Addressing the information gap for Black West Virginians

When Crystal Good was sixteen years old, she tried to buy one of the last Black newspapers in West Virginia. “Looking back, I’m not sure how I thought I was going to pay for it,” Good says, laughing. “And of course, they wouldn’t sell me the paper, but they asked me to sell ads for them. And I was like, Oh, hell no.” Years later, Good is building a publication of her own, one “that allows for Black voices to have their own microphones, not the microphone passed to them and then taken back,” she says.

Launched in 2020 as a website and newsletter, Black by God, the West Virginian is a young publication with a small audience; “it’s in beta,” as Good says. But Good believes deeply in the role publications like hers can play in the future of local journalism. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

CJR: What led you to decide to pursue this project? 

Crystal Good: If you talk to the West Virginia Press Association and the seventy newspapers that they represent, they will tell you that in thirty-five years, there have been three Black reporters. That should just stop everybody in their tracks. Many Black pastors and community leaders over the course of West Virginia’s recent history have used the op-ed as the vehicle for communication, because we don’t have Black newspaper reporters in West Virginia now. Right now, in Charleston, West Virginia—which has one of the largest populations of Black folks in the state—we’ve had two recent gunshot murders. When this happens, it really shocks the community. It’s another trauma. We’re in the middle of a national conversation about George Floyd, about addiction. It’s reported, but there’s no context in terms of why does this happen in the Black community? And what is the trauma? So I’m introducing Black by God into the narrative. 

The fact that there hasn’t actually been a Black print newspaper in the state in my children’s generation… people no longer have a memory of that. They can’t name a Black newspaper reporter. I’m just trying to create a framework and test different things, but first and foremost, to build the audience and talk to people. What do they want? And what do they need?

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the information gap and how COVID just highlighted all of the disparities, but especially the news disparity, the lack of information access for Black people. And the owner of HD Media made a little flip comment on my Twitter, something to the effect of, “Well, Crystal, you know, when the lights go out in West Virginia, everybody’s Black.” It really shows the need for Black by God, right? Like you have the white owner of every major newspaper in West Virginia, feeling comfortable to make a “racial” joke? If this is the guy that owns the newspapers, you’re never going to get a Black reporter to come work for you for very long. It’s just not gonna work. 

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CJR: Who is your audience right now? 

Good: I had a fairly decent newsletter following for my poetry, and that sort of folded over into Black by God. Right now, the audience is probably a good mix white allies within the state and the diaspora of West Virginia. But I want to build Black by God from the needs, wants and hopes and aspirations of the Black community in West Virginia. That’s where the work is, in building that relationship and building that audience. I’m not taking an audience away from the Charleston Gazette, or the Mountain State Spotlight or the Herald-Dispatch. To be honest, I feel like I could fully launch Black by God tomorrow, if I wanted to make it a paper for the progressive white community in West Virginia and outside and have their support. But I have to do the thinking to meet with the people in the Black communities, to tell the stories that they want. I think that the support is there, from the traditional news folks. But I’m trying to reach the community that might not be in those portals.

I’m ambitious about eventually dropping this in print or a zine, to start to build a relationship and a knowledge about what I’m doing. One of the hard parts is that people don’t understand the need for community journalism and/or Black journalism. They don’t understand the information gap, because you can’t miss something you’ve never had. A lot of the work that I’m doing right now is just let me show you

CJR: You launched your newsletter in August of 2020, amid the pandemic, which was a difficult time for everyone, and a particularly difficult time for local journalism. What was that like?

Good: I didn’t know any different! Quite often, one of the downfalls in West Virginia is that if you have an idea, then you should do it—but then that means that you have to do it. Being a poet here, I had to create the venue, I had to create the workshop, figure out how to publish my book, had to edit my book, and had to sell my book. You have to do it all. I think West Virginia has a bad habit of thinking just one person can do something, and it’s enough. There can just be one coffee shop or one art store. But we need transformational change. 

