It’s been trying to make something work because it seemed like the sensible thing to do or the collaborative thing to do, but my spidey sense was saying, “this isn’t the right thing to do.” When I haven’t trusted my spidey sense, that’s typically when I’ve messed up.

What is missing in your line of work or one thing you would change?

Thinking broadly about media and journalism, I think we need to be more transparent about our process to the general public. Part of the reason there’s so much mistrust in media is that people don’t understand the process.

We don’t make it clear enough that when someone writes a story, we don’t just publish it. It gets edited and it gets copy-edited. It goes through a rigorous fact-checking process to make sure everything in the story has been confirmed and verified. Then someone who understands the story looks at it and puts a piece of art on it. Anyone else just reading a story may not realize all of the checks and balances it went through.



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