Black tech news coverage struggles to find a home in mainstream newsrooms

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In 2017, Brian Brackeen, founder and CEO of facial recognition software Kairos and managing partner of Lighthouse Capital, took to Medium to call out Inc. Magazine. “I was approached by Inc. Magazine for a feature on the life of a successful Black entrepreneur,” Brackeen wrote. “I agreed to participate because I enjoy the publication and they have a great reputation.” According to Brackeen, a writer followed him “for about 60 days,” then dropped out of contact. A few months later, after Brackeen prodded the publication, the writer said the story had been killed. Brackeen suspected that he hadn’t fit the writer’s view of the “archetypal Black entrepreneur”.

Brackeen interpreted the response:

My experience wasn’t interesting because I couldn’t recount a ‘started from the bottom now we here’ narrative — or express angst behind all of the discrimination they assumed I encounter in my business life. I was disappointed. Offended. And saddened. Yet I was not confused. This notion that the Black experience is only worthy of recognition or discussion when there is, in some capacity, negativity expressed — is the old normal. Publications are looking for a modern entrepreneurial version of being chased by dogs and pummeled by fire hoses. 

The Medium post went viral. One commenter wrote in response that Brackeen “couldn’t be more correct. This idea that Inc. or a VC ‘found you, cleaned you up, and put you on your feet’ is a narrative that must end.”

Historically, mainstream business publications have failed to contextualize Black entrepreneurship. Between the 1960s and 1980s—an era that saw the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Minority Business Development Agency—public policy fueled the growth of Black-owned businesses. Black Enterprise Magazine launched in 1970, and led the charge in documenting what the national press did not: the ascent of Black business owners and executives, to the ranks of middle- and upper-class America, for the first time in history.

ICYMI: The power and fragility of working in black media

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“Back then, respected business magazines like Forbes and Fortune weren’t taking the Black community seriously, let alone their business strides,” Alfred Edmond, Jr., senior vice president at Black Enterprise, recalls. Edmond started at Black Enterprise as an associate editor in the late ’80s, when the publication was coercing advertisers to find value in Black business news audiences. “I don’t think [Black executives] were on their radar until the mid-1980s,” says Edmond. “And even then, virtually every major publication ignored them.” 

Today, there are roughly 2.6 million Black-owned businesses in the US. Of those, 8 percent operate within the technical and scientific services field, whose overall growth has brought with it an uptick in media outlets—TechCrunch, Mashable, Engadget, Gizmodo, DigitalTrends, and more—focused on covering the hottest startups, founders, and technologies. Insufficient coverage of Black business leadership—particularly in the technology space—furthers the trope that Black people are only successful in entertainment and athletic industries, argues Dr. Richard Craig, associate professor at George Mason University. 

“Media is an institution in which we build our self-awareness about ourselves and others,” Craig, who studies media representation of marginalized groups, says. “Being able to control those voices and outlets, it gives us an opportunity to share our stories through those lenses.” Asked about the importance of newsroom diversity in creating broader channels for coverage, he says, “If you don’t experience the culture or certain aspects of life, then you fail to see the relevance in presenting that perspective.”

 

More Black business news media channels emerged in the early 2000s, fueled by the same concerns that launched Black Enterprise decades earlier. Online publishing presented fewer institutional barriers and required little more than a domain name and a WordPress account.

Entrepreneur Angela Benton began early profiling of Black technologists and founders in Silicon Valley through her website Black Web 2.0 in 2007. Benton, who had no background in journalism, worked with a team of more than 20 freelance writers and a managing editor. Black Web 2.0 developed content syndication partnerships with Black Entertainment Television and Mashable, and published three stories per week for an audience that peaked at 250,000 monthly readers, according to Benton. 

“We were driving awarenesses around what it meant to be Black in tech, who is tech and what it is and who can participate,” Benton says. “That wasn’t defined. We literally had to make it news. We had to define it.” Black Web 2.0 ran for nearly 6 years until Benton launched the NewMe Accelerator for Black Founders, leveraging the platform to tell stories of her cohort.

