Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Fall 2011 issue, “Cold Case Reporting,” which focuses on process of revisiting old investigations to tell new stories. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, Jack E. White, former Time magazine editor and Nieman Fellow, writes about the progress and future prospects of TheRoot.com.
When Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and The Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham launched The Root in 2008, their ambitions were anything but modest. “We wanted to create a daily black national — indeed, international — magazine, a medium on the Internet that would link black communities throughout the country, across class and regional lines, and throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America,” Gates explained. “Imagine the powerful impact that the Amsterdam News and The Chicago Defender and [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s The Crisis had in their day as shapers of black public opinion on working class black folks as well as the elite.”
Three years later, it’s too soon to put The Root — or its online competi- tors such as BlackAmericaWeb.com, theGrio, and Black Voices — on a par with those legendary publications, which evolved during the age of segregation to serve a largely isolated black community often either ignored or insulted by the mainstream press. But in the age of Barack Obama and an emerging, increasingly tech-savvy black elite, The Root has become what Gates describes as a “well-edited, thoughtful, ideologically cosmopolitan digital publication.” It is a place where black folks can talk to each other, and others can listen in on their virtual conversation.
Hosting such a dialogue is no small achievement, especially when the dialogue is so rich. Joel Dreyfuss, The Root’s managing editor since 2010, won’t divulge financial details, but he says the site recently has been averaging about 1.5 million unique visitors per month. In addition to a small full-time staff, it has freelance contributors including such wildly divergent African-American voices as liberal University of Maryland Law professor Sherrilynn Ifill and John McWhorter of the conservative Manhattan Institute, and a host of veteran journalists. There are also strong emerging voices, such as Helena Andrews, author of an essay collection entitled “Bitch Is the New Black,” and a bevy of grizzled old hacks, such as myself. I write a weekly commentary called RightWatch that chronicles the ups and downs of conservative politicians.