When American Media Was (Briefly) Diverse

An economic downturn in 2008 shuttered numerous publications and further marginalized people of color in an already minimally integrated industry. But in the 90’s and early-aughts, multicultural publications flourished, providing an alternative model for journalism that bears remembering.

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | September 2019 | 16 minutes (4,184 words)

The late summer night Tupac died, I listened to All Eyez on Me at a record store in an East Memphis strip mall. The evening felt eerie and laden with meaning. It was early in the school year, 1996, and through the end of the decade, Adrienne, Jessica, Karida and I were a crew of girlfriends at our high school. We spent that night, and many weekend nights, at Adrienne’s house.

Our public school had been all white until a trickle of black students enrolled during the 1966–67 school year. That was 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education and six years after the local NAACP sued the school board for maintaining dual systems in spite of the ruling. In 1972, a federal district court ordered busing; more than 40,000 white students abandoned the school system by 1980. The board created specialized and accelerated courses in some of its schools, an “optional program,” in response. Students could enter the programs regardless of district lines if they met certain academic requirements. This kind of competition helped retain some white students, but also created two separate tracks within those institutions — a tenuous, half-won integration. It meant for me, two decades later, a “high-performing school” with a world of resources I knew to be grateful for, but at a cost. There were few black teachers. Black students in the accelerated program were scattered about, small groups of “onlies” in all their classes. Black students who weren’t in the accelerated program got rougher treatment from teachers and administrators. An acrid grimness hung in the air. It felt like being tolerated rather than embraced. 

My friends and I did share a lunch period. At our table, we traded CDs we’d gotten in the mail: Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, the Fugees’ The Score. An era of highly visible black innovation was happening alongside a growing awareness of my own social position. I didn’t have those words then, but I had my enthusiasms. At Maxwell’s concert one sweaty night on the Mississippi, we saw how ecstasy, freedom, and black music commingle and coalesce into a balm. We watched the films of the ’90s wave together, and while most had constraining gender politics, Love Jones, the Theodore Witcher–directed feature about a group of brainy young artists in Chicago, made us wish for a utopic city that could make room for all we would become. 


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We also loved to read the glossies — what ’90s girl didn’t? We especially salivated over every cover of Vibe. Adrienne and I were fledgling writers who experimented a lot and adored English class. In the ’90s, the canon was freshly expanding: We read T.S. Eliot alongside Kate Chopin and Chinua Achebe. Something similar was happening in magazines. Vibe’s mastheads and ad pages were full of black and brown people living, working, and loving together and out front — a multicultural ideal hip-hop had made possible. Its “new black aesthetic” meant articles were fresh and insightful but also hyper-literary art historical objects in their own rights. Writers were fluent in Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison as well as Biggie Smalls. By the time Tupac died, Kevin Powell had spent years contextualizing his life within the global struggle for black freedom. “There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest],” former editor Rob Kenner told Billboard in a Vibe oral history. He’s saying Vibe helped create Obama’s “coalition of the ascendent” — the black, Latinx, and young white voters who gave the Hawaii native two terms. For me, the pages reclaimed and retold the American story with fewer redactions than my history books. They created a vision of what a multiethnic nation could be.

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“There was a time when journalism was flush,” Danyel Smith told me on a phone call from a summer retreat in Massachusetts. She became music editor at Vibe in 1994, and was editor in chief during the late ’90s and again from 2006 to 2008. The magazine, founded by Quincy Jones and Time, Inc. executives in 1992, was the “first true home of the culture we inhabit today,” according to Billboard. During Smith’s first stint as editor in chief, its circulation more than doubled. She wrote the story revealing R. Kelly’s marriage to then 15-year-old Aaliyah, as well as cover features on Janet Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Whitney Houston. Smith was at the helm when the magazine debuted its Obama covers in 2007 — Vibe was the first major publication to endorse the freshman senator. When she described journalism as “flush,” Smith was talking about the late ’80s, when she started out in the San Francisco Bay. “Large cities could support with advertising two, sometimes three, alternative news weeklies and dailies,” she said.

‘There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest].’

