People of Color Must Innovate or Die in Digital Media

    by Retha Hill
    February 11, 2011

    In December in this space I asked about the lack of minorities at new media conferences — both as participants and as speakers. The blog post generated a lot of comments; a Twitter discussion, and the start of a list of wonderful experts — all persons of color — who can help make your next new media conference a success.

    I heard privately from a dozen or so white digital media leaders who confessed that they often wondered why new media seemed to be getting off on the wrong foot when it comes to diversifying staffs at operations and speakers at conferences. And I heard from conference organizers who reported that they were redoubling their efforts to reach out to a more inclusive group.

    Tiffany Shackelford, who was putting on a conference for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, for example, invited me to do the kickoff session on mobile at their digital conference in San Francisco at the end of January and had a very inclusive group of speakers over the weekend talkfest. The Online News Association reached out for that list that some of us put together back in 2009 and I am sure that the ONA’s Boston conference this year will reflect America.


    It is great to know that once presented with the problem and a solution — like here is a list — that people will try to do the right thing. But, of course, there is still much more work to be done in two areas: hiring at digital operations and getting many, many more newsy people of color to get into the digital game and getting them comfortable with the idea that new media, with all its messy talk of economics, is here to stay.

    A lot has been written about the refusal of many major digital operations to disclose their diversity numbers, so I’m not going to get into that much today only to say that history has a way of repeating itself. So if these operations refuse to be inclusive they should be prepared for the consequences.

    Innovation Issue

    The other issue is innovation within the ranks of journalists of color, which was part of the December post but didn’t get as much attention but needs to as planning gets under way for this summer’s NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA conferences. While it is nice to have the President or Boris Kodjoe speak at our conferences, it is more important to hear again and again from people who are leading the change in our industry and can show members how to survive this transition.


    In January, I read with dismay a pretty heated discussion on the NABJ listserv about Arianna Huffington’s and BET co-founder Sheila Johnson’s plan to launch a black channel on Huffington Post. Some members questioned whether there should be a separate black section (and, later, a Latino section) rather than seamlessly and regularly integrating black and brown news and commentary into the main HuffPost. But the debate quickly devolved into the business model of operations such as HuffPost of supplementing their original work by linking to content at other operations rather than hiring an army of reporters, editors, copy editors and photographers.

    On one side were the people who don’t want to hear anything other than the old business of big media hiring lots of people. On the other side, were people arguing that the model has changed and journalists of color need to not only embrace that reality but also become a part of it. “What I desire, and what burns me at times, is that we on this listserv are so close-minded to what is happening in our business, and then we complain about a lack of opportunities,” wrote one participant. “We are choosing to exist in the world of media as hired hands, as opposed to hands that can hire.”

    While I am so sympathetic to journalists worried about being a casualty of the next round of layoffs, I have to agree that we need to reset our minds to being entrepreneurs — even if we are still collecting a big media paycheck and especially if we’ve already been downsized out of those gigs. I say “reset” because as a student of history I know that it is in our DNA. We forget sometimes how pioneering journalists of color were over the years because movies aren’t made about our social networks.

    Black History Research

    In researching black history for my J-Lab-funded Black History Augmented Reality app, I was reminded about a lot of pioneering African-American media entrepreneurs who got into the game sometimes on a wing and a prayer but made sure the black POV didn’t get lost among the national debate. The Black History Augmented Reality app, by the way, is now available in Layar with content in Washington, D.C.; Richmond; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Boston; Charleston; and New Orleans. Just download Layar to your iPhone 3GS or higher or Droid phone and search for black history — and save as a favorite. If you are in any of those cities, you will see snippets of black history pop up as you look through the camera lens.

    So in honor of Black History Month and as a reminder of our entrepreneurial roots, I want to give a shout-out to a few of the pioneers who took a chance on doing their own thing:

    Mary Shad – Long before Huffington created her influential Post, a 30-something Mary Shad, a free woman by birth, in 1853 founded in the Provincial Freeman, the first ever newspaper to be published by a black woman in North America. The Provincial Freeman was a radical voice out of Canada for full integration into white society. In her paper, she skewered the separate black communities that had been established in Canada by black leaders such as Josiah “Uncle Tom” Henson, fugitive slaves and their well-meaning white financiers. Her columns foreshadowed the debate that still rages today (such as on the NABJ listserv) over integration versus self-imposed segregation, as Fergus M. Bordewich put it in “Bound for Canaan: the Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.”
    Walter White – We marvel at the brave journalists who wade into dangerous territories such as Liberation Square in Cairo risking death to get us the news. Walter White, who later became the first national secretary of the NAACP, went undercover in the early 20th Century to expose racist terrorist groups that preyed upon the black community. As a very light skinned, blond, blue-eyed black man, White slipped into southern communities to uncover who was behind lynchings and race riots, beatings and burnings, including the 1919 mass murder of 200 black sharecroppers in Elaine, Ala., by white mobs. White was discovered that time but was able to get out of town with the posse hot on his tail.
    Emmit McHenry – Before there was GoDaddy, there was Emmit McHenry who in 1995 founded Network Solutions, the very first registrar of dot-com domain names which helped build the online infrastructure that we enjoy (or curse) today. He sold it for millions of dollars just as the web was really taking off, so missed out on the billions enjoyed by later entrepreneurs.
    Pittsburgh Courier – Much is made of social media’s ability to change the course of history such as getting young people engaged in President Obama’s presidential campaign. The Pittsburgh Courier was created in 1907 by Edwin Harleston, a guard in the H.J. Heinz food-packing plant, and quickly became one of the most important voices in the country because of its reach and influence in the national black community. The newspaper often set the political tone for African-Americans. A case in point is the newspaper’s 1930s campaign to get black Americans, then die-hard Republicans, to “turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall” and vote the Democratic New Deal ticket, thus creating a political alliance that lasts to this day.

    These pioneers didn’t have to do what they did. Shad could have remained safe and secure as a school teacher, White an insurance salesman, Harleston a guard and McHenry an executive at IBM — but America would have been worse off because of it. Instead, they became innovators and entrepreneurs who took chances because the times demanded it. Just as they do today.

    Tagged: augmented reality black history diversity entrepreneurs huffington post innovation layar

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