Minority Bloggers Fight Inequality
Readers of blogs and websites that focus on people of color will soon notice something different about their favorite online destinations: the majority of posts will be filed from Chicago and Atlanta.
That's because the professional trade organizations for ethnic journalists--the Asian American Journalists Association; the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; the Native American Journalists Association; and the oldest, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ)--are meeting jointly in Chicago beginning July 23. And that same week, a small association of ethnic minority bloggers is holding its first conference, in Atlanta. The journalists' meeting, Unity '08, has a multimillion-dollar budget and will draw thousands of black, Latino, Native American and Asian journalists together to take part in corporate-sponsored workshops and panels designed to upgrade members' skills for the new era of digital media and to network and job search. (Disclosure: I consulted with Unity organizers on the convention's program.) By contrast, the ethnic blogger convention, Blogging While Brown, will stay in a mid-market hotel, has a shoestring budget, no corporate sponsorship, and is likely to draw about seventy-five guests and panelists.
But while the thousands of minority journalists--many representing old media outlets--troop to conference rooms and banquets at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago under a cloud of uncertainty, their new media counterparts will hook up in Atlanta eyeing a future bright with promise. Both gatherings are happening as the media industry is at a watershed, with the Internet creating new opportunities for independent entrepreneurs as well as big corporations, and forcing the downsizing of dozens of traditional news organizations. A consequence of all the churning and flux--one largely overlooked by the mainstream press itself in its obsessive chronicling of the shift--is that traditional news-delivery systems, while far from perfect, did provide access and influence to thousands of journalists of color. Yet the massive staff cuts at these traditional media outlets are disproportionately diminishing the ranks of journalists of color. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that about 300 journalists of color lost their jobs during the past year, representing roughly 12 percent of those dismissed, while they are just 5 percent of newsroom employees. The NABJ went so far as to issue an open letter to newspaper publishers July 3 declaring, "NABJ will hold you accountable if you do not consider diversity in your hiring and, particularly, firing practices."
In this context, it is of major concern to minority journalists that the blogosphere, for all its kinetic energy and potential for progressive activism, has not produced significant numbers of high-profile nonwhite bloggers. Journalists of color look at the ascendance of the blogosphere and can't help but think, This new boss looks an awful lot like the old boss. And this situation raises some serious questions. Where will readers go for reliable, well-reported, well-documented news and information of particular relevance to people of color? Will the blogosphere accommodate the thousands of experienced journalists of color who fought for decades to gain access to mainstream newsrooms?
"The blogosphere is like the real world in many ways," says Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen.com, a blog focusing on African-American news, information and activism. "Some of the same obstacles, challenges and inequalities that exist in the real world exist in the blogosphere, too." In 2004, for example, Rabb was the only blogger with a predominantly African-American readership to receive credentials for the Democratic National Convention. This raised concerns among black bloggers that a cyber-hierarchy was emerging, and the nascent "A-list" blogs--The Huffington Post, DailyKos and Talking Points Memo--all seemed to reflect a white middle-class orientation. And that the DNC, by failing to credential more than one African-American blogger, validated that "A-list."
Of course, there aren't supposed to be any "bosses" in cyberspace. And yes, the landscape has changed with the launch of several high-profile blogs and websites by and for people of color. I am an occasional contributor to some of them, including TheRoot.com, which is backed in part by the Washington Post Newsweek Interactive and was co-founded by Harvard black studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The independent BlackCommentator.com has also provided a forum for lively commentary by people of color. Moreover, this year's mid-July meeting of the YearlyKos Convention--now called Netroots Nation--boasts a lineup of panelists and speakers that includes dozens of black, Latino, Asian, gay and working-class bloggers and activists. Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, said in an e-mail interview that anyone who criticizes his site, or the blogosphere in general, on grounds of racial exclusion simply does not understand the nature of the beast. "It's an open medium. Anyone can participate, and in fact, 95 percent of the time we have no idea if a participant [at DailyKos] is white, black, brown, female, male, gay, straight, left-handed, right-handed, or ambidextrous," Moulitsas wrote, adding that DailyKos is separate from the Netroots Nation annual gathering.
The DNC has also stepped up its outreach efforts to blogs and websites run by people of color. It issued more than a dozen credentials to ethnic bloggers for this year's convention, according to spokesman Damon Jones--although those credentials were granted after some black bloggers, including Wayne Hicks of ElecVillage.com and Pam Spaulding of PamsHouseBlend.com, wrote highly critical posts about having been excluded from the first round.
In economic terms, the entrepreneurial, run-it-from-your-garage nature of the blogosphere limits the likelihood that many people of color can devote themselves full time to building a site or blog. The business model of blogs-- small staffs, modest digs, no- or low-pay contributors--shuts out those who don't have the financial resources to allow them to survive by blogging alone. "How many of us can afford to sleep on someone's couch and survive on Cheetos for five years while you're working on your blog, building it up?" asks Rabb of Afro-Netizen.
Compounding that cold-hard-cash reality, at least for journalists of color who've made careers in traditional media, is sometimes an unfamiliarity, or even discomfort, with the pungent advocacy that characterizes much of the blogosphere. The professional identities of black journalists like myself developed under the strictures of "objective" journalism, though we also learned from experience how to cover news that mattered to historically underrepresented communities. The NABJ, the largest professional trade group for journalists of color, was founded in 1975, in large part because of the desire to protect black journalists within the industry--by providing technical training and guidance on surviving the politics of predominantly white news organizations. Yet the NABJ and the two other leading ethnic professional groups, for Latino and Asian journalists, have so far been powerless to protect their members from the rampant downsizing taking place in the news business--or to help them crack the emerging hierarchy of blogs.
