COVID-19 was a “foundational shift” for Brooklyn-based freelance journalist Antoinette Isama. On June 13, Isama wrote about the Tribute to the Ancestors of the Middle Passage, a tradition that for decades has remembered the millions of African lives lost in the Atlantic slave trade, as well as Black people who have been killed more recently.
The piece was a fitting tribute to the Black Americans who have died from COVID-19 and police brutality this year, and it was a precursor to the fire Isama soon helped stoke within the industry.
At the time, Isama was watching her colleagues call out how the media industry has contributed to a racist culture that disempowers Black journalists. As outlets assessed their budgets, Isama had lost out on some opportunities, and she was beginning to rethink what her future as a freelance writer looked like. But she also realized she needed to examine her past experiences in the industry: It took a global pandemic and a nationwide anti-racism uprising to empower Isama to tell her story of being overworked, underpaid and gaslit by her former employer, OkayAfrica, which is one of two OkayMedia outlets that cover music, news and culture in the African diaspora. The other is Okayplayer.
On June 22 — after her former colleague, Oyinkan Olojede, tweeted a thread exposing leadership flaws at the publication that allowed pay inequity, wrongful terminations and the general mistreatment of Black women at OkayMedia — Isama shared her experiences working as OkayAfrica’s arts and culture editor from February 2016 to September 2019. Isama said that whenever she and her colleagues asked for basic support — from laptops to fair pay — they were given false promises and told it was contingent on capital. Former CEO and publisher Abiola Oke set higher expectations for the Black women employees, Isama and her former colleagues said.
“What was tripping me out about it is the fact that I was experiencing it in a space that’s supposed to be a ‘safe haven’ for us and the work we did,” Isama said. “For us to really have this true reckoning and for us to move forward, we have to acknowledge that these set spaces, our set community, isn’t perfect, and that there are issues within the community that need to be addressed.”
More than a dozen women came forward to share their experiences at Okayplayer and OkayAfrica. Three women, two who have remained anonymous, told stories about Oke allegedly sexually assaulting, harassing and coercing them. One said she believed she was drugged by Oke. Others said that they had been wrongfully terminated. The women created the hashtag #ItsNeverOkay and outlined a list of demands for the outlets. (HuffPost does not identify survivors of sexual violence without their consent.)
Oke resigned on June 24.
In a statement, he apologized for making “business decisions” in which he “unknowingly hurt Black women.” He denied the sexual assault allegations. The owners of OkayMedia — Stephen and Sam Hendel, who are both white — have yet to address the women publicly or privately.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has once again become a powerful public force, it has empowered Black journalists and other journalists of color to hold their companies accountable for racism, sexism and mistreatment within newsrooms. As the OkayMedia cases show, this hasn’t been limited to white-operated companies. Even as they amplify Black voices, Black-operated publications have also come under fire for replicating the same anti-Black and sexist workplace structures that exist at mainstream, white-run publications.
As the country faces a pandemic that disproportionately affects communities of color; an economic downturn that’s driven the Black unemployment rate higher; and an ongoing national uprising following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, journalism that serves Black audiences and prioritizes Black stories is crucial. But Black media outlets are also facing tightening budgets and mentally taxing news cycles, calling into question the sustainability and workplace ethics of these necessary publications.
The ‘Emotional Whiplash’ Facing Black Journalists
When Natasha S. Alford was promoted to vice president of digital content at TheGrio late last year, she had big plans for 2020. The Black-owned website — which focuses on news, opinion and entertainment geared toward Black Americans — would launch new products and establish a robust editorial calendar. But before the end of the first quarter, those plans came to a screeching halt, as companies began bracing for the impact of COVID-19. Video shoots were paused, a podcast launch was postponed, and TheGrio’s editorial plan shifted to highlighting the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the site’s audience.
Instead of folding under the pressure, Alford and her small team adapted to the news cycle. TheGrio launched its podcast, Dear Culture, on April 3 and equipped the team to produce video content from home. It partnered with Facebook to produce a series about how Black businesses were adapting to the pandemic. TheGrio had hit a stride, Alford told HuffPost.
That cadence changed again on May 25, when Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis cop who kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd wasn’t the first Black person killed by police this year, but the graphic video was the last straw for a community already devastated by the impact of the virus and still mourning the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and others.
