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Where Do Black Journalists Go From Here?

The current industry-wide revolt echoes demands made by members of the Black press since at least 1827, but today’s rebellion feels like a breaking point.

David “Dee Delgado”/Getty Images

Talking about the whiteness of the media isn’t anything new but, this time, feels different. Earlier this month, Black New York Times staffers organized a public campaign to denounce a racist op-ed calling for the use of military force against protesters. The following week, staff at Bon Appétit led calls for the resignation of the magazine’s white editor in chief after a photo of him in brownface recirculated online, which incited an industry-wide reckoning over the treatment of Black people and non-Black people of color in food media. Before that, management at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette barred two Black journalists from covering protests against racist police violence—alleging they could not do so “fairly”—which sent the staff union and local advertisers into shared rebellion against the paper. The list of parallel insurgencies from the last few weeks could go on: The Los Angeles Times. Vogue. The Washington Post. Refinery 29. The Philadelphia Inquirer. This cycle of upheaval only exacerbated the already-existing calls from Black journalists for a new media landscape. After being hit hard by Covid-19 media layoffs, leading the reporting on racial disparities among coronavirus cases, enduring abuse from both police and publications while covering the George Floyd uprisings, and suffering the seemingly constant discrimination of white newsrooms, Black journalists are tired. To be a working Black journalist is to live in a perpetual state of exhaustion.

The data here is by now familiar: A 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of newsroom employees are white and just 7 percent are Black. This is pathetic, but tracks when you consider the severe barriers to breaking into journalism faced by Black media workers and the obstacles to advancement once in the door. Black journalists are less likely to find full-time jobs than their white counterparts. (And the internships that usually lead to full-time positions aren’t always accessible to Black journalists—many may not have the means to do unpaid or stipended work or the housing resources to spend a summer interning in New York or Washington, D.C.) According to a 2019 survey from the American Society of News Editors, people of color make up only 18.8 percent of newsroom managers at print, digital, and online-only publications. (The New Republic, like other magazines, has also been a historically white institution.) The result of this isn’t only slighted journalists but that the nation’s diverse public goes underserved.

“It’s gonna come either smoothly or by force,” Danielle Kwateng, Teen Vogue’s entertainment and culture director, told The New Republic. “People stepping down and the movement are the force. But I would hope that, for longevity, boards and different groups in higher positions of power critically think about: What do we need to make this newsroom balanced? What do we need to tell authentic stories? And who are the people that should be behind the pen?”

Black journalists are demanding industry support, institutional change, and investment—rather than white editors clamoring to find a Black freelancer when police brutality is in the headlines. But far from being new, this industry-wide revolt echoes demands made by members of the Black press since at least 1827 and is an extension of the overall fight for Black liberation in the United States. Even as publications sharpen their diversity policies, and unions work to support underrepresented media workers, meaningful change has been slow to come, if at all. In response, Black journalists have also turned to launching their own publications, starting newsletters, and trading in draining staff jobs for the uncertainty of freelance work. While we’ve seen versions of all of this before—urgent calls for justice in our newsrooms, alternative models to mainstream press—today’s rebellion feels like a breaking point. Or at least it should. But where do Black journalists go from here?

Organizing and discussion about the lack of meaningful newsroom diversity and the marginalization of Black journalists and coverage of Black communities can be found as far back as the nineteenth century. “We want absolute impartiality in newspaper treatment, and when we fail to get it from white papers we forthwith go to publishing and editing newspapers ourselves—hence the Globe, the Recorder, and other papers published to proclaim the wrongs, and demand redress for the people,” a Black journalist with The Cleveland Gazette wrote in the August 1883 issue.

Black media workers today are still tasked with filling information gaps with no real industry support. In response to a lack of sustained national coverage of the issue, journalist Patrice Peck launched a newsletter focused on the coronavirus’s impact on Black communities. Nearly two hundred years earlier, Black journalists at Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s very first African American–owned and operated newspaper, launched the publication to serve as the only official voice pushing back against the racist propaganda published in the white journals of the time. “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation in things which concern us dearly,” the journalists wrote in the very first issue in March 1827.

The 1968 Kerner Commission report noted the same pattern more than a century later. “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, and promoting Negroes,” the Commission wrote. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

But it didn’t begin then in any meaningful institutional sense. It is difficult to disrupt whiteness in newsrooms when the white supremacy of the nation is so embedded in these institutions that it feels almost impossible to eradicate. Still, despite the institutional marginalization, trauma, and constant fatigue that accompanies this work, Black journalists continue reporting, writing, and telling stories with nuance, care, and expertise. From the Ferguson uprising and the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to the current protests following the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, and the routine violence faced by Black trans women, Black journalists must report on Black death in spite of the ever-present dread and despair of doing so. Speaking to this experience in 2015, MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee told NPR, “As journalists who are also humans, I don’t think we always do a good enough job of identifying that this does take a toll in some way. We’re taught to be vigilant and courageous and seek the truth and shine light in very dark places. But that means you have to go to dark places and shine light. And that can take a lot out of you.”

