It started as a trickle. Sylvester Monroe resigned in 2006 as Sunday national editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, two months later, joined the staff of Ebony magazine. In 2008 the renowned byline of Jack E. White, the first black columnist at Time magazine, began to regularly appear on The Root, where Lynette Clemetson, formerly of The New York Times and Newsweek, was managing editor. By March of this year when Constance C. R. White, once an influential New York Times fashion writer, was named editor in chief of Essence, the trickle had swelled into a river of prominent African-American journalists streaming to black-oriented media.
The names of veterans like Lynette Holloway and E. R. Shipp, formerly of The New York Times; Teresa Wiltz, Natalie Hopkinson, and Michael Cottman, all of The Washington Post; Joel Dreyfuss, formerly of Fortune and PC Magazine, and Amy DuBois Barnett of Harper’s Bazaar and Teen People, are turning up in places like Ebony, Jet, and Essence; at BlackAmericaWeb.com, a division of Reach Media, Inc.; and at The Root, the online site spearheaded by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. and published by The Washington Post Company.
Some of these moves were prompted by layoffs and buyouts; others by disillusionment with mainstream journalism or a desire to delve more deeply into African-American issues. Whatever the reasons, with increasing frequency, African-American journalists are reversing the once common trajectory from the black press to the mainstream. New ventures like HuffPost Global Black, a vertical for Arianna Huffington’s widely read website that will be launched in partnership with Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, are likely to quicken the pace.
On the one hand, this reverse migration has brought new luster and talent to black-oriented media. On the other, it is further draining mainstream media of diverse perspectives, raising the specter of a retreat to the days of all-but-segregated newsrooms.
Mainstream newsrooms were nearly all white back in 1968, when the National Commission on Civil Disorders famously warned that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” The news media, it continued, reflected the biases, paternalism, and indifference of white Americans and treated blacks “as if they don’t read the newspaper, marry, die, and attend PTA meetings.” At the time, African Americans held less than one percent of newsroom jobs.
In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement became a major national story, and as dozens of American inner cities became the sites of urban riots, African-American journalists employed by the black press finally found a door opening to mainstream media. Some of them said they could name the specific riot that resulted in their hiring.
The black press, then, became a casualty of the integration it had long championed. Unable to compete with the extensive coverage provided by television networks and major newspapers, or the higher salaries they provided, its fortunes dwindled. The Chicago Defender’s weekly circulation fell from a high of 257,000 in 1945 to 33,000 by 1970. The Pittsburgh Courier shrunk in the same period from a high of 202,000 to 20,000.
In the years following what came to be known as the Kerner Commission report, African Americans and, later, other members of minority groups, were hired in record numbers, slowly altering the complexion and ideals of American journalism. Among the new hires was Jack White, who left Swarthmore College in 1965 to pursue a journalism career. In 1966 he became a copy boy at The Washington Post. The next year, after covering a riot in Cambridge, Maryland, he was promoted to reporter. In 1972 he joined Time as a staff writer, where he would become Nairobi bureau chief, Midwest bureau chief, deputy chief of correspondents, national correspondent, and, for six years, write his popular “Dividing Line” column. In 1969 Joel Dreyfuss began his career at The Associated Press and went on to the New York Post, The Washington Post, USA Today, Fortune, and PC Magazine, where he was the second-in-line editor. In 2009 he became managing editor of The Root.