City Paper is not for tourists
As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.
Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.
In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.
This underrepresentation of black reporters in staff and leadership positions results in non-existent or inaccurate coverage of D.C.’s diverse black communities, and it’s taxing on writers like myself who feel compelled to represent for an entire race of people.
Over the past six years, I’ve written for 18 publications. Early in my career, I freelanced for as many as seven outlets at a time—not because I wanted to, but because that’s how many gigs I needed to pursue my dream of becoming a journalist while managing the responsibilities of being a single mother.
Working for mostly local outlets, I built a career around my passion for writing and compassion for marginalized communities. That meant sharing the perspectives of my neighbors when other journalists fell short in telling their stories, uncovering disparities years before other publications caught up, and shining a light on black residents when we feel invisible in this changing city.
I’ve made a point of writing for mainstream publications because they have the audiences who most need to read these stories.
My most challenging time as a black journalist was at DCist, where I was a staff writer from 2015 until 2017. I was, in fact, the first full-time black staffer in the history of the publication, a long overdue feat considering the blog launched in 2004 when D.C. was still known as “Chocolate City.”
As a staff of all women, we made time to check in about everything from Tinder dating to endometriosis—things I wouldn’t have necessarily felt comfortable speaking about with men in the room.
What was never lost on me, though, was my presence as the only black person in our tiny WeWork office. In a fast-paced work environment, in which I wrote up to four stories a day, navigating a white space became claustrophobic. I sometimes wondered if certain stories were assigned to me stereotypically, because I’m black. I also had a self-imposed feeling of taking responsibility for all of the black stories. Yet I didn’t want to get boxed in to all things east of the Anacostia River.
It was difficult to write about another black man being murdered, or noose being hung, and there was no one in the room who could relate. It wasn’t that my colleagues wouldn’t have understood my need for a mental reprieve, it was that I didn’t always have the energy to explain it.
For solace, I befriend a black guy who worked for an organization down the hall. We’d often meet up in the building to vent, laugh, and catch up on life. On multiple occasions after seeing us together, my colleague asked, “Was that guy bothering you?” I felt that she perceived my sole source of comfort as a threat. It was infuriating.
My body responded to my work anxiety with shortness of breath. For the last month of my employment, I couldn’t control it whether I was on or off the clock—just the thought of work made me panic. In late October 2017, I requested a weeklong vacation, during which time I searched for new jobs.
On Nov. 2, 2017, exactly two years after my first day, I got a call that DCist had abruptly shut down. (DCist’s parent company shuttered all of its sites about a week after its writers in New York voted to unionize.) After I hung up the phone, I exhaled. And several therapy sessions later, I learned how to breathe again.
Earlier this year, DCist was resurrected by WAMU—part of the broadcast media that’s locally more diverse than print. I decided not to return, but hoped another black writer could pick up the mantle.
To my disappointment, that did not happen. In a statement, my former editor Rachel Sadon tells me that DCist is still committed to diversity in the hiring of both full-time and freelance writers. “Publishing work by writers from a variety of backgrounds makes for a stronger news outlet, one that better reflects the city that we seek to cover and brings to light a broader range of stories,” she says.
My experiences and the underrepresentation of black reporters at local publications is not limited to DCist. Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper, could use a heavy dose of melanin—to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.
Over the past few months, I’ve sought to find out why the landscape looks this way, how that impacts news coverage and other reporters, and what needs to happen to reach racial parity in our local news media.
Obviously, the discussion about diversity in print media kicked off long before I started writing. The movement spans decades.
In response to a series of race riots in the summer of 1967, a government advisory board called the Kerner Commission urged white media outlets to expand coverage of black communities and race problems “through permanent assignment of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs.”
Immediately after the Kerner report, “most of the media companies started doing a bit to address the problem, and it’s been a big fight since,” according to E.R. Shipp, a black reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Daily News columns on race, welfare, and other social issues.
In 1972, a group of black reporters at The Washington Post filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the newspaper. Of The Post’s 396 employees, 9 percent were black; and black reporters comprised 17 percent of the Metro staff. These were the highest percentages of black reporters at a U.S. newspaper with a circulation of more than 10,000 at the time.
But in a city that was 71 percent black, the reporters, who became known as the “Metro Seven,” demanded that more black journalists be hired and promoted across all sections of the paper, and that more of them were allowed to cover the local black community.
For the record: “You don’t have to be black to report on black communities,” says Richard Prince, a member of the Metro Seven. The Kerner Commission recommended that media outlets report on black communities whether they have black reporters or not, he points out.
But the devil is in the details. White reporters “miss a lot of the nuance sometimes and that can be embarrassing and hurt your credibility,” explains Prince, who now runs the website Journal-isms, which is dedicated to discussing diversity issues in the news media.