Nonetheless, bloggers of color--many of whom are not journalists--are getting busy building their sites, often beneath the radar. Historians will mark 2008 as the year a presidential candidate, Barack Obama, capitalized on the vast reach of the Internet to build a powerful fundraising and information network into his campaign. Yet progressives who have been enthralled with Obama's Internet presence should know that it is rooted not just in the algorithms, e-mail lists or social networking framework of Facebook, DailyKos or TPM; it grows also from a community of independent black, women and Latino bloggers who have quietly built a parallel activist universe.
Gina McCauley, a 32-year-old Austin lawyer who organized the Blogging While Brown conference, cites some of the same motivations that led to the founding of the NABJ: a need to protect and secure its members within the larger industry. She conceived the conference last year, "after a lot of black bloggers I know complained that they weren't included in some other big blog conventions." How could that be, I asked, if the freewheeling, open-source nature of the Internet is supposed to be inherently inclusive? "Well, some folks that I know said that they felt shut out of the YearlyKos conference, and even the BlogHer meeting," McCauley said, referring to the previous incarnation of Netroots Nation and to a smaller blog community built around women, which held its first conference three years ago.
"So I thought, Well, the solution to that is simple: we need to hold our own conference," she said.
Her blog, WhatAboutOurDaughters.com, is about a year old, yet in the spring of last year it kicked up a world of trouble for at least one major corporation, the Viacom-owned cable network Black Entertainment Television. The formerly black-owned network had planned to launch a half-hour program called Hot Ghetto Mess, based on a website founded by a black woman lawyer in Washington. McCauley objected to the program's depictions of "ghetto culture" (inner-city blacks sporting gold-tooth "grills," drinking malt liquor, engaging in criminal activities) and urged readers of her blog to contact the program's corporate sponsors. Before the program even aired, the network and its advertisers were besieged by complaints. The name was swiftly changed to We Got to Do Better (the slogan of the original HotGhettoMess.com website), the premiere date was delayed and ultimately the show was canceled.
McCauley said she hadn't intended to use her blog as a cultural cudgel; she started it in April 2007 out of a desire to reach other people who share her concerns over what she sees as mistreatment of women in general, and of black women in particular.
"I had been involved in community activism since high school, and by the time I finished my undergraduate studies, I was burned out," McCauley said by phone from Austin. "I'm not from the old school civil rights-industrial complex, and it seemed to me that the Internet was a good fit."
The accidental-activist trajectory of McCauley's blog is in contrast to some other projects run by people of color, including ColorOfChange.org and Afro-Netizen, which were formed to encourage activism and provide information for marginalized groups. ColorOfChange, headed by former MoveOn co-director James Rucker, last year accomplished another successful Internet-based action. After members of the Congressional Black Caucus announced plans for the Fox News Network to broadcast a debate sponsored by the CBC, it was deluged with calls and letters from ColorOfChange members. John Edwards withdrew his earlier decision to take part in the debate, followed by Hillary Clinton and Obama. The result: Fox was ditched, and the CBC got schooled by a quick-response, decentralized Internet campaign. Sweeter still: the "A-list" of progressive blogs also learned a valuable lesson, says Rucker, who is black. "The 'big blogs' had made note of the Fox/CBC situation; they saw the problem...that Fox was malevolent toward blacks. But only after they saw us making a case around the racial aspect did they also say, Yeah, you know this is horrible," Rucker told me. After ColorOfChange posted a petition, it was picked up by other black bloggers, followed by DailyKos and others. "There was a certain kind of bridge-building that happened," which was encouraging, Rucker said. An indication, perhaps, that the blogosphere is capable of making adjustments on race and gender coverage more quickly and profoundly than traditional news organizations.
ColorOfChange, formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, works with AfroSpear, a loose collection of blogs and websites that enable readers to take part in online petition drives and e-mail blasts and that set up alert networks. Blogs affiliated with AfroSpear have drawn mainstream coverage to race-related stories that had escaped the attention of the mainstream press, including the Jena Six case in Louisiana and the mishandling of a rape case at a public housing complex, Dunbar Village, in Florida, in which a black single mother was gang-raped by local teens.
Afro-Netizen's Rabb is pragmatic about the emerging hierarchy in the blogosphere. Although some blogs and websites--DailyKos, Huffington Post, TPM--might be viewed as constituting an A-list, bloggers of color are now in a position to redefine the nature of that hierarchy, says Rabb. Critical mass alone, the growing number of bloggers of color, however, cannot force the blog hierarchy to open to nonwhites. "This is more about power dynamics than proportionality," Rabb wrote in an e-mail. "One-third of all movie-goers in this country are Black and yet African-Americans have no real power in Hollywood. Either there is a commitment to leveraging institutional power and individual behavior around involving people of color in politically compatible ways online, or bloggers of color must develop well-resourced entities that do for these communities what predominantly white ones have not," says Rabb. "I suspect the ideal situation is insisting on both."
The NABJ, meanwhile, is still awaiting a response from its open letter to the newspaper industry, and journalists of color are observing the changes around them warily. Gina McCauley told me she wishes that at least a few "traditional" journalists had signed up for Blogging While Brown: "I know a lot of bloggers like to complain about the so-called MSM, and at first I did too," she said. "But I know we have a lot to learn from journalists, about journalistic principles.... I think we have things to teach them, and that they have things to teach us, too." McCauley says that next year, she hopes to see many, many more journalists sign up for her conference. The odds are good that she will.