Alford and her team went from covering Black death from the coronavirus to Black death due to state-sanctioned violence. She called it “emotional whiplash.”
“This phase has been the most emotionally exhausting,” she told HuffPost, referring to the string of police killings. “It was all emotional, but racism just cuts in a different way, particularly the police brutality. ... We’re just being hit every day in our hearts and we’re expected to put our best foot forward as journalists.”
Meanwhile, thousands of journalists across the country were being laid off or furloughed in response to COVID-19. Some print outlets have either gone digital or suspended production. More than 30 local outlets have closed their doors permanently.
For publications dedicated to news affecting Black communities, the impact has been painful. Several staffers at Vibe lost their jobs. Essence Fest, a big revenue driver for Essence magazine and its host city, New Orleans, was restructured as a virtual festival. Black Enterprise and Blavity also canceled key money-making events. Storied regional outlets like the New Journal and Guide in Norfolk, Virginia, temporarily stopped publishing.
For Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root, it’s not surprising that Black publications have been struggling during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has been pretty treacherous,” Belton told HuffPost. “I mean the disease — as deadly as it is just for our people in general — it’s very similar to how it’s affecting the Black press. It’s very similar to how if white America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.”
Outlets have developed their own approaches to covering the pandemic and the protests. BET has held special programs in a “Saving Our Selves” series addressing COVID-19 and racism. TheGrio, Blavity, NBCBLK, Black Enterprise and others have hosted virtual conversations on the topics. Essence has also hosted digital summits and commissioned a study on the impact of coronavirus on Black women: It found that 44% personally know someone who has contracted it, and 52% are facing or anticipate a negative financial impact due to the virus.
Similarly, Belton is leading her newsroom to cover the pandemic from many angles to keep their community informed about both action and inaction. Though there were no layoffs at The Root, she recognizes the stress this moment is placing on her staff.
“My approach has been to check in with everyone on a regular basis to see where people’s heads are. If they need to take a long weekend or week off, let’s work it out and get it on the calendar,” Belton said. “I don’t want anyone to have burnout. And I care about them all deeply and so I very much want to create a workplace … where people feel like they’re heard.”
Though the pandemic has laid bare many issues, resourcing problems were present long before March.
“Black websites and Black-owned media basically, a lot of them were already circling before this crisis,” Belton said, “but the crisis has just exacerbated an issue that was already existing.”
Print outlets are often most impacted by financial crises: During the Great Recession, several Black print publications including Word Up! and Giant magazines shuttered. Vibe temporarily ceased operations, until it came back after Uptown Media and InterMedia Partners bought the magazine. The Chicago Defender and Ebony, which has faced legal troubles for failing to pay its writers, stopped their print editions and moved online. From 2008 to 2018, journalism jobs declined 25% industry wide, according to the Pew Research Center.
But several digital publications emerged, including Blavity, TheGrio and The Root. Verticals and sections dedicated to Black audiences within mainstream publications — like ESPN’s The Undefeated, NBCBLK and R29 Unbothered — have become vibrant destinations.
Today, Benjamin F. Chavis, president of the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association, is more hopeful that Black publications will be able to bounce back now than he was after the Great Recession.
“While the economic downturn overall is much more severe in 2020, the fact that we have to readjust our business models, I think is going to strengthen us,” Chavis told HuffPost. “So in 2021 and 2022, we’ll be much stronger than we were in 2009 or 2010 or 2011.”
Ad revenue, which has been impacted by the pandemic, has been rocky since the Great Recession: Nielsen’s 2019 Black consumer report showed that only 1.4% of targeted advertising spending is dedicated to Black audiences, despite their receptiveness to ads. That’s a 5% drop compared to the five years prior.
As the climate for ad sales shifts, many media organizations are making their bottom line with event sponsorships. Blavity’s AfroTech Conference and Black Enterprise’s annual golf tournament, entrepreneurs’ summit, and inaugural Women of Power in Tech Conference were forced to either cancel or go virtual. The National Association of Black Journalists’ joint convention with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, in early August, has also gone virtual.
Essence magazine, which has been Black-owned since 2018 after years under the Time Inc. brand, hosted the 26th Essence Festival virtually in July, after New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell canceled all in-person events that draw large crowds. As the largest Black music and culture festival in the country, Essence Festival tremendously supports the magazine’s bottom line. The festival has also pumped $280 million annually into New Orleans’s economy in recent years, according to The New York Times. Though programming will continue this year, the economic benefit for Essence won’t be as great.