The industry has collapsed and remade itself many times since then. Pew reports that between 2008 and 2018, journalism jobs declined 25 percent, a net loss of about 28,000 positions. Business Insider reports losses at 3,200 jobs this year alone. Most reductions have been in newspapers. A swell in digital journalism has not offset the losses in print, and it’s also been volatile, with layoffs several times over the past few years, as outlets “pivot to video” or fail to sustain venture-backed growth. Many remaining outlets have contracted, converting staff positions into precarious freelance or “permalance” roles. In a May piece for The New Republic, Jacob Silverman wrote about the “yawning earnings gap between the top and bottom echelons” of journalism reflected in the stops and starts of his own career. After a decade of prestigious headlines and publishing a book, Silverman called his private education a “sunken cost” because he hadn’t yet won a coveted staff role. If he couldn’t make it with his advantageous beginnings, he seemed to say, the industry must be truly troubled. The prospect of “selling out” — of taking a corporate job or work in branded content — seemed more concerning to him than a loss of the ability to survive at all. For the freelance collective Study Hall, Kaila Philo wrote how the instability in journalism has made it particularly difficult for black women to break into the industry, or to continue working and developing if they do. The overall unemployment rate for African Americans has been twice that of whites since at least 1972, when the government started collecting the data by race. According to Pew, newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. Philo’s report mentions the Women’s Media Center’s 2018 survey on women of color in U.S. news, which states that just 2.62 percent of all journalists are black women. In a write-up of the data, the WMC noted that fewer than half of newspapers and online-only newsrooms had even responded to the original questionnaire. 

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According to the WMC, about 2.16 percent of newsroom leaders are black women. If writers are instrumental in cultivating our collective conceptions of history, editors are arguably more so. Their sensibilities influence which stories are accepted and produced. They shape and nurture the voices and careers of writers they work with. It means who isn’t there is noteworthy. “I think it’s part of the reason why journalism is dying,” Smith said. “It’s not serving the actual communities that exist.” In a July piece for The New Republic, Clio Chang called the push for organized labor among freelancers and staff writers at digital outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed, as well as at legacy print publications like The New Yorker, a sign of hope for the industry.  “In the most basic sense, that’s the first norm that organizing shatters — the isolation of workers from one another,” Chang wrote. Notably, Vox’s union negotiated a diversity initiative in their bargaining agreement, mandating 40 to 50 percent of applicants interviewed come from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Journalism is very busy trying to serve a monolithic imaginary white audience. And that just doesn’t exist anymore,” Smith told me. U.S. audiences haven’t ever been truly homogeneous. But the media institutions that serve us, like most facets of American life, have been deliberately segregated and reluctant to change. In this reality, alternatives sprouted. Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all. Greg Sandow, an editor at Entertainment Weekly at the time, told Billboard, “I’m summoned to this meeting on the 34th floor [at the Time, Inc. executive offices]. And here came some serious concerns. This dapper guy in a suit and beautifully polished shoes says, ‘We’re publishing this. Does that mean we have to put black people on the cover?’” Throughout the next two decades, many publications serving nonwhite audiences thrived. Vibe spun off, creating Vibe Vixen in 2004. The circulations of Ebony, JET, and Essence, legacy institutions founded in 1945, 1951, and 1970, remained robust — the New York Times reported in 2000 that the number of Essence subscribers “sits just below Vogue magazine’s 1.1 million and well above the 750,000 of Harper’s Bazaar.” One World and Giant Robot launched in 1994, Latina and TRACE in 1996. Honey’s preview issue, with Lauryn Hill on the cover, hit newsstands in 1999. Essence spun off to create Suede, a fashion and culture magazine aimed at a “polyglot audience,” in 2004. A Magazine ran from 1989 to 2001; Hyphen launched with two young reporters at the helm the following year. In a piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Camille Bromley called Hyphen a celebration of “Asian culture without cheerleading” invested in humor, complication, and complexity, destroying the model minority myth. Between 1956 and 2008, the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 and a noted, major catalyst for the Great Migration, published a daily print edition. During its flush years, the Baltimore Afro-American, founded in 1892, published separate editions in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Newark.

Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all.

The recent instability in journalism has been devastating for the black press. The Chicago Defender discontinued its print editions in July. Johnson Publications, Ebony and JET’s parent company, filed bankruptcy earlier this year after selling the magazines to a private equity firm in 2016. Then it put up for sale its photo archive — more than 4 million prints and negatives. Its record of black life throughout the 20th century includes images of Emmett Till’s funeral, in which the 14-year-old’s mutilated body lay in state, and Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize–winning image of Coretta Scott King mourning with her daughter, Bernice King. It includes casually elegant images of black celebrities at home and shots of everyday street scenes and citizens — the dentists and mid-level diplomats who made up the rank and file of the ascendant. John H. Johnson based Ebony and JET on LIFE, a large glossy heavy on photojournalism with a white, Norman Rockwell aesthetic and occasional dehumanizing renderings of black people. Johnson’s publications, like the elegantly attired stars of Motown, were meant as proof of black dignity and humanity. In late July, four large foundations formed an historic collective to buy the archive, shepherd its preservation, and make it available for public access.