Still, as the number of Black tech businesses grew, many newsrooms failed to provide steady reporting on the growing trend. Much of the legwork in reporting Black tech news was left to industry influencers such as Benton, not to traditionally trained journalists. Entrepreneurs and venture capital firms took to Medium or to their own blogs in order to spotlight Black venture capitalists, or to report on the number of Black- and Latinx-owned companies to raise over $1 million

Newsrooms seemed to perk their ears when tech companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Facebook began releasing employee diversity numbers in 2014. But the critical coverage of missing minority representation in tech had a shade of hypocrisy to it; most American newsrooms were not much more diverse. Stories about Black founders of emergent tech companies often hewed to a narrative of Black poverty or rags-to-riches.

Mike Fitzgerald, the freelance reporter who had followed Brackeen for Inc., previously worked as a reporter at Computer World and ZDNet, among other publications. Over the course of his 15-year career in the industry, Fitzgerald says, he wasn’t really paying attention to the lack of diversity in his reporting or in the makeup of the newsrooms he worked in. “We weren’t actually thinking about what opportunities were or weren’t available to non-white males in technology,” Fitzgerald says. “Most of us, white males like me, weren’t thinking that we were creating obstacles by not acknowledging that there was a gap.” 

Brackeen’s post changed that. 

“I learned this in covering Brian,” Fitzgerald says. “I have a blind spot.”

 

In September 2018, Fast Company published a cover story on venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton, CEO of Backstage Capital and an outspoken diversity advocate. Hamilton identifies as Black and lesbian; her position on the cover represented a monumental shift of the image of innovation, and a stark departure from the image of white and male businessmen who have dominated similar publications over time. 

Ainsley Harris, the Fast Company senior staff writer who profiled Hamilton, says diverse coverage has been a key priority for the business publication. Fast Company’s editorial team takes a holistic approach to diversity in its issues and lists, Harris says. “This approach allows us to bring underrepresented voices to a broader readership than they might otherwise encounter.” 

Stephanie Mehta, Fast Company’s editor in chief, says the company strives for authentic engagement with diversity in business coverage. “We’re not trying to check boxes,” Mehta says. Rather, she says, the newsroom is encouraged to “find ways to shine the spotlight on up and comers and new talent at companies, which provides a much more diverse voice than, say, leaders at the top of indexes and lists.”

Newsrooms remain distressingly undiverse. Fewer than 300 out of 1,700 publications responded to the 2018 American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey—a historic low in the 40-year history of the survey. But adding Black tech journalists to newsrooms won’t solve a lack of comprehensive coverage on its own. 

“Just hiring more minorities has the adverse effect,” Dr. Nikki Usher, associate professor at the Illinois College of Media, says. Those journalists become “responsible for representing everyone,” Usher says, “or are relegated to representing their entire race, and asked to perform emotional labor in the newsroom that would hinder them from being vocal about their concerns.” 

Newsrooms that want to consistently, rigorously, and accurately cover Black tech business should embed reporting staff in those communities, says Black Enterprise’s Edmond. A philosophical commitment to diversity won’t necessarily put people of color in decision-making positions, or engage the expertise of journalists who are part of diverse communities.

“They should be sending reporters to events such as FWD by Black Enterprise, Blavity’s Afrotech, and other events and organizations serving those communities,” Edmond says.  “In addition, they need to dedicate significant bandwidth on their media platforms to tell these stories.” 

Legacy news organizations are beginning to take heed and are starting to make investments in diverse talent, says Tonya Mosley, KQED’s Silicon Valley bureau chief. She names journalists like Megan Rose Dickey at TechCrunch, who opened the publication’s first noted foray into reporting on Black tech news; Jenna Wortham at The New York Times Magazine, when she covered technology and society; and Elizabeth Dwoskin, Silicon Valley Correspondent at The Washington Post, who covers tech companies,  people, ideas and trends that shape the technology industry

Mosely asserts that coverage from reporters who are not white men might grant a company new audiences.

“[Tech companies] have been under the spotlight for not being diverse, and I also think it speaks to the time that we are in—it comes along with taking a more critical view of technology. We can’t ignore the social justice issues around it.”

ICYMI: Did NYT ignore a big story because it wasn’t their own?

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Sherrell Dorsey is a data journalist and the founder of ThePLUG, a digital media company reporting on the Black innovation economy. Sherrell holds a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University with a concentration in data.



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