It’s the time to put the seed into the soil and try to give it the best conditions possible. If not now, then when? I’m willing to take my chances. Since August, I’m just in the very experimental phase. My goal is that, by 2022, Black by God will be shaped up and consistent, have a better engine to it. But until then I’m okay with trying things and learning, because meeting people where they are feels really special.

CJR: One thing that I think about a lot in this newsletter is resources: where they’re coming from, whether there are enough of enough of them, where they’re going, how to resources to sustain publications like yours that are doing really important, really transformative work? As you’re thinking about resources, where were you looking? How are you starting that process? What are you thinking about? 

Good: Right now, what I need is to develop the operational side. I would not be here if it wasn’t for the NewStart program. I can’t speak highly enough of that program. It’s introduced me to so many people, and so many ideas, like Scalawag, Outlier, MLK 50. I’m like, okay, it can be done. And I’m able to tap into these ideas. I’m still creating the structure. It’s also figuring out what the people of West Virginia want. I also think there’s a lot of talent here that just hasn’t been hasn’t been told that it’s talent, or that this is a career, or that this is a job. My hope would be that I would be able to get some startup capital, and to be able to kind of shake things and do things, without the situation where you get the grant and you’re really just working toward the grant. 

I do want some runway capital to be able to continue to experiment. I need some autonomy while I’m figuring this out, right? One thing about being an entrepreneur is that it might not work. But even if you inspire the next thing, that can facilitate change.

CJR: I read something today commenting on the limitations of billionaire philanthropic funding for local journalism. Who does that serve? 

Good: Oh yeah, cause’ then I’m bound to—somebody’s gonna get pissed off because I say “the white lens of journalism.” I think that Black by God‘s going to require a good healthy mix [of funding], but I’m trying to find a way to keep our independence. 

CJR: So what will success look like? How do you define it?

Good: I want to be the bridge into West Virginia and out of West Virginia. For me, success is… If someone writes for me in 2021, and then in 2024, they’re still in the industry. That’s the bridge I wanna build. Or when people start to see Black by God as a resource. 

I’ve realized that there’s a great need in terms of building political literacy, coordinating different organizations. So I see Black by God being a sort of hub. Take the NAACP or the Allied Organizations—everybody that’s working on stuff at the legislature that connects back to the community. There’s no real bridge into the community to explain that work. I see Black by God being a catalyst. We don’t have to do all the work, but we can inspire it. And we can report out.

I’m excited about more people knowing that this idea exists. It opens up the door to the conversation, which is that Black people in West Virginia exist. It’s important that our voices are heard. And it’s important that we, as a community, are finding resources. I’m really tired of seeing the “allies” and good white folks keep pointing over to the enemy of Trump over there, or Republicans over there, when there’s a lot of work to be done that allows for Black leadership, that allows for Black voices to have their own microphones, not the microphone passed to them and then taken back. 

That’s why I love the name Black by God. It’s a riff on the way West Virginians explain ourselves; we are West, by God, Virginia. I called the publication Black by God, the West Virginian to claim that identity of place but also to be unapologetic in our role in Black America. And in West Virginia’s history. West has such a rich history of Black journalism, journalists like Tony Brown, and the history of Black newspapers in the 1800s and the 1900s. It’s hard for Black journalists and Black publications to stay. And it has been for hundreds of years. Hopefully this is the moment.

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • ACCESS TO INFORMATION HAS DECLINED AROUND THE WORLD: Reporters Without Borders found a “dramatic deterioration” in access to information across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PressGazette reported. “RSF said although its measure of media freedom worldwide fell by only 0.3% from 2020, it has dropped by 12% since 2013 and is at its lowest point since then,” Charlotte Tobit wrote. “Ongoing threats range from ‘the disappearance of local news to the ongoing and widespread distrust of mainstream media.’”

