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Nov. 12, 2020, 10:18 a.m.
Audience & Social

How The Shade Room harnessed its massive community to register people to vote

“Whenever Black people need something, whenever they need a voice or a stage or change, they come to The Shade Room.”

Despite President Trump’s baseless efforts to challenge the 2020 United States election results, former Vice President Joe Biden will be the next president and Senator Kamala Harris will be vice president. And Black voters across the country were key to delivering the win.

In an essay for The Washington Post, writer Taylor Crumpton reflected on the specific power of Black women voters:

As the Democratic Party’s most loyal and dependable voting bloc, Black women were essential. From the 2016 presidential election to the Senate special election in Alabama in 2017 and the 2018 midterm elections, more than 90 percent of Black women voted for the Democratic candidate, and that’s not even to mention all the work they did for voter registration and turnout. Black women are the country’s most powerful political force.

One of the many Black women across movements and industries who worked toward this result, Angelica “Angie” Nwandu, the CEO and founder of The Shade Room, stands out.

The Shade Room, a media company focused on Black culture that started out as a celebrity news site, is incredibly popular. Nwandu, an accountant at the time, founded it in 2014 because she loved celebrity gossip, but quickly realized that it would become more than just a side hustle. Today, it has 5.1 million likes on Facebook and more than 21 million Instagram followers, who are known as “the roommates.”

“I started The Shade Room when I was 23 and now I’m 30, so I’m actually growing up with the audience,” Nwandu said. “And as I was growing up and examining what our influence is and as we started to get so many people following The Shade Room, I decided to go outside of that salacious content to include fashion, music, and politics. Just everything that I knew that the well-rounded adult would want to see.”

The Shade Room has a unique reach. On Instagram, its largest platform, 29 percent of users are between ages 18 and 24, while 41 percent of users are between 25 and 41. It’s a place for news, yes, but it’s also a place for Black culture to thrive and to be shared. There aren’t many spaces on the internet for Black people to be themselves and tell their stories without code-switching or diluting, Nwandu said.

According to TSR’s media kit, @theshaderoom is the third most engaging account on Instagram. On average, each post gets 3,000 comments, in which readers discuss the issue that the story poses. That engagement informs coverage and storytelling and that’s why you’ll see stories ranging from Kardashian updates to Tory Lanez’s court case to the #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria. Nwandu said that during the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer, the team stopped posting about anything else and dedicated TSR’s platforms to covering the movement.

“Whenever Black people need something, whenever they need a voice or a stage or change, they come to The Shade Room,” Nwandu said.

Byron Edwards, TSR’s head of social impact, said that to reach Black people, you have to talk to “the roommates.” If you’re a fan of the brand, “you check your likes, and then you check The Shade Room,” Edwards said.

The Shade Room tags all of its political content with the hashtag #TSRPolitics. Back in 2016, TSR was still mostly focused on celebrity news, but as the Trump presidency unfolded, Nwandu knew it was important to start communicating political news to TSR’s audience. By 2020, TSR was running full voter registration campaigns.

“I got a vision in 2018 that showed us as, like, a Black CNN,” Nwandu told me. “It had always been a dream but that vision sparked me thinking like that about this company. We were at AfroTech in 2019 in front of 4,000 people, and I said ‘We are going to influence the election this year. Help me do this because this is what I want to do and I don’t know how to do it yet.'”

From there, the partnership requests rolled in.

In this election cycle, former president Barack Obama, vice president-elect Kamala Harris, and Stacey Abrams have all “stepped into” The Shade Room to discuss their politics and the importance of voting.

In March, Biden stepped into The Shade Room for an interview with TSR reporter Judith Nwandu, who asked him about reparations for Black people and criminal justice reform.

View this post on Instagram

🎤: @judithnwandu 🎥: @natassjaebert _____________________________________ #TSRPolitics: #Roomies, we saw the questions you wanted to ask democratic candidates, so you know we had to take them straight to #JoeBiden! _____________________________________ He talks about everything from reparations for slavery, the 1994 crime bill, black women childbirth mortality rates, all the way to issues around marijuana! _____________________________________ We want to know your thoughts about his answers, and of course, we want you to GET UP AND VOTE! Starting today with #SuperTuesday, opportunities to vote will be spread all across the month of March, so get to the polls and remember, #EveryVoteCounts! 👏🏾

A post shared by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on

Plenty of comments said Biden was pandering to Black people and called him the “lesser of the two evils” compared to Trump. (The Shade Room has been questioned and criticized before about how it moderates its comments section, particularly when the comments might be harmful to marginalized communities.)

The video, however, garnered nearly four million views. In a second interview in June, Biden spoke to Judith about police brutality and how he would address the Black Lives Matter movement if elected.

Prior to the election, The Shade Room partnered with the Collective PAC on the #VoteToLive campaign to get at least 150,000 Black Americans registered to vote. By Election Day, it exceeded that goal and had helped register 162,722 voters (though The Shade Room was unable to provide a demographic breakdown of those newly registered voters).

Edwards knew from previously working in marketing and public relations that The Shade Room was key to reaching a wide audience of Black people. Working with Collective PAC allowed The Shade Room to serve its audience in a way that joined a larger get out the vote push, instead of creating its own.

“We knew in 2018 that the 2020 election was going to be just as big as it was,” Edwards said. “But whenever you’re thinking of reaching the voters, you have to think of how you can reach a wide range of voters and who are these people you’re to talking to, and you can’t bypass The Shade Room when you think of that, so wanting to do that, you also have to make sure you do it responsibly, which is how we started the conversation with Collective PAC.”

More than 93,000 people are subscribed to TSR’s texting service through Community, which it used to register eligible first time voters on their birthdays. Normally, Edwards explained, subscribers would get a “Happy Birthday” message from The Shade Room. But this year, the messages included information asking them to register or check the status of their voter registration.

“Digital is the new wave,” Edwards said. “This is one of the places where you can actually come and see your favorite artists, see the president, see the former president, the [former] First Lady, your favorite rapper, and learn a little bit of news. There’s not many other places you can really get that.”

POSTED     Nov. 12, 2020, 10:18 a.m.
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