Some people call it perspective, others dub it context, but I call it “my lens.” It’s how I see the world. In my view, windows are more exciting than mirrors. Yet in 16 years of working in various newsrooms across the United States, I’ve noticed far too many “mirrors”—reflections of the same, compared to “windows”—glimpses into new and different worlds, among those who walk, talk and shape thought inside these institutions. Mirror-like images tend to be more comfortable, less challenging, easier to understand, and less risky. Mirrors are familiar. How often is someone shocked when looking in the mirror? It’s an expected image, just another view of the same person at a different time. “He reminds me of me when I started in this business.” Ever thought that? It was almost like talking to a mirror.
It’s ironic that I’m listening to jazz vocalist Rachelle Ferrell’s album “Individuality—Can I Be Me?” as I write this.
Last year, Columbia University’s Let’s Do It Better program recognized several of my articles as among the best on race and ethnicity in America. Part of the recognition included participation in workshops with decision-makers in television and newspaper newsrooms on strategies and techniques to use when covering race. During these discussions, I said that much of my success at The Wall Street Journal is because I’ve had editors—Ken Wells (my direct editor and leading advocate), John Brecher (former Page One editor), Robert Simison (former Detroit bureau chief, who hired me and even promoted me from reporter to deputy bureau chief), Paul Steiger (managing editor), Dan Hertzberg (deputy managing editor), and now Mike Miller (current Page One editor)—who value my difference and my lens.
My editors believe in me, respect me, and appreciate what I do and how I do it. As a senior special writer for Page One, I am given freedom to explore my own ideas. This alone demonstrates the paper’s faith in my lens. I feel valued when I pitch stories to Ken Wells. He always listens and gets excited about my ideas. I learned early in this business that a reporter is encouraged when an editor works as a partner. Ken understands me, and I feel as if he is truly my brother in journalism. When I feel valued, it’s only natural that I value my job and really strive to make as much impact as possible. Newsroom managers and editors across the country will realize one day what you give is what you get.
The bar is set extremely high for stories that appear on the front page, so I don’t just toss up any idea. I spend quality time and thought doing research. I talk to many people, bouncing around not so obvious angles. I specialize in untold stories.
Let me be clear. I am a 38-year-old, African-American male. While none of my editors are African American, this doesn’t stop them from listening, supporting and respecting the ideas I bring to the table. In many newsrooms, unless there is a person of color around, ideas of color get whitewashed. My experience at The Wall Street Journal is quite different. Since coming here in 1995, all of the articles that I have written on the front page have been my ideas that reflect glimpses inside my world—what I see, where I go, what I do. They often demonstrate my wonder. And, in some respects, what I am doing is holding a mirror up to my own world as a way of opening windows for others.
Consider these examples:
- Rolling Revolution: “The Wheelchair Turns Hip as New Generation of User Demands Style—Many Are Youthful Victims of Urban Violence Who Want More Than a Ride—Trading up to a Rolls-Royce.”
This story starts with the perspective of 25-year-old Willie Brown, who was ripped by four slugs from a .357-caliber Magnum when gang members opened fire on a drug dealer near his home. He was paralyzed from the waist down. While Brown was a basketball star in high school, these days he moves to the hoops in a glistening, black, $2,500 lightweight wheelchair known as the Quickie GPV. This was his fourth chair in the past few years, and he was hoping to be able to move up to a high-tech, $4,000 “standing chair” that would allow him to move from a sitting to a standing position. “That’s my dream chair—the Lexus of wheelchairs,” he said.
An epidemic of urban violence has created a whole new class of wheelchair user, which in turn is driving the fastest growing niche in the nation’s $475 million-a-year wheelchair industry. Many of the buyers are young African-American men who are not content with the heavy, chrome prototypical wheelchair of old. Once they accept their fate, many want from their wheelchairs what young men everywhere want from cars, running shoes, and bicycles: They want style, performance and pizzazz. The idea for this story originated from seeing an increasing number of young black males in wheelchairs at a suburban Detroit mall and movie theater. Both of these places have largely African-American customers.
- Hair Business Goes Wild: “In Detroit, Stylists Put Heads Together to Stage Glitzy, Bizarre Shows.”
The city that gave the world tail fins and the Supremes suddenly found itself giving something else—a new definition of Big Hair. This story started with a glimpse at Detroit hair-styling competitions. Stylist Willie Robinson paraded his five-foot-two-inch model on stage and her hair was perhaps two-foot-five-inches tall and bound by a zipper. It swooped upward in a towering wave known as a French Roll. Then Robinson unzipped the ’do and retrieved a live, four-foot python. Last time it was two white doves, and before that a bottle of champagne with two glasses.
Next was Michael Turner, who introduced the world to the “Hairy Copter.” His model sported a style that, with the aid of tiny battery-powered motors, included flashing lights and miniature rotating helicopter blades of hair, and helped him earn the nickname “Mr. Motor Hair.” These hair fashion shows target African Americans and have run in Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, Miami, Dallas, New York, Atlanta, Washington and Chicago. I learned about them from my barber in Detroit and decided to attend.
