LaSharah S. Bunting always knew she wanted to be a journalist.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Bunting says her parents were “news junkies” who always left papers on the coffee and dinner tables of her childhood home. Now, Bunting is ONA’s new CEO and Executive Director, and the first woman of color to assume the role since the organization’s founding in 1999.
Her appointment comes after ONA’s previous Executive Director, Irving Washington, departed the organization to be a senior fellow for health disinformation at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
With this historic appointment, Bunting looks to apply her diverse set of journalistic experiences — both as a reporter and sponsor — to ensure that ONA remains and expands as a safe space for industry innovation. Her goals for ONA include exploring how the organization can better support community-centered local news, journalists of color, and help newsrooms embrace AI for the better.
A lifelong passion for journalism
“It’s sort of like a compound effect: Every role I’ve done has prepared me for the next,” Bunting said. “Everything that I’ve done in my career I feel has prepared me for this role at ONA.”
Bunting involved herself in journalism all throughout high school and college, before serving as an editor at the Dallas Morning News. She then worked at the New York Times for 13 years, as an assignment editor on their metro, arts, and culture desks, as well editing Frank Rich’s Sunday Op-Ed column. Bunting also served as the Times’s senior editor for digital transition, where she oversaw the implementation of digital skills in the newsroom.
Bunting also worked as the director of journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. At the Knight Foundation, she invested in ONA, among other projects that helped newsrooms transition digitally and improve their diversity and inclusion.
Right before stepping into her new role at ONA, Bunting was Vice President and Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster.
Building a more diverse and equitable ONA
Bunting is deeply invested in how ONA can improve diversity and equity in the journalism industry, where people of color are still underrepresented: A 2023 Pew Research study found that 76% of journalists are white.
To address this, Bunting is on a mission to increase ONA’s outreach to journalists of color, newsrooms led by people of color and all those who work in community media spaces to learn from ONA, but also so that ONA can learn from their work and help better represent them within journalism.
“I feel so deeply about the role that journalism plays in our democracy and the impact that it can have on pushing positive change,” Bunting said. “I think a more informed public is able to make a more informed decision.”
And part of creating this more informed public for Bunting also means expanding ONA’s role as a safe space for all.
“ONA has long been a really good steward of equity and inclusion in the industry, and it’s important for the community to see us as that place where they can be their most authentic selves,” she said. “So it’s important for me that we build a space for that both in-person but also virtually. I think we’ve been able to accomplish that, and I feel like we’ll do even more.”
Embracing new challenges
Bunting sees ONA’s role in journalism as not just assisting those newsrooms that are still in need of a digital transformation, but also in how to deploy emerging technologies across the newsroom and encourage collaboration among all sides of the industry.
“ONA is a safe place to be able to do that work,” Bunting said of the organization’s capacity for pushing change and innovation, “It’s a safe place to convene and have these conversations and to find other like-minded people in the community to come together and deploy that work.”
For example, Bunting is interested in how newsrooms can use artificial intelligence, or AI, for the better.
“Far too many times, we as an industry are scared of this technology, and we can’t afford to do that with AI,” Bunting said. “What are the initiatives that we can do to bring [AI] to newsrooms so that newsrooms can use these tools to make journalism more accessible?”
Taking ONA to a new level
Bunting has long been a part of the ONA community, advising many of the organization’s initiatives such as the Challenge Fund for Innovation and Journalism Education and the Women’s Leadership Accelerator.
“For me, it’s about taking the organization to a new phase,” she said. “What are the ways in which we can really serve the on-the-ground needs of local communities and local news, not just be a place where people can convene for conversations but actually be on the ground helping to solve the local news crisis?”
For Bunting this means constantly asking herself questions like, do people have the information that they need? Is information just going to those who can pay for it? How can we democratize media so that all can be empowered with information?
This also means combining her diverse set of journalistic experiences to help ONA better ensure that it is doing all that it can to reach more journalists, newsrooms, executives, and industry leaders.
“I feel privileged and honored to be in this type of role,” Bunting said. “To be someone who was of the ONA community to now be leading the organization is something that I don’t take for granted.”