Monday, December 5th, 2022

How Capital B is covering Warnock v. Walker

In Georgia, for more than a week, voters have been standing in line—for hours, in some cases—to cast ballots in the Senate runoff between Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, and Herschel Walker, his Republican opponent. Across the state, there is a feeling of restlessness. “Senate time is supposed to last six years––there are people who have voted for Senator Raphael Warnock four times in less than two years,” Chauncey Alcorn, a politics reporter for Capital B, a nonprofit digital media startup aimed at Black readers, told me. It’s a historic matchup––only the second time two Black major-party candidates have faced off in a Senate race (the first was in Illinois in 2004, Barack Obama versus Alan Keyes). In Atlanta, where Capital B established its first local newsroom, Alcorn and his colleagues have been traversing the city, talking to Black voters.

Their office is situated in a warehouse turned coworking space on the BeltLine, a trail and transit system, described variously as revitalized or gentrified, that comprises twenty-two miles of unused railroad tracks circling the city’s core. The other day, Gavin Godfrey, the Atlanta editor of Capital B, met with the team to discuss coverage. “Reporting on Black people as a monolith is out the door,” he said. Godfrey, who is thirty-eight, has a clean-shaved head, trimmed beard, and glasses; he wore jeans and a gray zip-up sweater. His background is in civic journalism—he previously edited a community reporting project called Canopy Atlanta––and tends to steer the site not toward politicians but their constituents. Over the course of the midterm election season, Capital B Atlanta has hosted four focus groups targeting cohorts of Black voters: men, women, LGBTQ people, and first-timers. “We’re not going to understand how Black voters are thinking by a few focus groups,” Godfrey said, “but I think it was a good exercise in active listening.”

The national hub of Capital B started to take form in 2020, amid the protests against police brutality. Lauren Williams, who had been the editor in chief of Vox, and Akoto Ofori-Atta, the managing editor of The Trace, had long discussed how to better serve Black audiences. It seemed like the time had come to act. “We felt that this was an urgent moment and believe that journalism can be a strong solution to the crisis we face,” Ofori-Atta said. “If we are equipped to help see that through, we thought about whether we could do that in places that had a long way to go to get things right or we could just build something that, from the start, embodies change.” Capital B debuted at the start of this year, with nine million dollars in philanthropic funding, much of it from the Ford Foundation and the American Journalism Project.

The Senate race set up Capital B Atlanta for a busy start. Warnock first took office in a special election that went into a runoff; once in office, he voted to convict Donald Trump for his role in inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection. Walker, who had been a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia, was endorsed by Trump (he’d appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice) and accused of threatening women with violence. As the months went by, Walker was caught in one scandal after another, often glittering with hypocrisy (he has taken a strong antiabortion stance, but reportedly paid for two abortions). “Some of the feedback that I’ve gotten is that he’s a caricature, a white person’s idea of what a Black person is,” Alcorn said of Walker. 

In recent months, Alcorn has reported on how the strategy to run Walker as a Republican candidate has fallen flat among Black people (“I think you’re going to find that he’s quite conservative,” a political scientist told him) and the reasons why some Black conservatives have backed Walker (their support has little to do with racial identity). Alcorn has reported that Black voters are roughly 90 percent Democrat and 10 percent Republican, but that the major-party binary “doesn’t really convey the intricacies of the Black experience.” Some voted for Warnock but not for Stacey Abrams, who ran as a Democrat for governor. 

Sydney Sims, a general-assignment reporter, has also been covering Black voters. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here––we’re not the only Black publication in town,” she said. What sets Capital B Atlanta apart, she believes, is a focus on marginalized Black people within the marginalized Black community. Sims described bringing printed copies of one of her stories to her elderly sources because they aren’t in the habit of reading news online. “It’s things like that that make us think about how we are being received in a media space that is already distrusted, unreliable a lot of times, and very elite,” she said.

Recently, Kenya Hunter, a health reporter for Capital B, went to cover an incident involving a group of seniors, some of whom were wheelchair-bound; they’d been directed to an incorrect polling site twelve miles from where they belonged—rendering them unable to cast a vote. Hunter thought she’d arrived late to the story: “There were reporters who were there,” she said. But no one ended up publishing an article. “There are Black people who have more access to the press in the same way that wealthy white people do,” she said, “and I think that those are the Black people that mainstream media tends to talk to.”

“We get to embrace all aspects of the Black community, and no one’s going to question whether or not it’s a relevant story,” Godfrey said. Still, Capital B Atlanta is continuing to develop its voice. Some of the most popular stories have been service journalism pieces: guides to navigating Georgia’s complex voting laws, explainers on what the tax surplus refund means, an article on how to find a Black doctor. For many on staff, devoting attention to what their audience wants—instead of the many problems Black reporters can face in majority-white newsrooms—is a new experience. “There’s a lot of pretense when people are focusing on Black communities,” Hunter said. “Here, there’s no need to pretend.”