We carry this particular burden while contending with a larger field that virtually shuts us out physically and financially. The recent Covid-related layoffs at Vibe prompted conversations about the loss of Black voices in journalism. Jet and Ebony magazines have all but disappeared. Essence magazine, a mainstay of Black culture for decades, was quickly put on the chopping block during Time Inc.’s financial instability. In the 1920s, the historic Chicago Defender was raking in six figures, according to Black press historian and Niagara University professor Carrie Teresa. Today, the Defender, once hailed as one of America’s most important Black publications, exists only online. This feels distinct from the general downward trend of media revenues and newsroom budgets. Facing disproportionate and racist economic harm during and beyond our back-to-back recessions, Black media institutions are less likely to survive a dismal economy than white ones. Black journalists face the same economic strain. “If you can’t get paid, you’ll starve,” historian and Howard University professor Clint Wilson II told me. “Basically we need to change the norm. We need a new normal in which our strong principles are the basis for survival. If principles can become the financial fuel in media, then we got a chance.”

But even when a media institution is financially stable, getting in the door is only half of it. Once working at publications, Black journalists deal with the almost constant weaponization of objectivity—the idea that journalists are to be independent observers of news. Much like in the case of the Black Pittsburgh journalists barred from covering protests, writers are told that their social location and experiences make them incapable of reporting the news fairly. Objectivity, though, is usually just code for centering whiteness.

“There’s this idea of ‘the voice from nowhere,’ even though the voice from nowhere is white dudes from Ivy league schools or big, prestigious publications,” Gene Demby, NPR correspondent and co-host of Code Switch, told me. “They established the rules of objectivity. Everyone else’s experiences were being filtered through the lens and mouths and words of these people and sold as objectivity—sold as this thing that had no political bent. What I think is dangerous is that we present a lot of stuff in news media as fundamentally universal.”

“The way we talk about so many things is wrapped up in who is powerful and who isn’t,” he continued. “There’s nothing objective about modern journalism. There’s a lot of ceremony about objectivity, but capital matters a lot.”

Kenya Hunter, a young journalist, was the only Black reporter during her time at Georgia’s Rome News-Tribune. She says she gave up on her dreams of being a broadcast journalist because she was repeatedly pressured by more established journalists to cut off her dreadlocks. Even now, as a reporter for Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Hunter has an almost constant fear of being accused of bias. “I always get nervous about being critical of these ethics we are told to adhere to because I don’t want to get fired. I’m pretty measured with every tweet I send out because I don’t want my credibility as a reporter questioned,” she told The New Republic.

“There’s no denying that news outlets across the country have been agents of white supremacy. Journalism needs me. Period,” she said. “bell hooks always talks about imagining a world where Black people are loved, and I think journalism needs to be a part of building that imagination.”

March marked the 193rd anniversary of the founding of America’s Black press. And over the course of those nearly two centuries, many have asked if the Black press is dying. A better question is: What must die in order for Black journalism to thrive? The struggles of Black journalism are inextricably linked to the capitalist, white supremacist foundation of the nation. The issues plaguing the field, both past and present, are the result of structural racism and poverty that are both reflected and reproduced in the current media system. A better future for Black journalism will not rest on implicit bias training for staff or more Black (often under-resourced) offshoots like R29 Unbothered, NBCBLK, and The Undefeated, but an unwavering, fierce commitment to dismantling the systems of oppression that impact Black people in every field.

It’s a reality that can feel a long way off, but Black journalists have found strength in unionization and forming freelance organizations that work to create more opportunities and stable conditions outside of staff jobs. The National Association of Black Journalists has served this purpose since the 1970s, providing job opportunities, events, networking programs, award opportunities, and a yearly conference to serve the mundane but essential purpose of bringing Black journalists together to share perspective, experience, and vision. Labor unions like the Writers Guild of America, East and the NewsGuild include diversity and inclusion provisions in contracts with publications that have helped take steps toward more diverse hiring and closing staggering salary gaps among staff. (The New Republic is unionized with the NewsGuild.)

Beyond the traditional newsroom, some publications have adopted a cooperative model, sometimes even allowing their readers to be part owners of the publications through shares. Others take an even more grassroots approach, with publications like Wear Your Voice magazine and Race Baitr relying heavily on donations and even membership platforms like Patreon to stay afloat and remain independent. Black journalists have also increasingly begun launching newsletters to maintain complete creative control of their work, while Twitter accounts like Writers Of Color and Disabled Writers serve as crucial networks to make job and freelance opportunities available to underserved writers.

These are just pieces of a longer project. The success and well-being of Black journalists won’t come from gestures of absolution or quotas for “diversity hires” in newsrooms. Change will stem from an industry and institutional commitment to co-conspiratorship, a commitment to curiosity and asking the hard questions. Journalism isn’t just a descriptive field. The narratives advanced by mainstream media outlets give the public tools to interpret the world they live in and, if done in a way that gives subjects the justice they’re due, the tools to build something better. These commitments to a more just future are also commitments to a more just media landscape. These things are co-constitutive—they depend on one another. It is not simply the presence of Black people in newsrooms that signifies meaningful change but a commitment to uprooting the inherent oppressive nature of white media.

“People think, ‘Oh, we’ll just hire some Black people.’ And everything the institution does can be fundamentally the same. But no, you would have to radically rethink the space,” NPR’s Demby told me. “The whiteness of those spaces are so endemic to them that in order for it to be a place that is not hostile … you have to think about hierarchy and power dynamics in conversations. You’d have to have different protocols, proactively. It’s not just a thing for Black journalists to undo. The news media needs to actively interrogate its relationship with these ideas.”