  • TRIBUNE MOVES FORWARD WITH ALDEN BID: Tribune publishing has ended discussions with potential buyer Stewart Bainum Jr. and moves forward with plans to be acquired by Alden Global Capital, The Chicago Tribune reported on Monday. “The pathway to a deal involving Mr. Bainum, the chief executive of Choice Hotels, one of the world’s largest hotel chains, is not completely blocked,” The New York Times wrote, noting that Bainum has publicly expressed a commitment to finding other backers for his bid after Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss’ withdrawal.

  • JOURNALISTS CONTINUE TO UNIONIZE: A record number of journalists have unionized amid the pandemic, Axios reported, the movement a byproduct of financial uncertainty, SPAC consolidation, and struggles for racial equity and inclusion. (Insider’s US editorial staff announced the formation of a union on Monday.) Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, told Sara Fischer that he expects the trend to grow as journalists return to in-person work.

  • LOCAL PUBLISHERS SUE TECH GIANTS: News publishers representing 126 different newspapers in eleven states have filed lawsuits against Google and Facebook, Editor & Publisher reported. “It is no longer appropriate for these two platforms to profit directly from local news while publishers increasingly struggle,” Jeremy Halbreich, chief executive of AIM Media, told Editor & Publisher.

  • ADVERTISING BOUNCES BACK: As the economy begins to rebound from the pandemic, advertisers are returning, Ben Smith wrote for The New York Times. “The big picture, though, amounts to a kind of optimism unseen in the gloomy digital publishing business for nearly half a decade,” Smith writes. Still, “Advertisers remain skittish of news, in particular, using key words to block display advertisements from appearing next to stories about polarizing subjects.” It remains to be seen how this development will affect local publishers.

  • LOCAL NEWS IS INFRASTRUCTURE: For The Hill, Victor Pickard argued that local journalism ought to be considered infrastructure and prioritized as such. “At the very least, we should be experimenting with a variety of noncommercial initiatives,” Pickard writes. “We lost a precious decade awaiting new business models and technological saviors instead of restructuring local journalism for the long term.” He proposes a variety of options for building such infrastructural change into the news ecosystem: federal jobs programs, vouchers, expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “A future without local journalism is as dire as a society without roads and bridges,” he concludes.

  • WHITE HOUSE PRESS ROOM COURTS LOCAL REPORTERS: The Biden administration will begin offering a virtual slot in the press briefing room for local journalists, the Washington Post reported last week. This “puts the Biden White House in step with other modern administrations that have sought ways of reaching past the national media to deliver news via local outlets, which are often more trusted in their communities and may afford the administration more time to make their case,” Annie Linsky writes.

  • COLLABORATION OVER COMPETITION: In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Black Calgarians launched Afros in Tha City Media—a hyper-local platform built to amplify Black voices—partnering with established independent news outlet The Sprawl to advance their work. The publications collaborated to hold events; The Sprawl also invested financially in Afros in Tha City, promoted their stories, and provided mentorship. “We chose collaboration over competition, resulting in incredible success for our new media collective,” Tomi Ajele wrote for the Indie Publisher newsletter.

  • LOCAL NEWS GOES THE WAY OF COAL: The Christian Science Monitor covered the crisis in local news, comparing the industry’s attrition to that of the coal mining world, noting that the newspaper business has shed jobs at a similar rate. “The mining analogy is apt,” Patrik Jonsonn writes. “Local papers, after all, provide the raw ore of information that filters up to regional and national media organizations. Taking them away leaves a news void that is filled by social media that is overwhelmingly driven by national trends.”

  • INDIANA PAPER LIVES AGAIN: In Indiana, publisher Don Hurd resurrected the Chesterton Tribune, which ceased publication last year, The Seattle Times reported. Hurd’s company, Hoosier Media Group, aims to own twenty-five papers, and his strategy is “running lean:” consolidating resources and cutting back a daily to a twice-weekly. 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Poynter has put together a list of places to search for journalism jobs and internships. MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites