The Feature

Black media has a plan to stay relevant as mainstream journalists encroach

July 20, 2016
Minneapolis students walk out of school and protest. Credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Jet magazine’s decision to publish photos in 1955 of the disfigured body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in an open casket was radical for its time. Till was lynched in Mississippi after talking with a white woman in a grocery store. The moment marked the beginning of a period in which “evidence” such as those photos shined light on the mistreatment of African Americans in the US.

At the time, black-owned media outlets like Jet, serving primarily black audiences, were the dominant source of news about the black experience. These outlets pointed out injustice while amplifying the voices of black writers such as Ethel Payne and black community leaders like Marcus Garvey.

Today, the picture is very different. Mainstream media–fueled by amateur videos showing tragic interactions between police and people of color, social-media activism, and wider awareness of racial discrimination–have flocked to cover black issues, with dedicated beat reporters, black-focused verticals, and photos even more graphic than those shocking black-and-white images in Jet.

Mainstream interest in the black story has put black media in a tricky position in the battle for audience attention, but they’re not giving up the mantle without a fight. Black media outlets both digital and analog are responding by finding new story angles, choosing to focus not only on the events themselves but also on the larger context, with honest analysis of what politics and police brutality mean for the future of black Americans, and how they cope with daily life. These outlets are striving for a level of authenticity and trust that still eludes mainstream players–many of which employ few people of color.

A few examples: A Philly Trib story emphasizes the importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the context of a story about the man who killed five Dallas police officers; an Essence piece offers mental self-care tips for coping with the shootings; and an explainer on digital platform The Root shows how to orchestrate a “Blaxit”–its term for the relocation of a black US citizen to another country if Donald Trump wins the presidency.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“Black media is still shaping narratives that are overlooked, undervalued, and elevating stories,” says Jonathan Jackson, one of the co-founders of Blavity, a two-year-old digital-native news operation that got its name from the words “black” and “gravity”–which describes how Jackson’s black classmates at Washington University would often find one another and naturally gather together.

Blavity reaches seven million urban millennials per month, Jackson says, which has helped the site attract the attention of big-brand advertisers such as AT&T and HBO.

Blavity has dedicated a great deal of its coverage to the recent shootings and Black Lives Matter movement. Coverage includes an essay on the strength of black women in the midst of national struggles and an article on the 2016 ESPYS, where athletes spoke on social justice and honored those who recently lost their lives to gun violence. Despite the tragedies, Blavity also covers positive news to inspire and uplift the community, such as Marvel’s new Iron Man, a black teenage girl named Riri Williams based on Disney Channel star Skai Jackson–and a feel-good story on a community coming together to help a homeless teen. 

Personal investment is what makes black media’s coverage so important to the black community, regardless of ownership, says Vanessa De Luca, editor in chief at Essence.

“While we must act with journalistic integrity, we cannot pretend that we do not have a stake in the issues that are confronting our community,” she says.

The magazine typically features celebrities on its covers, but to show solidarity with its readers Essence scrapped its February 2015 cover as the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam. The result: a black cover with the phrase Black Lives Matter in large white letters and smaller hashtags such as #HandsUpDontShoot and #AliveWhileBlack underneath to represent different racially charged incidents.

“It was the first time in the 46-year history of the magazine that we did not feature a cover model or image, just those words,” De Luca says. “And it was one of the most critically acclaimed issues we have ever done.”

The appeal of Essence, Blavity, and other black media lies in their authentic voices. Stories often open in the first-person, as if the writer is having a conversation with readers. One Blavity article begins: “I love history, and in turn, I love black history. So much of our culture has been defined by those who’ve come before us, so I write this to capture and chronicle our narratives.”

Another common strategy is to build and nurture audiences on Twitter, the social-media platform that helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Compared to white users, blacks are 44 percent more likely to meet and network on the social network, according to a 2015 report by Nielsen. Blavity has more than 100,000 followers.

