Why the LA Times chose Dexter Thomas to cover Black Twitter

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This week, the Los Angeles Times hired Dexter Thomas, a California-born writer and Ph.D. candidate studying Japanese hip-hop, to cover Black Twitter and other online communities.

Black Twitter is not a standard journalistic beat. But over the last year, it has emerged as a force in shaping the national discourse about race. “It’s truly been an emblem of democracy,” says S. Mitra Kalita, Managing Editor for Editorial Strategy at the Times. “If folks on Twitter had not shared the body of Michael Brown lying in the street for hours [in Ferguson, Mo.], would we have seen the mainstream media coverage that we later saw?”

While best known for launching the #blacklivesmatter movement, Black Twitter isn’t always easy to define. “Black Twitter is just black people using Twitter, tweeting about shows we’re watching, makeup we’re trying, normal discourse that’s happening every day,” says Meredith Clark, who wrote her dissertation on Black Twitter. “The social activism is what tips it into being newsworthy.” While some view Thomas’s hire as a sincere attempt to improve race and social media coverage, others worry that the mainstream media will co-opt Black Twitter, Clark said. “They’re uncomfortable with the idea of being a content farm for corporate media.”

Kalita recruited Thomas, who has never worked in a newsroom, to both cover and engage multicultural online communities in a grassroots, collaborative way. “He’s a nontraditional candidate,” said Kalita, but she was impressed with his creativity and his perspective. “He understands community, the internet, and storytelling.”

Thomas was one of four new hires to the Audience and Engagement team at the Times this week, part of a greater effort to revamp the paper’s social media strategy to better integrate it with editorial and prepare for the “constant change” that lies ahead, Kalita said.

For Thomas, the open-ended charge to tell stories by any means necessary raises possibilities as well as questions. CJR spoke to him about his new gig.

Why did you apply for the job?

I didn’t. It was brought to me. I got connected with Mitra Kalita and she said she was looking for someone to cover Black Twitter. I wasn’t suspicious exactly, but I was pretty skeptical. Just to be polite, I sent her two articles that I’d written about Black Twitter, both of them critical of the way mainstream media covered it, thinking that she wouldn’t like them, but she did. So I thought, maybe there’s something here.

Everyone’s been pretty fixated on Black Twitter, but the memo said this is about covering Black Twitter, Latino Tumblr, and online communities more generally. Can you tell us a little more about the job description?

It’s a little hard to say. This simply doesn’t exist anywhere so there’s nothing really to compare it to. Basically, I’m interested in online—and offline—communities. Primarily, I’m interested in minorities, and I think that the way that they’re covered makes no sense. Mainstream media often treats groups as though they are monolithic, with no variety or differentiation of opinion within that group. Entire populations are made into caricatures. A lot of my friends criticize this sort of thing, I’ve criticized this before, so this seemed like an opportunity to do something about it.

Most people who have heard the term Black Twitter think of the social movements associated with hashtags like #iftheygunnedmedown. But there’s also a much more casual, nebulous aspect to the conversation that’s more internal. How do you cover those different types of stories?

At the end of the day, Black Twitter is just another social community online. I don’t think it’s particularly different than say 4chan, or subreddits on Reddit. It’s definitely not representative of all black people. There’s a lot of arguments within it. Black Twitter almost never agrees with itself.

We have to realize it’s not monolithic, not everyone participating is black, and a lot of people are not contributing to the activism, or they participate in some but [not] in others. People stand up for #blacklivesmatter when a black man is killed, but when a black woman or black trans woman is killed, they’re nowhere to be found.

As soon as somebody named Black Twitter, it became a thing that could be exploited. Black Twitter is interesting to most people either politically, or as a target market, or as potential influencers, meaning if you get an influential black person to like it, it’s going to be popular.

So what can I do at the opposite at the end of that, to say, “What do you think is important? How can we talk about it?” The story may not be in the newspaper, it may all happen on Twitter. It could involve me interviewing someone on Twitter instead of taking their tweet and slapping a headline on it, and turning it into a listicle.

