Mira Lowe, like many of these reverse migrants, described feeling a greater sense of purpose when she moved to an African-American outlet. Lowe joined Newsday in 1989, a year after graduating from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and held a series of copy-desk positions on the features, business, and news desks, and then became the Long Island Life editor at the paper. But in 2007, she jumped at the chance to work for Johnson Publishing, where she was initially hired as assistant managing editor for Ebony and Jet. In 2009, she became editor in chief of Jet, which has a weekly circulation of more than 750,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. “I had the opportunity to have an imprint on a legacy brand,” she said. “They needed an injection of new ideas, new energy. I felt I could make a difference and give back to publications that have meant a lot to the community.”
Sylvester Monroe, a cum laude graduate of Harvard and an author who, over the course of nearly four decades, has worked as an editor or writer at Newsweek, Time, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moved to Ebony in 2006. “There was a time when I never thought I would consider working for Ebony. It was just that that wasn’t what I was interested in. But Time and Newsweek are no longer Time and Newsweek, and newspapers have shrunk. Journalism as we once knew it is gone.”
Monroe said he was disheartened by his experience at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he said editors “now shamelessly say they don’t cover Atlanta unless there’s a compelling reason. They’ve moved to the suburbs. They make no pretense about covering the city.” As other opportunities dwindled, he said, black-oriented media “began to look better and better—and one of the reasons is because they needed help. Not just in terms of bodies, but know-how. I got to use what I know and help improve this magazine I grew up with.”
Joel Dreyfuss said the failure of the mainstream to embrace diverse viewpoints is helping to drive the reverse migration. From 1996 to 1997, he was editor in chief of a weekly black news start-up that, despite support from a business executive named Donald Miller and seed money from Dow Jones, never got off the ground. “I always felt we needed a chance to tell our stories without filters,” said Dreyfuss. “A lot of us are now seeing the possibilities of unfiltered content.”
But Dreyfuss and others point out that black-oriented media can pose their own set of challenges, including limited resources. Many of the journalists initially recruited from the mainstream by Johnson Publishing beginning in 2006 have since left. Some confided that they were asked to pay their own way on assignments, while others described the shock they felt at having to use outmoded equipment. Lowe said while her salary at Johnson Publishing was competitive with the mainstream, other resources were lacking. (Last August the company appointed Desiree Rogers, the former Obama White House social secretary, to be chief executive and announced a major reorganization.)
Dreyfuss said while editors at The Root receive full-time salaries, most of the writers are freelancers, so they do not have the benefits offered in mainstream journalism. And Jack White said that there are fewer opportunities to do original reporting. “I wish that something like The Root had had the money to cover the Obama campaign the way I covered the Jesse Jackson campaign,” he said. “The big weakness is they can’t pay for reporting. We’re recycling in a lot of cases. There’s something reductive.”
He and others stressed that this is among the many reasons why diversity in the mainstream still matters. Otherwise, “We go right back to where we started after the Kerner Commission,” White said, referring to the 1968 National Advisory Commission report.
Yet Coleman points out that while resources are more plentiful in mainstream media, they have little value if you can’t use them to pursue what you think is important. “What good does it do you to be in a newsroom with a lot of resources if you can’t do what you’re there to do?”