I’ve half-jokingly referred to myself as the Jackie Robinson of Iowa newspapers.
So writing this particular column before Black History Month comes to close on Feb. 29 seemed timely.
To date, I’ve been the first black staff writer at the Newton Daily News, Jasper County Tribune, Prairie City News, The Sheldon Mail-Sun, The South O’Brien Sun, The N’West Iowa REVIEW and Sioux City Journal.
I’m also the first black person with an editor title at this company, which also has allowed me to be the first black person on staff with bylines in Sioux Center News and the Hawarden Independent/Ireton Examiner in addition to Iowa Information’s Sheldon-based publications.
My favorite of all these firsts is being managing editor of The Mail-Sun considering a former publisher/editor was a Klansman. Paul Woods probably rolled over in his grave when the Wagners brought me back for this role.
That’s a lot of firsts for a man who only moved to Iowa seven years ago. I’ve also only worked with one other journalist of color in my career; photojournalist Justin Wan, who is now with the Lincoln Journal-Star in Nebraska.
And just to be clear, I’m not holding anything against my current or former employers; I’m just stating facts about my work experiences.
Being the sole black face in newsrooms and in communities where not a lot of people look like you can be daunting, can lead to a lot of awkward moments, plenty of micro-aggressions, some direct aggression but it also lends itself to learning experiences on both sides.
For example, I’ve explained what a durag line is at multiple offices.
If you’re curious, a durag line is an indention left on a person’s forehead after wearing a durag, which is a scarf-like device one wears over their head, overnight to help protect and/or stylize their hair.
I’ve actually enjoyed teaching co-workers, readers and community members more about black culture and the black experience through osmosis.
While being black in America is not a monolithic experience, there are some universally black things — like durags and their aforementioned lines — that fit the bill.
This job also is an excellent opportunity to show people that black people do work regular jobs in professional settings.
Frankly, a lot of people don’t get to see that much as most of the mainstream exposure of blackness seems related to sports, music or Hollywood when it’s in a positive light and crime when it’s not.
Think about it. If I asked you to name five black current or past Fortune 500 CEOs without researching it ahead of time could you?
I know I couldn’t, but off the top of my head, I can think of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Ballmer and Tim Cook all of whom meet those criteria and happen to be white.
It’s kind of the same way for newsrooms. Obviously, you see lots of prominent black faces in larger media markets and on national programming but there don’t seem to be as many of us in the trenches at the local level.
“It’s different in Atlanta, Los Angeles and some of these other cities, but in your average American city, if there’s more than two or three black journalists in the newsroom that’s a win,” said Andrew Hammond.
Andrew is a sports reporter with Tacoma News Tribune in Washington state about 34 miles south of Seattle. He’s one of two fellow local-level black journos I spoke to for this column.
“Having a black writer there — especially in sports journalism — having a black writer talking to black athletes it makes so much of a difference in terms of content and coverage,” Andrew said.
Originally from Wichita, KS, Andrew has known he’s wanted to be the a sports reporter since he read his first issue of Sports Illustrated at age 4.
Despite us both being black journalists from the same state and close in age, we first got to know each other through Twitter. As you can tell from his quotes, his experiences in the industry have been similar to mine.
A 2016 study by the American Society of News Editors found that only 5.3 percent of print/online journalists were black and only 4.7 percent were in positions of leadership.
Comparatively, 83 percent of newsrooms are white and about 87 percent of newsroom leadership is white. I’m going to give myself a shout-out here for bucking the trend.
Andrew got his start in the industry at a black-owned radio station in his hometown when he was 15 and he has worked in print, radio and broadcast since. Besides being Kansans and Twitter junkies, we have something else in common: “I can’t think of one time in maybe the last decade where I wasn’t the only black journalist,” Andrew said.
It was a similar sentiment for Tyler Davis, a public safety reporter for The Des Moines Register. He noted he’s only worked with two other black reporters in his three years there, both of whom covered entertainment.
Tyler, who grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago, said it was similar at places he interned at including the Chicago Tribune.
He also shares my viewpoint that it shouldn’t be an anomaly to see more people with darker skin tones working in news, but we understand the weight it carries.
“If you told a lot of white people you work at a newspaper, yeah, it’s a normal job; it’s like working at a bank, working at a construction company, but for black people, they’re always impressed that we are able to come into this space where white people not only are predominate but they control the narrative — and I don’t mean that in like a grand agenda way, but in a very real way white people write news stories, they direct news coverage in all communities in America,” Tyler said.
“So when you see a black person just involved in journalism — especially newspaper journalism — it has an outsized effect on our community because it’s not something we typically see and we know how powerful media is in shaping narratives and stereotypes and just people’s overall belief and perception of the world. For us to be in here, be in newsrooms, it’s a big deal for my family and other black people that I talk to.”
Tyler’s journalism story differs from mine and Andrew’s — reading Jason Whitlock, who is black, and Joe Posnanski, who is white, in the Kansas City Star growing up inspired me — whereas he got into the industry on a whim.
He needed a credit in high school and a teacher suggested a journalism class to him and he took to it. A few years later Tyler wound up being editor-in-chief of his college paper the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Both of them — and I feel the same way — noted a newspaper should be reflective of the community it covers.
Here for example, I wish I was fluent in Spanish or that we had a bilingual reporter to get more stories out our region’s burgeoning Latino population. There are lots of stories going underreported and as a person who prides himself on community journalism that bothers me.
We need more reporters of different shades and backgrounds because it makes the end news product so much richer, vibrant and reflective of the people it is intended to serve.
Being a black journalist is something I’m proud of — and I know Andrew and Tyler feel the same way — and I just want to see more people who look like us in the field.