Though the Metro Seven decided not to sue the newspaper for financial reasons, the landmark complaint inspired discrimination suits at papers in the years to come. And in 1978, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) launched a diversity survey to track employment trends in U.S. newsrooms.
“We feel that a diverse and inclusive newsroom is very important to any organization being able to cover the news of their community—it ties in with trust and truth,” says Teri Hayt, the organization’s executive director. ASNE has used its survey to measure its goal of racial parity. That means the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms across the country should equally reflect the country’s minority population.
To be clear, I asked Hayt: D.C. is 47 percent black, so each publication in the city should be comprised of 47 percent black reporters?
“When you say parity and you put that number out there, yes, that sounds right,” she says, adding immediately that national print media is a long way to reaching the equality goal that ASNE originally set for 2000, then later pushed to 2020, and again to 2025.
By the 1980s, it had become cool to push for diverse newsrooms, says Shipp, who’s now a journalism professor at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. “You would go to any convention and white folks were falling all over themselves” trying to hire black reporters.
Hamil Harris, who also teaches at Morgan State, came to The Post in 1992. There seemed to be a lot of black reporters, plus editors who were African-American, says Harris, who now occasionally writes for City Paper and other outlets. “It was an exciting time. They were people of color and they were damn good.”
But as the ’90s inched on, publications became less interested employing black journalists, according to Shipp. Editors began hiring Latinx and Asian reporters to satisfy their diversity quota. “In some cases, maybe some of the other folks were not as much trouble as [black people]. We were vocal. They were probably looking for somebody who wasn’t as vocal,” she says.
A spokesman for The Post declined to comment for this story or allow me to interview a staffer. Instead, he pointed me to the newspaper’s ASNE diversity survey results for 2018. The data show that, in the more than four decades since the Metro Seven complaint, The Post’s overall percentage of black reporters is three points higher. With all staffers of color making up 39 percent of the newsroom, the newspaper is still one of the most diverse of comparable size.
What’s more telling at The Post could be the diversity of its leadership. Kevin Merida became the first African-American managing editor of the newspaper in 2013. Two years later, he stepped down to become editor-in-chief at ESPN’s The Undefeated.
At this point, according to Prince, “you don’t have anybody leading any news departments at The Post who’s African-American—and that shows up from time to time in news judgement.”
Earlier this year, another local publication was under question from black D.C. residents after a botched marketing campaign. On its Instagram page, Washingtonian posted a series of photos featuring people modeling the magazine’s new T-shirts that read “I’m not a tourist. I live here.”
“I had a visceral reaction of anger because I’m from here and nobody who looks like me was represented,” says Micha Green, editor of the Afro.
After a few hours of backlash on social media, Washingtonian deleted the Instagram post and CEO Cathy Merrill Williams apologized, writing that the campaign “did not represent the wonderfully diverse city in which we live.”
Less than a week later, activist Tony Lewis Jr. and entrepreneur Angel Anderson hosted a photo shoot at Union Market for native Washingtonians, which Green covered for the Afro. “There were primarily black D.C. natives wearing all black and showing their D.C. pride,” Green says. “It felt beautiful—like unexpectedly walking into a family reunion. I knew I would see people I knew and people I didn’t know, but I didn’t think it was going to be hundreds gathered in celebration for being D.C. natives of color.”
Inside the newsroom, Washingtonian’s editorial staff has used the incident as an opportunity for reflection and growth. “The fact that people took [the ad campaign] as some sort of comment about the magazine made me really sad because I think we actually work very hard to present the whole region and everyone who lives in it,” says the magazine’s editor Michael Schaffer.
The incident has affected the way Elliot Williams, a black assistant editor at Washingtonian, reports and looks for stories. “It’s tough being a reporter—your job is literally to put things out there in the public every single day and with that comes a huge responsibility,” says Williams, who was a fellow at the magazine when the campaign rolled out. “Seeing how much that hurt people was eye-opening and doesn’t reflect what the editorial staff tries to do.”
Williams, 25, and staff writer Brittany Shepherd, 24, were hired shortly after the campaign. While they’re the first full-time black staffers on the magazine’s 16-member editorial team since Schaffer took over in 2014, the editor says he didn’t hire them solely based on race.
“I think the ability to be involved in life in different communities in Washington is a qualification itself. I don’t just mean demographic communities but people who know the suburbs pretty well, people who know the city, people who can call up and get stories out of Republicans,” Schaffer says, adding that the general interest magazine caters to a regional audience, not just D.C.’s city limits.
After the backlash, Schaffer invited Lewis Jr. to the office. Both Williams and Shepherd were at the meeting where they discussed ways to collaborate on stories in the future. While Williams says the incident showed him how important his voice is at the magazine, being one of a few black writers is still a balancing act.
