The power and fragility of working in black media

July 13, 2013, was a near-perfect Sunday for Naima, my then three-month-old daughter, and me: we had spent the afternoon a few subway stops away from our Brooklyn apartment with two of my college girlfriends and their own infants. The three of us had all been pregnant at the same time, and this was our first chance to bring the babies together—two beautiful little boys and my princess.

We didn’t spend that day worrying about the dangers our children would meet when they were old enough to move around without our supervision. We didn’t talk about racial inequality or the biases they may encounter at the hands of teachers, doctors, or police officers. We didn’t talk about disparity. We basked in the possibilities for these darling babies and declared that they were bound for the Howard University class of 2035, where they’d follow in our footsteps and do us proud. It began to get dark, and my window of time for a Target run was closing, so I was hurriedly packing up the gear necessary to get an infant out of the house when a news alert on my phone brought me to a halt. A verdict had been reached in the trial of George Zimmerman, the 29-year-old man who’d shot unarmed teen Trayvon Martin to death in 2012.

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At the time, I was working as a digital editor for Ebony, the largest and oldest African-American magazine in the country, where I was no stranger to breaking-news interruptions to my personal time. (The death of Whitney Houston forced me to end a romantic getaway with my then boyfriend, a nail in the coffin for our already doomed relationship.) Ebony had covered the killing of Martin and the resulting protests extensively and prepared content that could be posted within minutes of any verdict. But we had thought the news wouldn’t come until  the following day—a Monday—or later in the week, so the Sunday-night announcement took me by a surprise.

I’d had a year and a half to brace myself for the possibility of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Yet, a few hours after fussing over bouncing brown babies who didn’t look so different from the bright-eyed teen at the heart of the trial, I found myself bent over in a Target store alone with a tiny baby and sobbing when the not guilty verdict was announced.

The experience I had when I went to work the next morning, which was very different from that of many of my professional peers, makes plain why I chose to spend seven years working at black-owned, black-led media companies: I was surrounded by bleary-eyed black folks who’d been just as heartbroken as I was by both the shooting and the outcome of the shooter’s trial. We were sad, we were mad…but we had each other.

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Working at Ebony, and subsequently at Interactive One, the digital arm of Urban One, the largest black-owned broadcasting company in America, I’d never once had to explain or defend my humanity in order to do my job. Though my colleagues and I were from different parts of the country and had varying class backgrounds, tastes, sexual orientations, and political beliefs, we were (for the most part) all quite clear that black lives matter. We believed that Trayvon Martin—like Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, and countless others—was murdered because of the color of his skin.

Jamilah Lemieux. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ADCOLOR)

Working in black media spaces allowed me to have the same experience professionally that I’d enjoyed in my home as a child, then at a black elementary school, and later at Howard, one of the nation’s largest and most storied Historically Black Colleges and Universities: one where the customarily headline facet of my identity was the norm. I had been the only feminist in some rooms, and the rare first-generation college graduate in others. I’d been a Northerner surrounded by Southern black folk, a non-Christian in a “secular” spaces that opened events with a prayer to Jesus, a bohemian lefty with a big nose ring and blue hair amid suit-wearing buppies. But having our race in common spared me micro- and macro-aggressions that have been the norm for so many of my peers who chose more diverse media organizations—and especially those who were the “diversity” in those spaces.

During my Ebony days, the writer Michael Arceneaux, a Howard classmate and most recently the author of the essay collection I Can’t Date Jesus, would often say to me or my colleagues, “It feels so good to be edited by black folks.” It was a common refrain from black freelance writers who also contributed to outlets largely staffed by white editors who would assign them stories about race but lacked the cultural competency to adequately edit their work. Often the results were frustration, disappointment, and killed stories—which were then sometimes offered to us at Ebony.

Of course, there were reasons those writers didn’t bring us their pieces first—namely our low budgets. To attract established writers like Arceneaux as well as the photographers and artists who created our covers and editorial spreads, we leaned on the legacy of the iconic brand, our own personal networks, and the idea that supporting black media is a cultural obligation. More often than not, we made magic happen on a dime.

But one day the dimes ran out. I had been through periods at the magazine when checks to writers, graphic designers, and photographers were cut later than promised, compromising my relationships with a number of these freelancers—some of them dear friends. I left the company in August 2016, shortly after an ownership change, and in the following months I heard that the payment situation had worsened. With the support of the National Writers Union, in 2017 a group of writers sued the owners of Ebony for failing to pay them for their work and were awarded a judgment of $80,000 the following year.

While I make no apologies for my former employer’s treatment of these independent contractors, I will note that black publications have faced unique business challenges since long before the print-media industry began to collapse. For starters, there is the racial bias of advertisers. The race of our readers often meant companies often weren’t willing to spend as much to reach them, even in instances when we had a wider reach than “mainstream” outlets.

And even when advertisers were interested and willing to pay, many of them had a particular fearfulness about controversial or “provocative” subjects that often left us faced with tough editorial decisions. Imagine how difficult it is to find advertiser-friendly approaches to matters of race, sexuality, and politics—some of the most urgent issues affecting black readers—when so many of the gatekeepers in the ad industry are concerned with how their work with us would be received by white consumers or with their own levels of (dis)comfort with those subjects.

I’m no longer at a place where I can fight the same fights any longer. I left Interactive One this July, and I’ve since decided that I won’t be working full-time for any publication in the foreseeable future. Currently I’m freelancing, consulting, working on a book, and in the early stages of a few other projects. But I remain committed to avoiding being the single or rare black staffer in a white media space.

There are black publications that have given up on having an impact and have settled on staying afloat instead, and others whose senior leadership is just as conservative as their white, right-wing counterparts and who are just as willing to sell black readers short for a dollar or two. Keeping black media true to its most important mission—telling the truth about and to and for black audiences—will require bold new leadership at our existing publications and the creation of young, independent new outlets, and I will gladly continue to support them.

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Jamilah Lemieux is a freelance writer and consultant. Previously, Lemieux was vice president of News and Men’s Programming for iOne Digital, and served as the Senior Editor at Ebony.