Alfred Edmond Jr., executive editor of Black Enterprise, told HuffPost that if his publication hadn’t hosted its Women in Power Summit in Las Vegas right before many states began to lock down, it may have faced even greater financial trouble in the later months of 2020.
“Prior to the severe impact of COVID-19 … many of the Black newspapers were doing very well because it was also a political year,” Chavis said. “So they were getting a lot of political advertising, but even those political ads now have steamed off. So the COVID-19 is also reduced advertising in the first and second quarter. We don’t know what the third and fourth quarter will be.”
Less ad revenue usually means budget cuts, and many jobs have already been affected. Music journalist William E. Ketchum III is among them.
On April 14, Ketchum was laid off from his deputy editor job at Vibe. Ketchum said that he was blindsided. Just a few months prior, Valence Media, Vibe’s parent company, had undergone structural changes and, Ketchum told HuffPost, had assured Vibe that the company planned to invest more in it. As his team was getting into the groove of covering COVID-19 in a way that resonated with their audience, Ketchum and three other journalists from his team of six were let go.
“I assumed that there would be layoffs from the company in general,” Ketchum said. “I didn’t think there would be any at Vibe, largely because for one, our team is already bare bones. They won’t be able to take down our team any smaller than it already is. And two, I felt like we were doing so much coronavirus-themed work that was either resonating or that nobody else was able to do.”
Journalists at Valence Media’s other properties, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, were also laid off.
Ketchum speculated that Vibe will now increasingly rely on freelancers.
“I think that the quality of life for so many of the writers is going to suffer. And when that happens, there’s going to be a lot of suffering of the actual content as well,” he said. “As an example, some of these publications, they may still be enlisting people of color to write them and if they’re hiring a freelancer of color, that’s a step in the right direction. But that writer still doesn’t have health care. That writer still doesn’t have the same resources that they would have if they were working at a place full time.”
He also worried about Black journalists being laid off having a negative impact on the stories that get published: “I think that for many of the readers of color, they’re going to have fewer outlets and fewer pipelines that they feel that they can trust.”
Richard Prince, a veteran journalist and head of Journal-isms, a website about diversity in the news business, told HuffPost that the subject has come up during his weekly virtual roundtable discussions.
“People pointed out that there had been furloughs and layoffs at a lot of news organizations and a lot of those people have been Black, African American,” he said.
Dorothy Tucker, president of the NABJ, told HuffPost that the recent layoffs at the Cleveland Plain Dealer left the outlet with no Black women in the newsroom. She said “that is unacceptable,” especially considering how hard the current crisis is hitting Black America.
A Reckoning Long Overdue
Meanwhile, the injustices Black journalists face in mainstream media newsrooms boiled over.
On June 3, when The New York Times’ opinion section ran a column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calling for state violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, the Times’ Black journalists spoke out against their publication. Many of them tweeted a screenshot of the headline with the statement: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger.” The backlash pushed James Bennet, the editor of the opinion section, to resign on June 7.
On June 5, the hashtag #BlackAtR29 began gaining traction as Refinery29’s former Black staffers began to call out the publication for making what they called merely a performative effort to stand in solidarity with Black people. Several Black women shared stories of microaggressions and blatant acts of racism they experienced at the company. They reported unequal pay compared to their white counterparts, stifled career growth and constant inappropriate comments. Former beauty writer Khalea Underwood revealed on Twitter that she’d found the environment so toxic that she started experiencing anxiety attacks for the first time in her life.
“[Refinery29 was] posting a bunch of stuff about the Black Lives Matter movement and about all the senseless killings and they blacked out their homepage, which is nice,” Underwood told HuffPost. “But I know, and me and my former colleagues know, that inside Refinery29, that’s not the case. It just felt like a slap in the face to all of the creative people that the company has driven away and just continue to underpay, disrespect and undervalue. You’re saying Black lives matter but in reality, these Black employees don’t matter.”
On June 8, Refinery29’s editor-in-chief Christene Barberich stepped down.