The publications’ written stories are also important. Celebrity profiles offered candid, intimate views of famous, influential black figures and detailed accounts of everyday black accomplishment. Scores of skilled professionals ushered these pieces into being: Era Bell Thompson started out at the Chicago Defender and spent most of her career in Ebony’s editorial leadership. Tennessee native Lynn Norment worked for three decades as a writer and editor at the publication. André Leon Talley and Elaine Welteroth passed through Ebony for other jobs in the industry. Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Black, Latinx, and Asian American media are not included in the counts on race and gender WMC reports. They get their data from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), and Cristal Williams Chancellor, WMC’s director of communications, told me she hopes news organizations will be more “aggressive” in helping them “accurately indicate where women are in the newsroom.” While men dominate leadership roles in mainstream newsrooms, news wires, TV, and audio journalism, publications targeting multicultural audiences have also had a reputation for gender trouble, with a preponderance of male cover subjects, editorial leaders, and features writers. Kim Osorio, the first woman editor in chief at The Source, was fired from the magazine after filing a complaint about sexual harassment. Osorio won a settlement for wrongful termination in 2006 and went on to help launch BET.com and write a memoir before returning to The Source in 2012. Since then, she’s made a career writing for TV.  

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This past June, Nieman Lab published an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2016, and Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor. The venerable American magazine was founded in Boston in 1857. Among its early supporters were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It sought to promote an “American ideal,” a unified yet pluralistic theory of American aesthetics and politics. After more than a century and a half of existence, women writers are not yet published in proportion to women’s share of the country’s population. The Nieman piece focused on progress the magazine has made in recent years toward equitable hiring and promoting: “In 2016, women made up just 17 percent of editorial leadership at The Atlantic. Today, women account for 63 percent of newsroom leaders.” A few days after the piece’s publication, a Twitter user screen-capped a portion of the interview where Goldberg was candid about areas in which the magazine continues to struggle:

 

GOLDBERG: We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. — Ed.]

 It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

My Twitter feed of writers, editors, and book publicists erupted, mostly at the excerpt’s thinly veiled statement on ability. Women in my timeline responded with lists of writers of longform — books, articles, and chapters — who happened to be women, or people of color, or some intersection therein. Goldberg initially said he’d been misquoted. When Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor at Nieman who’d conducted the interview, offered proof that Goldberg’s statements had been delivered as printed, he claimed he had misspoken. Hazard Owen told the L.A. Times she believes that The Atlantic is, overall, “doing good work in diversifying the staff there.”

Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Still, it’s a difficult statement for a woman writer of color to hear. “You literally are looking at me and all my colleagues, all my women colleagues and all my black colleagues, all my colleagues of color and saying, ‘You’re not really worthy of what we do over here.’ It’s mortifying,” Smith told me. Goldberg’s admission may have been a misstatement, but it mirrors the continued whiteness of mainstream mastheads. It checks out with the Women’s Media Center’s reports and the revealing fact of how much data is missing from even those important studies. It echoes the stories of black women who work or worked in journalism, who have difficulty finding mentors, or who burn out from the weight of wanting to serve the chronically underserved. It reflects my own experiences, in which I have been told multiple times in a single year that I am the only black woman editor that a writer has ever had. But it doesn’t corroborate my long experience as a reader. What happened to the writers and editors and multihyphenates from the era of the multicultural magazine, that brief flash in the 90’s and early aughts when storytellers seemed to reflect just how much people of color lead in creating American culture? Who should have formed a pipeline of leaders for mainstream publications when the industry began to contract?

* * *

In addition to her stints at Vibe, Smith also edited for Billboard, Time, Inc. publications, and published two novels. She was culture editor for ESPN’s digital magazine The Undefeated before going on book leave. Akiba Solomon is an author, editor of two books, and is currently senior editorial director at Colorlines, a digital news daily published by Race Forward. She started an internship at YSB in 1995 before going on to write and edit for Jane, Glamour, Essence, Vibe Vixen, and The Source. She told me that even at magazines without predominantly black staff, she’d worked with other black people, though not often directly. At black magazines, she was frequently edited by black women. “I’ve been edited by Robin Stone, Vanessa DeLuca [formerly editor-in-chief of Essence, currently running the Medium vertical ZORA], Ayana Byrd, Kierna Mayo, Cori Murray, and Michaela Angela Davis.” Solomon’s last magazine byline was last year, an Essence story on black women activists who organize in culturally relevant ways to fight and prevent sexual assault.

Solomon writes infrequently for publications now, worn down by conditions in journalism she believes are untenable. At the hip-hop magazines, the sexism was a deterrent, and later, “I was seeing a turn in who was getting the jobs writing about black music” when it became mainstream. “Once folks could divorce black music from black culture it was a wrap,” she said. At women’s magazines, Solomon felt stifled by “extremely narrow” storytelling. Publishing, in general, Solomon believes, places unsustainable demands on its workers. 

