Two weeks ago, the world watched as the saga involving Nikole Hannah-Jones’s pursuit of tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came to an unexpected — and empowering — conclusion. After a protracted tenure process, which Hannah-Jones laid out in her statement explaining her decision, and unprecedented opposition from UNC leadership, she ultimately declined her alma mater’s offer of tenure and announced that she would be launching the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University.
This new partnership is significant for many reasons, but chief among them is the role that historically Black colleges and universities like Howard play in providing an environment for unfettered Black excellence to flourish, free from the ubiquitous limits of systemic racism outside of their campuses. Hannah-Jones now stands to provide the same type of space for aspiring Black journalists in particular.
We are elated to see Hannah-Jones begin this endeavor both because of the ground-shifting work that she has contributed to the field of journalism and public discourse, and because as an institution in the fight to diversify journalism and news access, Borealis Philanthropy, where Amoretta Morris is president, and our Racial Equity in Journalism Fund recognize the incredible need.
This initiative is a significant step to uprooting the entrenched racism in our media system. While journalism at large has been in a free fall, for Black, Indigenous/Native, Latinx, and Asian American/Pacific Islander journalists and BIPOC-led news organizations, difficulties are magnified by historic and persistent underinvestment and marginalization of media organizations founded and run by people of color. This makes the ability to provide timely, accurate, relevant news and information to communities of color even more challenging.
The Racial Equity in Journalism Fund supports a growing network of people of color-led media organizations to have the resources to cover and engage diverse communities in deeper, more accurate ways than we see in the mainstream. Through pooling their resources into the Fund, donors have a collective vehicle for bolstering this critical ecosystem. And, like the newly minted Center for Journalism and Democracy, our model transforms philanthropic funding into a positive imprint on the journalism industry.
This is because not only do we need more news outlets run by journalists of color, but we also need more journalists in the mainstream who are adept at making connections between the news they report and the history of racism our democracy has been doomed to repeat. There is already a growing tide of media organizations owned and operated by people of color rooted in the legacy of journalism as advocacy.
For example, Racial Equity in Journalism grantee WURD Radio in Philadelphia, where Sara Lomax-Reese is president and CEO, is an information lifeline to Black Philadelphians and one of just a few Black-owned talk radio stations in the country. Another Racial Equity in Journalism grantee, The TRiiBE, uses digital media to document Chicago history and amplify the pulse of Black culture in the city.
Like Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project, these outlets are two standout examples. But their work and legacy are about more than placing a few big names in positions of power. It’s about breaking with the mainstream journalistic practice of repeating the (often inaccurate) prevailing narrative without providing current and historical context.
Just 7% of newsroom employees are Black, even though we know that having Black reporters on staff expands the types of coverage news organizations are able to offer to their readers. For example, many Black journalists are more primed to recognize the value of a story about systemic inequities, or the influence of Black culture on mainstream America, than their white counterparts. This skill — merging social analysis with the art of storytelling — is one that Hannah-Jones has exemplified over and over. To have her instructing the next generation of journalists on how to analyze our society’s systems and infuse their reporting with this information could actually help change the course of our democracy.
Black journalists in particular have a long history of telling our own stories and setting the record straight in regard to how mainstream media chooses to define us. Journalism pioneers like Ida B. Wells, for whom Hannah-Jones named her previous investigative reporting institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, and The Richmond Planet Editor John Mitchell, Jr., who opposed in writing the erection of Confederate monuments that activists have spent the last several years demanding be taken down, have paved the way for this future.
We need more partners like the Center for Journalism and Democracy that are reimagining what journalism should and can become in order to speak to and reflect a true, thriving multiracial democracy. In order to get there, it will take an expanded and significant investment in media makers of color — initiatives like Hannah-Jones’s Center for Journalism and Democracy and our Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which is helping to build the capacity of BIPOC-serving news organizations that have deep roots in communities around America. We also need to make sure that in addition to getting more journalists of color into mainstream outlets, we bolster investments in news outlets that speak specifically to and for Black and brown communities.
It is said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. Diversifying who has the means to tell that story is the first step to ensuring that we are reading the truth in real time.
Amoretta Morris is the president of Borealis Philanthropy. For the last 20 years, she has worked to build power, equity, and justice by supporting community-led change. Prior to joining Borealis Philanthropy, Morris led national community change work at the Annie E. Casey Foundation for nearly a decade, partnering with local communities to build change from the ground up.
Sara Lomax-Reese has been a media entrepreneur for almost 30 years, building, shaping and growing organizations created by, for, and about Black people. She is currently the owner, president and CEO of WURD Radio in Philadelphia and co-founder of URL Media, a new network of Black and Brown owned media organizations that are working together to share content, distribution, and other resources to enhance reach, expand revenue, and build long-term sustainability.