Prince told HuffPost that he has not seen anything like the current uprising in newsrooms nationwide since Black journalists began speaking out amid the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A month before that, the Kerner Commission Report was released, which stated “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Too little has changed since then. Alford told HuffPost that, before TheGrio, she worked at a white-owned TV organization, where she was one of the few Black reporters, and where she felt censored when she brought up racism in and outside of the newsroom. That’s a big reason why she left, she said.
“It was very emotionally difficult to watch things like the Freddie Gray case,” she recalled. “I went to TheGrio just because I felt like there were certain things I wouldn’t have to explain as a starting point. I could just tell the stories. And to this audience, it was about reaching the people who I felt needed to hear these stories and deserved a certain level of coverage that they just were not getting in other spaces.”
But Black media outlets aren’t always safe havens from mistreatment and harassment, as recent stories from current and former employees at Essence magazine, Okayplayer, Black Sports Online and others have revealed.
Ivie Ani, a former music editor for Okayplayer, recalled facing intense stress and getting a serious respiratory infection due to subpar working conditions at the outlet. Ani told HuffPost that all too often, anti-Blackness, colorism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism exist in these spaces. There have long been whisper networks about not only how Black employees are treated at predominantly white outlets, but at Black ones, too. Ani was tired of keeping quiet.
“With my platform and voice, it’d be irresponsible to not be vocal about the realities of this industry,” Ani, who is now a freelance culture journalist, tweeted.
Okayplayer and OkayAfrica aren’t the only Black-serving outlets that have been called out for toxic work cultures.
On June 27, Revolt news editor Tamantha Gunn shared screenshots of Black Sports Online founder Robert Littal and former colleague Jeff Greenwell sexually harassing her in 2017 in their group work chat, in which Littal’s nickname was “The Overseer.” Former BSO writer Sheena Quick alleged that Littal asked her for sex during a work trip and, on another occasion, told her she would have to show him her breasts if she had a certain number of errors in a story. Both Gunn and Quick said that after they left, their names were removed from the hundreds of stories they wrote for the site. They also note that BSO does not pay its contributors (which included Gunn and Quick), a fact that Littal confirmed in a video statement. Gunn started the #SurvivingBSO hashtag for others to share their stories of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and mistreatment under Littal’s leadership.
Littal went live on Periscope the following day to apologize. He remains at the helm of the outlet.
On June 28, a group called #BlackFemaleAnonymous shared their experiences at Essence in a Medium blog post, accusing Essence Ventures owner Richelieu Dennis of abusing his power and mistreating and intimidating Essence magazine employees and contractors. They stated that women who had recently returned from maternity leave were laid off, while others on maternity leave were threatened with dismissal.
Martha Dennis, Richelieu Dennis’ wife, is head of the human resources department at Essence Communications, which #BlackFemaleAnonymous pointed out is a conflict of interest.
“After a string of wrongful layoffs and other potentially libelous business activity,” the group said Richelieu Dennis forced employees to sign non-disclosure agreements that would protect his family from liability or disparagement. They also alleged that he has sexually harassed Essence employees.
The post also called out other executives for creating and contributing to an abusive work culture. The group created a petition calling for Dennis and the entire C-suite to resign, which received more than 3,000 signatures.
In a June 30 statement to HuffPost denying the allegations, Essence said there “have been multiple comprehensive reviews of the HR function, and no evidence has been found to substantiate these anonymous claims.”
Then on June 30, the publication sent a second statement, announcing that Caroline Wanga, who had started as Essence’s chief growth officer a day prior, would be stepping in as interim CEO of Essence Communications. Dennis is no longer involved in day-to-day operations for the magazine, an Essence spokesperson told HuffPost, but will remain in his role as Essence Ventures CEO.
The company also said it will hire external experts to “assess and review the company’s policies and practices and conduct comprehensive employee interviews” and “independently review” claims of “harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other behaviors.”
On July 3, #BlackFemaleAnonymous declared their efforts successful, after The New York Times reported that the C-suite leadership named in their petition was no longer involved in the magazine’s daily operations. In a statement on social media, the group demanded transparency in the internal investigation process and called on Wagna to create a more equitable and safe workplace by paying Black women fairly, implementing both policies that forbid harassment and a performance review process that creates room for promotions, and creating “the most premier maternity leave policy in the nation.”