“You don’t want to only pitch black stories because you don’t want to get pigeonholed as the black writer, but it’s tough because you want to be the one who covers the things that involve your community,” he says. “You already feel like if someone scoops a good story, ‘that should have been me,’ but I think the feeling intensifies if my white colleague writes about some really cool black event. But at the same time, you don’t want to be the go-to black reporter.”
Jelani Cobb, an author, professor, and staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote a piece for The Guardian earlier this month titled “When newsrooms are dominated by white people, they miss crucial facts.” In it, he talked about his first paid gig at a majority-white publication. Washington City Paper editor David Carr gave him that opportunity in 1996.
At the time, City Paper was known to have “chilly relations with much of the city’s majority black population. In addition to the lack of minority representation on staff, the paper’s critical coverage of the mayoralty of Marion Barry was often read as thinly veiled racial condescension,” Cobb wrote.
To diversify the staff and plug holes in City Paper’s coverage, Carr created a paid internship program, according to Cobb, who was part of the first cohort alongside Holly Bass, now a writer and playwright; Neil Drumming, currently a producer with This American Life; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a National Book Award winner and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient.
More than two decades later, Kayla Randall is the only full-time black staffer on City Paper’s 11-member editorial team. She was hired as City Lights editor in the fall of 2017 after working as a Washingtonian fellow.
“After we interviewed Kayla, it was immediately unanimous that she was the best person for that job,” says City Paper’s arts editor Matt Cohen, touting Randall’s skills and experience. It was also “her perspective as a black woman,” which he says was “sorely needed” on staff.
“When we hire people, we want to add voices to our newsroom that will help us think differently,” he says. “If we’re a newsroom of a bunch of white people or white men or whatever, that perspective is limiting. So when you have a newsroom of people from different backgrounds, we have conversations about how we should be covering stuff from multiple perspectives and that is definitely something that we think about a lot in our hiring.”
Randall has taken on this challenge with confidence. “Other people will never know or understand the black experience—it doesn’t matter how much you tell them, how many stories you write, how many Ta-Nehisi Coates books you give them. They’re not going to know what it’s like to be black in this world,” she says. “That’s why we need to be in these spaces, otherwise you’re erasing us, you’re erasing our culture—whether you mean to or not.”
She also acknowledges that not everyone carries this burden. “Some black people move through life without being conscious of their own racial makeup and how the world sees them, but I can’t do that.”
Being a conscious black reporter requires the will to defend yourself. At 24 years old, Randall has grappled with this weight after being one of few black writers in majority-white spaces.
“If you’re young and black, you’re afraid of a lot of things,” she says. “You almost distrust your own feelings because you’re not sure what you’re feeling is what’s actually going on—you second guess yourself because society has taught you that you shouldn’t jump to race as a factor, or it’s all in your head, it’s not really happening … nobody’s discriminating here.”
You don’t want to be the person to bring up race issues, you want everything to go smoothly, she says. “I feel weird speaking about things that offend me sometimes, but I have to push that doubt aside because my feelings are valid.”
The office culture at City Paper “isn’t buttoned-up, which is good for me,” Randall says. “People are allowed to speak their minds.”
At Washingtonian, Shepherd also feels comfortable using her voice, which she doesn’t take for granted. “I know people who work at places where tone-policing is something that’s really prominent—that’s something that I was aware of in the previous jobs I held. I’m black, so I can’t be the loud black person … I can’t be the angry black woman.”
There are times at Washingtonian when she disagrees with editors. “I’m very loud about it,” she says. “That kind of attitude has been well received—they appreciate people who fight, even if they don’t necessarily agree on a pitch all the way.” She is, in fact, able to express a full range of emotions. “I’ve been able to be angry, sad, cry in my office, and be this electric person—I’ve never had that shut down.”
But there’s also something to be said for having people with similar cultural experiences in the place where you spend the majority of your day. During stressful times, such as an onslaught of police brutality in the news, Shepherd turns to Williams or Rosa Cartagena, a Latinx web producer at Washingtonian. “I can go and shoot the shit about that stuff [with them] and it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable.”
Williams agrees. “It’s almost like in college when you go to your black friends and connect with them in the way that you might not with your white friends—it’s not to say that you don’t have a connection with your white friends, but you were able to connect over things in your culture,” he says.
At City Paper, Randall connects with black staffers on other teams. “Our advertising side has powerful black people who are in charge and that makes me happy,” she says. “I see them everyday, we go to the kitchen, we talk to each other—so I don’t feel uncomfortable, like ‘Oh my God, there’s no black people in this building.’”
I interviewed more than a dozen journalists for this article, hoping to get a better understanding of why, exactly, there aren’t more black reporters at our local news desks.
There was at least one consensus: It’s not because there aren’t enough qualified black reporters to hire. “I call bullshit on that,” says Jason Zaragoza, the executive director at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), of which City Paper is a member.
As a Mexican-American reporter, he’s part of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. His girlfriend is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). In both groups, he’s met lots of qualified reporters, but he’s also noticed that “people tend to hire people who look like and think like themselves,” even if they do so unconsciously. “There’s a reason we talk about unconscious bias—it’s a very real thing.”
Still, publishers have claimed there’s a lack of black candidates “since the beginning of time,” according to Shipp, who says the NABJ was formed in part “to tell publishers that if they truly wanted black reporters, they could help them find them quite easily.”
Shipp believes black journalists are underrepresented for a number of reasons, from longtime journalists retiring and switching careers to publications downsizing or cutting circulation altogether. In regard to the financial crisis in the media industry, both Shipp and Hayt pointed to the old saying “last hired, first fired,” which disproportionately impacts minority reporters who don’t attain the same level of seniority as their white counterparts.
As with many industries, it also boils down to who you know, says Zaragoza, adding that AAN has diversity scholarships to bring young journalists of color to the organization’s conferences so they can “rub shoulders” with the editors and publishers who make hiring decisions.
Shepherd, who says she had a connection when she applied to Washingtonian, agrees. “Journalism is such a mentor-heavy industry, you’ve got to get a mentor—I’ve had six.” And as a minority reporter, it’s hard to put yourself out there, she says. “You have more to lose. If someone’s like, ‘Oh that Brittany was overeager, you shouldn’t hire her,’ what happens then? I’m fucked.”
As a young reporter in D.C., “the competition is insane,” according to Williams, who studied communications at Villanova University. He had an internship at The Atlantic and was part of a program that sent him to Rome to cover the Vatican. He then attended Syracuse University as a graduate fellow in a program for students of color.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that I would have to do all those things to be considered—things that maybe my white counterparts don’t have to do,” he says. “I don’t know if they get an easy way in, because I don’t think it’s easy for anybody, but I don’t think they have to jump as many hurdles. I think that’s known by white reporters—I talk to them about it. I think everyone knows in any field being black, you have to do twice as much.”
There’s a root cause for this.
“People hate it when you bring up slavery, institutionalized racism, and Jim Crow, but to act like that stuff didn’t have generational impact is absurd—the ramifications for enslaving people for 200 years are endless,” says Randall, adding that if she didn’t get student loans to attend Louisiana State University, she may have never made it to City Paper.
“I was a poor black person in New Orleans and a lot of poor black people aren’t getting the same opportunities—just by the sheer fact of being poor and black,” she says. “And if we do go to college, it’s like ‘Oh God, what do I do?’ People of all backgrounds who I went to high school with started dropping like flies after two years or three years in college—some never made it to a full semester.”
“So there’s this whole system in place since slavery that has sought to disenfranchise us, not educate us, and keep us out of the power structures,” she continues. “So when we break through the mold, it’s like a huge accomplishment.”
So what is local print media doing to change the system, and what else could it do?
At Greater Greater Washington, where I am currently a fellow, founder David Alpert says his staff has “worked really hard in recent years to advertise positions in places that we think would be seen by more people of color and other underrepresented groups. And we really make an effort to give thought when screening resumes to have a group of finalists with different backgrounds.”
To combat financial challenges, Washingtonian’s fellowship program is paid, says Schaffer, who worked at City Paper as a senior writer and editor from 1997 to 2000 and joined the alt-weekly again as editor from 2010 to 2012. “[Washingtonian’s stipend] isn’t a great salary, but when I came back to City Paper as editor, the interns were unpaid and I thought it was pretty horrible because when you work with no pay, it’s obviously going to be self-selecting for people who are more affluent and from less diverse backgrounds,” he says. “So when you have a program where you pay people, you’re going to wind up with more of a diverse population to pick from.”
Nena Perry-Brown is the only full-time black reporter on local real estate blog Urban Turf’s three-person editorial team. She suggests that editors be more proactive in courting writers with non-traditional backgrounds. “I definitely appreciate Urban Turf for taking a chance on me despite not having a background in writing,” says Perry-Brown, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, then worked in property management before making the transition to writing.
But at the end of the day, the onus might be on black journalists such as Shipp and Harris who are shaping the next generation as professors. “We’re not just sitting here counting daisies and looking for caskets, we’re fighting, we’re working,” says Harris, who adds that news organizations often contact Morgan State when they’re looking for viable candidates, and his students work hard to make contacts in the field.
For young black staffers, it’s about using what little authority they have to help one another. “I think it’s up to those people in power to include us, but if we are not included, I think we should do our own thing and promote each other,” says Randall, who encourages black writers to contribute to her City Paper section.
“I don’t think there’s any other community on this planet that is like us. We lift each other up. We care because we have a collective pain.”
Listen to the author talk about the article on Washington City Podcast here.