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July 22, 2020, 11 a.m.
Business Models

Here’s how CUNY’s new Black Media Initiative aims to elevate and serve Black publications

“Black press has always been hyperlocal. But for whatever reason, the Black press has never gotten some of those [buzzword] labels…That plays into the perception of these places within the larger sphere.”

For Aaron Foley, taking on the role of the first director of the Center for Community Media at CUNY’s Black Media Initiative is as much of a personal mission as it is a professional challenge.

Foley grew up in the Black press. His mother, Jill Day, worked as a reporter and an editor for the Michigan Chronicle, a weekly African American newspaper in Detroit. She covered everything from religion to business to sports. While she believed in the work that she did for the Chronicle, she also applied for jobs at mainstream newspapers but was never given a chance.

“I remember my mother literally having to lay out the paper…She and her staff consistently put out a good product that, to this day, still holds weight in Detroit, and doesn’t get enough credit,” Foley said. “One thing that stayed with me was how little my mother and her colleagues were paid. They all did the same quality of work as their colleagues at the big papers in Detroit.

“This isn’t about careers and climbing the ladder, but nobody from the Chronicle got a chance to work at the big newspapers…It’s like you always have to go through this dance [as a Black journalist] to get an interview. So 30 years later, what kinds of conversations are we having right now?”

The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, which is home to the Center for Community Media (CCM), started its search for Foley’s role long before the protests over George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement pushed issues of racism and inequality into the national spotlight. But Foley’s appointment presents an immense opportunity to use the moment to elevate Black publications.

The Black Media Initiative follows the Latino Media Initiative that Graciela Mochkofsky, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, launched at CUNY. She started it with the Spanish-language master’s program (of which I’m an alumna) and broadened it to include the Latino Media Summit and research projects on the state and future of Latino news media in the United States.

Foley said that while the Black Media Initiative will look to provide similar resources and programming, its first project is to publish a report on the Black news ecosystem in the U.S. That report will be completed by the end of September.

Foley spent part of his career working for Black media outlets. He was a 2020 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, studying funding for independent newsrooms and misinformation in Black communities. Before Stanford, he was the City of Detroit’s first-ever “chief storyteller,” and built to tell stories about everyday residents in the city’s 200 neighborhoods. He joined the mayor’s office from BLAC Detroit Magazine, where he was the editor-in-chief.

The main focus of the Black Media Initiative, Foley said, is to let Black media outlets know that the Initiative exists to serve them. He said that Black media outlets are often excluded or siloed from the rest of the news industry.

“Black press has always been hyperlocal. But the Black press has never gotten some of those [buzzword] labels…That plays into the perception of these places within the larger sphere.” When we don’t think to include Black media (or other types of community media) in current trends, he argues, we exclude them from opportunities for professional development and grants and disqualify their work as legitimate community journalism.

“People working at mainstream outlets may ask ethnic media journalists, ‘Can you be unbiased in your coverage if you’re working for an ethnic paper?'” Foley said. “Well, of course a Black journalist working for a Black paper understands why people in our community are protesting and understands why police brutality is such a harsh issue. But before [the protests], there was the perception that you can’t go to a mainstream outlet, or the journalism that you produce can’t be taken seriously, because you’ve obviously got a bias. That sort of perception has haunted ethnic media for a very long time and it also plays into why it’s not taken as seriously in the larger industry.”

That kind of exclusion can often lead to lagging behind other local media outlets in technology, innovation, and being shut out from conversations about innovation and strategies to combat misinformation and disinformation in Black communities that are more susceptible to it.

Foley wants Black media outlets to be at the forefront of combatting misinformation — a problem he believes is “related to public education and to a growth of news deserts that specifically affect cities where there are high black populations. If you look at New Orleans, Flint and Saginaw, Michigan, Mobile and Huntsville, Alabama, all of these cities have majority black populations and all of these cities had an Advance newspaper that cut back or disappeared completely.”

One of the challenges, Foley said, will be helping media outlets without coming across as intrusive. And because so many outlets are at different stages of their businesses, keeping up with all of them and providing resources that can be useful to multiple outlets will also take time.

Still, there’s no better time than now.

“I’m trying to stand up for something my mother and her colleagues believed in,” Foley said.

Jill Day, a journalist and Aaron Foley’s mother, with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, in the Michigan Chronicle newsroom. Photo courtesy of Jill Day.

POSTED     July 22, 2020, 11 a.m.
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