“We don’t want to see our Essence (because she belongs to the people) or any Black cultural institution fold,” the group said. “But we must fix the systemic brokenness of any Black cultural institution that devalues Black women. We’re counting on you, Caroline. Fix it or fold.”
What Change Looks Like
A key part of keeping Black media companies stable and thriving is to ensure that their journalists are supported. The hard truth is that, though it is imperative that white-operated media companies treat their Black employees fairly, most of those companies will survive and continue to tell an unbalanced narrative of Black stories, even if Black publications fold.
Alford believes that some of the most important work right now is coming from Black outlets, which will still be sharing the stories of Black news, life and culture once they’ve cycled out of the news.
Alford recognized the toll that the last few months was taking on her team and made sure a system was in place for employees to take time off.
“When it’s a person’s time to tap out, we create a safe space so that people can take time away with no guilt and we set that expectation up front,” she said.
It’s important to keep her staff’s needs in mind because, Alford told HuffPost, Black journalists’ “sense of possibility is expanding.” And she wants to make sure they are pushing for more. It’s not about just having a byline anymore. It’s about demanding the system be changed.
“I feel like we, the Black outlets, have been saying for a long time, racism will destroy America. … There’s this momentum that is allowing people to speak the truth without fear of losing their entire careers, being alone, being the only calling something out,” she said. “I do think that the acknowledgment of systemic racism that we are seeing at the corporate level, organizational, personal level, all of that is creating an environment where we can go even further in breaking down some of these racist and toxic cultures that have existed.”
But that’s going to take more than a few new hires and changing style guides to capitalize the B in Black. In a statement NABJ sent to HuffPost, Tucker called for a “sweeping change:”
“Every day Black journalists, and journalists across the world, are having to fight against discrimination, parity issues and efforts to muzzle press freedom. It is disappointing that journalists are also having to face issues of harassment and bullying within their newsrooms, and worse from fellow members of the Black community.
“This must stop. NABJ calls for an end to this culture and implores all news company management to get the training they need to keep this from happening again. We also implore the owners, Board of directors and investors of these companies to ensure they are careful of who they are hiring or entrusting to lead their companies and to always have a listening ear when employees speak out. Even if they don’t speak out or can’t, it is the responsibility of leaders to be watchful and vigilant to ensure a harassment-free and inclusive culture.”
It took four days for Essence to meet #BlackFemaleAnonymous’s demands. Though Oke resigned, Okayplayer and OkayAfrica have yet to publicly or privately address their former employees, let alone meet their demands. Littal, of Black Sports Online, apologized but does not appear to be facing any consequences.
Ani told HuffPost that there is still a long way to go.
“I do think that we need to rethink what violence looks like and what that looks like in the workplace,” she said. “People only wait for things to escalate to assault to take something seriously when [it’s these patterns] that create that other types of violence.”
Black media has long been the place where Black stories are told thoroughly and carefully; Alford said it’s no different these days, and she’s seen Black journalists cover the current crises in more nuanced and sensitive ways than mainstream outlets have. These publications have earned the trust of the Black community for telling stories that show Black people as whole — rather than just covering their pain when it is trendy. But elevating these stories shouldn’t come at the cost of oppressing Black employees. When Black media doesn’t take care of its writers, it hurts the audience it serves as well.
But the waves of support Isama, Ani, Underwood and others have gotten from industry peers and others have empowered them to push forward. Ani said one of her friends pulled a big story from Okayplayer after he learned about the misdoings. The women behind #ItsNeverOkay said they’re securing counseling and other support for the women who were sexually assaulted and harassed.
What empowered these women to break their silence about the way the media industry at large treats Black people, especially women, was the domino effect of journalists sharing their stories of disenfranchisement. There’s power in numbers, they all told HuffPost, especially against the looming threat of being blackballed or shut out of opportunities.
Ani said she hopes more people can break free of that paralyzing silence.
“I just don’t want the newer generation of media professionals, writers, journalists, to have to go through any of this anymore, especially young women, especially young Black women. It’s normal, but it shouldn’t be,” Ani told HuffPost. “I just hope that people ... are able to do the work that they entered in the industry to do without being stifled, without being targeted, without being pushed out, without being dismissed, without being ignored, without being overlooked, without being under-compensated. I just hope that people can do the work that they came to do, and it shouldn’t be that difficult.”