There was a piece on Business Insider recently where this white lady went to Queens and took pictures of Chinese people. One of my friends, who lives there, she’s Chinese, she said, “Great, people are making me feel like an outsider in my own home.” So what can I do so the stories that I’m telling are not doing that?

Asking how am I going to cover Black Twitter is like asking how I’m going to cover American culture. I’m never going to get all of it, but I’m going to pull what I find interesting.

Is there a difference between covering Black Twitter and covering the African-American community?

I think there is. When Twitter found out that Rachel Dolezal faked being black, they started this #askrachel tag. It was basically a bunch of Black Twitter inside jokes—or maybe black culture inside jokes—that you’d only know if you’re black. For example, “Rollin down the street, smokin indo, sippin on…,” and you should be able to fill in “gin and juice.” It was a way of identifying if you were really black, but the truth is that not all black people would be able to answer all the questions. You could be black and have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention a certain lyric.

So is there a connection between Black Twitter culture and Black culture? Yes. It is the same thing? No. Not everybody’s parents or grandparents are on Twitter, and they’re not any less black.

What kind of stories and content can we can expect to see from you on this beat?

What I’m thinking about now: Where do black women, LGBT black people, fit into the picture? I’m interested in conversations within the community. That doesn’t usually get covered. I’m interested in how are other groups reacting or being involved? Are they supporting it or against it? What’s going on with Conservative Twitter, identified by the hashtag #tcot? That’s a pretty wild subculture. They’ve got their own memes and in-jokes. And in general, what do these communities say about the larger society?

Where do you fit in in the newsroom? Is what you’re doing reporting and news, or is it social media and engagement?

I suppose both. There will be sometimes that I’m writing a story on a phenomenon that I see existing. But there may be a time that I’m actually reaching out to people to participate in something and contribute something. It’s not one or the other. Actually, I don’t see a difference between the two.

Right now I’m working on the story—published this week in the LA Times—that Latinos just officially became the biggest ethnicity in California. What does that mean to people? It didn’t surprise people, here in California, but what does that mean? So how can we do something other than A, writing up a news report and B, having an op-ed on Latino politics? How do we get people to participate, send us a snapchat, write something? It sounds silly, but maybe we can start a conversation that keeps going after we have to move on to something else.

You’ve been critical of how mainstream media and others have covered  Black Twitter. Why do you think you’re the right person to change that?

I have a paper trail. I’m on record of being suspicious of this. People know where to find me, they know my website, or twitter, or if not they can find it quickly. I’ve got emails people who have been reading my stuff, and they’re asking, “Why are you doing this? I can’t believe you would take this job.” I have no choice but to be accountable to them.

You started a project on Medium called Those People“a black magazine for people who are too hip for a black magazine”and you quote Langston Hughes: “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter….If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow….” Why that quote?

[There’s] a common thing that happens when you’re a black writer: They ask you to write about black people but they don’t want you to do things that will make white people too uncomfortable, and you can’t just write about anything, say soccer. They want to know, what’s the black take on soccer? There is no black take on soccer. It’s just soccer.

On the flip side, there’s pressure from the community, who feel like you’re going to misrepresent them, and they don’t want you to write anything negative, and every community has some negative.

I’m actually not worried about being right all the time. If I wrote something and everybody disliked it, and 15 think pieces came out and they’re right, I’m fine with that. I got a conversation going.

What’s the reaction been to the news that you’ll be covering this?

There are people who are convinced that I’m a federal agent spying on Black Twitter. I’ve been getting wild emails. I get it. On the other hand, there are some people who are really happy. The LA Times is a big name that people recognize, and they’re happy people are paying attention to them.

You see what I mean about Black Twitter? People can’t even agree on how they want to be talked about, whether I should have this job, whether it’s a job that should exist in the first place. It’s barely a community. I think that should be embraced. There is no one answer, there is no consensus, even on what it is itself. 

I’m looking forward to exploring that.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa