The Triibe roams a Chicago overlooked by legacy media

Morgan Elise Johnson (left) and Tiffany Walden, co-founders of The Triibe. Photo by Keeley Parenteau.

EVERY TIME THEY SAW A STORY about Chicago, Tiffany Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson—best friends and sorority sisters from Northwestern University—were heartbroken and angry. Headlines and news coverage didn’t reflect the Chicago they knew: a city of young entrepreneurs and music stars, of people whose grief and despair deserved more than the journalistic hit-and-run that mainstream news too often delivered from black neighborhoods in Chicago. While the city’s top papers wrote about every murder in the city, less attention was paid to the lives of everyday people in those communities where violence occurred, even with reporters like Lolly Bowean on the beat at the Chicago Tribune. To Walden and Johnson, their city had become a political symbol of brokenness; black people were held up as the shards.

“Anytime you saw a Chicago headline, it was the murder town and it was making national news,” says Johnson, 28, who grew up in the north suburbs. “The Chicago we knew wasn’t reflected in the news.”

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The two complained to each other for months—Walden from her job as a breaking news reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Johnson from Milwaukee, where she worked as a filmmaker. Then, in 2015, Johnson and Walden returned to Chicago and began laying the groundwork for a digital media site for black millennials. The Triibe launched in February 2017, just months after the elections.

“The inauguration of President Trump just lit a fire under us,” says Johnson. “We needed to create a counter narrative.” With limited personal funds, the pair built The Triibe with no startup funding or grant support. A third member of The Triibe crew, David Elutilo, designed the site. The platform’s name is spelled with two “i”s because that was the web domain it could afford to purchase.

Everyone is chasing this single story. To me, The Triibe is the answer to that single story.

Johnson says she and Walden first envisioned The Triibe as “a digital hub to help black millenials find events”—some of which, she says, are underground.

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Since its inception, however, The Triibe has expanded beyond events. It now publishes stories about creating a safe space for women DJs of color, black restaurants, and the importance of music videos in Chicago’s increasingly prominent rap scence. One section of the site features poetry and creative writing; another invites opinion and commentary. Johnson is producing a documentary series that features friends and family members of people killed in Chicago. Walden, who is 29 and grew up on Chicago’s West Side, recently published the first installment of a series on the West Side of the city. The reporting explores “the allure of Chicago to Southern Blacks in the 1950s and the decades-long disinvestment and policing that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” The Triibe is partnering with the alt-weekly Chicago Reader—in February, it began publishing  “The Block Beat,” a multimedia series from The Triibe about black Chicago musicians and the neighborhoods they cherish.

“Everyone is chasing this single story” of what it means to be black in America, says Deborah Douglas, managing editor of the MLK50: Justice Through Journalism project and the incoming Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. “To me, The Triibe is the answer to that single story. It’s a publication that is about young, black Chicago, but to me it’s so much more. It fits in so many places in this ecosystem.”

 

A YEAR IN, THE TRIIBE reads like a digital diary of what it means to be young and black in Chicago, to be cool, tapped-in, and connected. Rather than attempt to cover hyperlocal news for all of Chicago, The Triibe focuses on culture and everyday life for black millenials.

“I love what they’re doing,” says Andrea V. Watson, a former DNAinfo reporter who is now the manager of digital media for Chicago Public Schools. “We had our Ebony and our Jet but they weren’t focused on millenials. We have a voice. We have stories that want to be told.”

Tatiana Walk-Morris, a Chicago-based freelance journalist who grew up in Detroit, said coverage of black communities in Chicago tend only to focus on crime and its intersection with politics. “I just see the same thing in Detroit, all this doom and gloom,” she says. “There should be a lot more nuance. When we only focus on crime, it becomes signaling for ‘What’s wrong with black America’ and, in turn, ‘What’s wrong with black people.’”

To write about black culture, says Walk-Morris, you also have to write about the pain that culture comes out of. “That’s the space I think they’re going to occupy,” she says of The Triibe.

The story of my adult life isn’t in Ebony or Jet or the Chicago Defender… I find more connections with publications like Triibe.

The Triibe’s office is in a black-owned co-op on the edge of the South Loop. Johnson is the media organization’s only full-time employee at the moment. Walden works another part-time job managing social media content. The Triibe raised more than $21,000 through a crowdsourced fundraising campaign earlier this year. Johnson says they are applying for media grants to cover their costs. Within the next year, they would like for Walden to come on full-time. Meanwhile, The Triibe exists off sponsorship packages and branded events. They recently started to pay some contributors, something they could not afford to do in the first year.

“Although there is black press here and there are black staples, we are one of the only black Chicago-owned media,” Johnson says. “We do take pride in that.”

In 2017, just as The Triibe was getting started, flagship magazines Ebony and Jet consolidated and moved news operations to California. Jet, which went digital-only in 2014, is aimed at an urban black millennial audience as well. But it is a national publication, not a hyperlocal one.

The Triibe is also confident of its digital presence; Johnson says The Triibe uses social media more effectively than legacy black publications like the Chicago Defender. “Our audience is black millennials,” she says. “It’s not as important for us to have a publication. People are identifying with the Triibe. There’s an advantage when you are growing organically.”

Tonika Johnson, a 38-year-old community activist and street photographer from the South Side, says the Triibe exists in a space where legacy black publications have floundered.

“A lot of these black publications are dealing with generational marketing shifts that they have to figure out,” she says. “Triibe fills in that void.”

Ebony and Jet, she notes, primarily offer entertainment coverage. “I’m not a millennial, and the story of my adult life isn’t in Ebony or Jet or the Chicago Defender,” she says. “They have that generational thing going. It’s hard as a media outlet grows and gets older to cater to the changing demographic. My specific age range got lost in the shuffle. I find more connections with publications like Triibe.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.