When we talk about the death of print, it is infrequent that we also talk about the conditions that make it ripe for obsolescence. The reluctant slowness with which mainstream media has integrated its mastheads (or kept them integrated) has meant the industry’s content has suffered. And the work environments have placed exorbitant burdens on the people of color who do break through. In Smith’s words:

You feel that you want to serve these people with good and quality content, with good and quality graphics, with good and quality leadership. And as a black person, as a black woman, regardless of whether you’re serving a mainstream audience, which I have at a Billboard and at Time, Inc., or a multicultural audience, which I have at Vibe, it is difficult. And it’s actually taken me a long time to admit that to myself. It does wear you down. And I ask myself why have I always, always stayed in a job two and a half to three years, especially when I’m editing? It’s because I’m tired by that time.

In a July story for Politico, black journalists from The New York Times and the Associated Press talked about how a sophisticated understanding of race is critical to ethically and thoroughly covering the current political moment. After the August 3 massacre in El Paso, Lulu Garcia-Navarro wrote how the absence of Latinx journalists in newsrooms has created a vacuum that allows hateful words from the president to ring unchallenged. Lacking the necessary capacity, many organizations cover race related topics, often matters of life and death, without context or depth. As outlets miss the mark, journalists of color may take on the added work of acting as the “the black public editor of our newsrooms,” Astead Herndon from the Times said on a Buzzfeed panel. Elaine Welteroth wrote about the physical exhaustion she experienced during her tenure as editor in chief at Teen Vogue in her memoir More Than Enough. She was the second African American editor in chief in parent company Condé Nast’s 110 year history:

I was too busy to sleep, too frazzled to eat, and TMI: I had developed a bizarre condition where I felt the urge to pee — all the time. It was so disruptive that I went to see a doctor, thinking it may have been a bladder infection.

Instead, I found myself standing on a scale in my doctor’s office being chastised for accidentally dropping nine more pounds. These were precious pounds that my naturally thin frame could not afford to lose without leaving me with the kind of bony body only fashion people complimented.

Condé Nast shuttered Teen Vogue’s print edition in 2017, despite record-breaking circulation, increased political coverage, and an expanded presence on the internet during Welteroth’s tenure. Welteroth left the company to write her book and pursue other ventures.

Mitzi Miller was editor in chief of JET when it ran the 2012 cover story on Jordan Davis, a Florida teenager shot and killed by a white vigilante over his loud music. “At the time, very few news outlets were covering the story because it occurred over a holiday weekend,” she said. To write the story, Miller hired Denene Millner, an author of more than 20 books. With interviews from Jordan’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucy McBath, the piece went viral and was one of many stories that galvanized the contemporary American movement against police brutality.

Miller started working in magazines in 2000, and came up through Honey and Jane before taking the helm at JET then Ebony in 2014. She edits for the black website theGrio when she can and writes an occasional piece for a print magazine roughly once a year. Shrinking wages have made it increasingly difficult to make a life in journalism, she told me. After working at a number of dream publications, Miller moved on to film and TV development. 

Both Miller and Solomon noted how print publications have been slow to evolve. “It’s hard to imagine now, particularly to digital native folks, but print was all about a particular format. It was about putting the same ideas into slightly different buckets,” Solomon said. On the podcast Hear to Slay, Vanessa DeLuca spoke about how reluctant evolution may have imperiled black media. “Black media have not always … looked forward in terms of how to build a brand across multiple platforms.” Some at legacy print institutions still seem to hold internet writing in lower esteem (“You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!” were Goldberg’s words to Nieman Lab). Often, pay structures reflect this hierarchy. Certainly, the internet’s speed and accessibility have lowered barriers to entry and made it such that rigor is not always a requirement for publication. But it’s also changed information consumption patterns and exploded the possibilities of storytelling.

Michael Gonzales, a frequent contributor to this site and a writer I’ve worked with as an editor, started in magazines in the 1980s as a freelancer. He wrote for The Source and Vibe during a time that overlapped with Smith’s and Solomon’s tenures, the years now called “the golden era of rap writing.” The years correspond to those moments I spent reading magazines with my high school friends. At black publications, he worked with black women editors all the time, but “with the exception of the Village Voice, none of the mainstream magazines employed black editors.” Despite the upheaval of the past several years (“the money is less than back in the day,” he said), Gonzales seems pleased with where his career has landed, “I’ve transformed from music critic/journalist to an essayist.” He went on to talk about how now, with the proliferation of digital magazines:

I feel like we’re living in an interesting writer time where there are a number of quality sites looking for quality writing, especially in essay form. There are a few that sometimes get too self-indulgent, but for the most part, especially in the cultural space (books, movies, theater, music, etc.), there is a lot of wonderful writing happening. Unfortunately you are the only black woman editor I have, although a few years back I did work with Kierna Mayo at Ebony.

 

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Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.

Editor: Sari Botton

Fact checker: Steven Cohen

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