- Pitching Used Cars on Church Fans Isn’t Holy Inappropriate: “Once the Advertising Realm of Mortuaries, Devices Get a Much Livelier Look.”
First the pearly gates. Now, the golden arches. This article explored how African-American funeral home operators had an exclusive, yet arcane, advertising window to the faithful: the church fan. Those printed cardboard-on-a-stick devices typically had a photo of a staid African-American family or Martin Luther King, Jr. on the front and an ad for a local black funeral home on the back. But nowadays, car dealers, loan companies, colleges, hair-care concerns, and even McDonald’s have invaded this turf.
I noticed this in church one Sunday. It seemed as if every week at my predominantly African-American Baptist church, we had hundreds of new fans.
And the headlines continue:
- Color Code: “Black Entrepreneurs Face a Perplexing Issue: How to Pitch to Whites—Some Prefer a Low Profile, Often Using Stand-Ins For Suburban Campaigns—Choosing a Caucasian Clone.”
This article profiled successful African-American entrepreneurs who find it easier to use white fronts when selling to largely white markets so race isn’t such a hurdle in doing business.
- Death Watch?: “Black Funeral Homes Fear a Gloomy Future as Big Chains Move In—White Companies Target Inner Cities, Churches In Push for New Markets—Rumors Fly in Los Angeles.”
One of the last remaining black-owned neighborhood businesses—the local funeral home—is attractive now to the big boys.
- An Easter Bonnet With Frills Upon It Is Decidedly Old Hat: “At St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville, They Won’t Dress Up This Year.”
Everyone seems to dress up for Easter, especially in the black church, but even that is changing in some places.
- In Detroit, Blacks Turn the Staid Obit Into a Glossy Art: “Minimagazines Sprout Up, Dishing Virtue and Candor; A Poem Raps a Gangster.”
In Detroit, African Americans who were frustrated with getting small obituaries in the newspapers have started designing full-color glossy magazines with photos of their loved ones. It demonstrates the power in telling your own story in a form that can be passed down for generations.
In 1999, I won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Feature Writing for “Crime Scene: Beyond the Statistics, A Druggist Confronts The Reality of Robbery—Ripped Off Once, Mr. Grehl Got a Gun, Vowing Not To Be a Victim Again—Eye to Eye with ‘Yo Roller.’” This article provided a harrowing, yet empathetic, look at an attempted drugstore stickup that ended in death. The question I attempted to answer was, “What is it like to kill someone?” This was born out of my experience in urban America, recognizing the number of shootings that are commonplace, and thinking about possible untold stories.
While God has blessed me with editors who appreciate, respect and applaud my lens, they don’t consider it a limitation. That is often a problem in newsrooms where some African Americans are fearful about exploring or even proposing “black stories” for fear they’ll be pigeonholed to those beats or arenas for the rest of their career. There are a few blacks who have no insight into African-American issues and trends and could care less. Well, I enjoy writing about my world, which is largely one of color.
At the same time, at The Wall Street Journal, I have never been limited to just stories about African Americans. My first year here, I covered all the non- U.S.-based automakers. The next three years, my beat was the Chrysler Corporation (now DaimlerChrysler)—the third largest U.S. automaker—from the showroom to the boardroom. Indeed, I was able to provide staple and standard fare for our news pages, but at the same time I could chip away and churn out world-class chocolate desserts.
When I lecture at various universities and news outlets across the country, one of my key suggestions to the audience is: “Describe your lens.” I believe that survival in our business often depends on finding ways to separate reporters and editors from the pack. “Describe your lens,” I suggest. “What makes you different? What gives you value added? What is your niche? What can’t others do quite like you? Where do you go that others don’t? Get friends outside of the newsroom. Use all this to your advantage. You shouldn’t be waiting around on someone to give you stories vs. your own. You’ll never get the best ones that way.”
I also invite reporters to examine their passions. “What excites you or moves you? When is the last time you wrote a story that resulted in an emotion—a story that made you sad, happy, pissed off, or left you encouraged? If it doesn’t move you, what makes you think it will move the reader?”
It’s important to remember that reporters have fears and failures, tears and trials, voyages and voices. Diversity is more than just a color issue. Oftentimes, it reflects a difference in thought, responses and experiences as well as expectations, adventures and dreams.
It’s easy for newsroom managers to surround themselves and promote people who look and think alike—mirrors. There is normally some connection—possibly the same college, the same former news outlet or department. It could be that both individuals steno the same restaurants, music or hobbies. Nevertheless, I invite those who can hire, promote or assign stories to change their view a bit for the broadening and bettering of the news operation. Just step away from the mirrors occasionally and try taking a panoramic glimpse outside the window—there are plenty of them around, and it’s amazing what’s out there.
Angelo B. Henderson is a senior special writer for Page One of The Wall Street Journal and is based in Detroit, Michigan. He won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Feature Writing. During his 16-year journalism career, he has covered beats that range from drugs, crime and neighborhoods to real estate and small and minority business at The St. Petersburg Times, The Courier-Journal (in Louisville, Kentucky) and The Detroit News.