Arguably, Black Twitter itself falls in the realm of black media, as a forum for making connections and discussing race relations. The beauty of it is users can share their message without going through news outlets or other institutions that might get it wrong. It also can serve as a check on unreliable information, such as when the Dallas Police Department wrongly identified an innocent man as a suspect on Twitter amid chaos after the killing of five Dallas police officers. To be sure, Twitter isn’t perfect, as it provides a platform for overt racism and hate speech as well.

Traditional black-owned newspapers like the Philly Trib also are using their platforms to speak out and raise awareness about the issues plaguing their communities. In a recent commentary by Sheila Simmons, a columnist for the paper, she addresses her fears for black Americans: “In the land of the free and home of the brave, the nightmare continues for Black America,” she writes. “We are apparently available for public execution should an officer fear our presence.”

In the meantime, many mainstream news organizations have added reporters and editors dedicated to black coverage. The New York Times has its Race/Related newsletter, the Los Angeles Times hired a reporter to cover Black Twitter, and ESPN and The Huffington Post have added digital offerings completely focused on the black community.

ESPN’s black vertical, The Undefeated, has published a number of stories outside the realm of sports in response to the tragedies–one, a commentary on the life of Alton Sterling, and another, a suggested playlist of songs to lift spirits in the wake of so much tragic news. Journalists who work for these verticals say it is understood that their publications have to be fully committed to black life to work, and owners understand this.

“I believe ESPN’s president, John Skipper, knew the site needed to be a bit more robust,” says Maya Jones, associate editor at The Undefeated. “The sports element is wonderful, but there are so many more issues and concerns within our community that need to be written about and addressed, and that’s what we do.”

Simply being journalists and bringing personal, lived experiences to each story is enough for black journalists to have an impact, says Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

“We bring a perspective to news gathering that really makes coverage [a reflection of] our thinking and gives another dimension of telling stories,” she says.

That’s what makes having journalists of color in any newsroom an asset, says Jenisha Watts, associate editor at espnW. As a black journalist, she says, she is going to be naturally concerned about black issues. “All I can be is a black woman, so I can’t compromise my blackness. I don’t keep count of how many times I talk about black issues.”

While there are black journalists in mainstream newsrooms, the proportion rarely matches the population served. According to the American Society of News Editors, all people of color make up less than 13 percent of newsrooms, and just under 5 percent are African American. A recent CJR piece on newsroom diversity further breaks down the disparities by comparing New York City’s diversity to that of some New York publications.

There is a place for both black and mainstream media within the industry, says Lori Tharps, an associate professor at Temple University and freelance journalist. She views black media in the same light as niche publications that serve targeted audiences. However, she cautions this does not excuse the lack of diversity in mainstream media or its tendency to portray minorities in a certain light. It just reinforces the need for black media.

“Mainstream media is still so lacking in black representation–black writers, editors, people in positions of power that there’s just so much that these media entities miss,” Tharps says. “The perspective in which they approach many stories are the perspective of a white audience perhaps, and not necessarily a black audience.”

The ultimate value of all black media is that it gives a true and full picture of black life and culture. That’s why a recent piece in The New York Times raising questions about the financial stability of black media drew a lot of criticism among black journalists. The story notes: “As racial issues have once again become a prominent topic in the national conversation, the influence of black-owned media companies on black culture is diminishing.”

“Yes, it may be losing prominence in terms of the broader world knowing about what folks are looking at and all, but I guarantee you that black folks aren’t waiting for The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS for their news,” says Will Sutton, a journalism professor at Grambling State University and past NABJ president. “When black media cover those events, it’s different; they do it from a different perspective.”

Most every player in the news business is struggling financially, and black media is no exception. Some black journalists felt the Times piece came up short because it failed to mine the ways black media is working to stay relevant and focused on legacy names, not digital platforms that are breaking through.

“It seems every six months to a year something changes,” says Wayne Dawkins, a journalism professor at Hampton University, founder and CEO of the August Press, and founding editor of Columbia Journalism School’s Black Alumni Network. “If we don’t adapt, we’re toast.”

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.