Taking Root  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Taking Root   

A new Web site provides serious news and commentary—and genealogy—to the black community.

By Roxana Hadadi
     


Reporter Sam Fulwood III of Cleveland's Plain Dealer knows the journalism business — he got his first job at the Charlotte Observer straight out of college, logged 11 years at the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times and has spent the past seven years at the Plain Dealer, first as a Metro columnist and now as a reporter for the Arts and Life section.

But even after all those years, Fulwood says this is the first time he's ever seen anything like The Root (theroot.com), the Washington Post Co.'s new online magazine targeted toward the black community.

"It's really interesting to see if a black-directed information site can find an audience — especially The Root, which is a serious one that is dealing with serious stuff in a serious way," says Fulwood, who has contributed six articles to the nascent Web site. "That, for me, is the exciting thing about this."

The Root, which launched January 28 as part of Washingtonpost. Newsweek Interactive, offers a variety of national, international and political news and commentary, along with blogs on everything from fashion to food. But, as the site's "About Us" page states, "The Root aims to be an unprecedented departure from traditional American journalism, raising the profile of black voices in mainstream media and engaging anyone interested in black culture around the world."

Subject matter varies widely — from the murder of gay teenager Lawrence King ("Queer, Dead and Nobody Cares," by Kai Wright, February 26) to singer Alicia Keys' similarities to pop music legend Prince ("She'll Take That," by Tracie M. Fellers, February 14).

And politics are a mainstay on the site — a search for 'Obama' on March 18 yielded 191 results, and that day, the site's homepage was inundated with campaign coverage and commentary. Tara Roberts wrote about the reactions she has received from others in the African American community when they learn she's a Clinton supporter in "I'm Black and for Hillary. Get Over it." Professor Michael C. Dawson defended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, by arguing "Wright's blend of leftism and Afro-Centrism remains one of the classic patterns of black political ideology...The critical views he expresses are all too rooted in the present" in the piece "Is Obama Wrong About Wright?" And on one of The Root's featured blogs, "down from the tower," bloggers Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Marc Lamont Hill traded barbs over what effect, if any, Wright will have on Obama's campaign.

But the online magazine isn't just about news — a special do-it-yourself feature allows readers to trace their genealogy through a family tree-like application. This amalgam of news and genealogy is part of what makes The Root unique, Fulwood says. "I'm not aware of any other online organ that has the sort of dual nature of purpose."

Based in a conference room at the Washington offices of Slate (slate.com), the Washington Post Co.'s online magazine, The Root certainly isn't the biggest operation around. It relies mainly on freelancers as well as the Associated Press for its content, says Managing Editor Lynette Clemetson, who formerly worked at the New York Times.

And aside from Clemetson, The Root has only three staff members: Editor in Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research; Deputy Editor Terence Samuel, a former political reporter at U.S. News & World Report; and Associate Editor Natalie Hopkinson, former assignment editor for the Washington Post's Outlook section.

Clemetson first heard about The Root from Gates in September, and since starting at the magazine has been working "more than full-time — double-time" to bring everything together. Aside from talking about story ideas with the site's freelancers — many of whom Clemetson recruited — the managing editor often brainstorms new directions where the magazine could go in the future.

"I think we do need to broaden the content..more on business, more on health, more on technology," she says. "Because if you have reporters or writers who people come to trust because they are an authoritative, witty, interesting voice on something, people will keep coming back to the site."

One of Clemetson's regulars is Fulwood, who has been at the Plain Dealer since 2000. "There's a glut of journalists in the country right now," he says. "There are more journalists than there are jobs to absorb them, and I think people do want to get their voice out before as many people as possible. The real challenge of all these Web sites is, you don't know if you're sort of shouting down a dry well. So I think people are trying to put their voices in as many different places, hoping that someone will notice."

And thanks to that news-and-genealogy combination, Fulwood says, readers hopefully will notice The Root. "I think it's a brilliant marketing effort on Skip Gates' part... He's shrewdly aware that a lot of black folks are curious as to where they came from. And giving them an opportunity, and marrying that with the capabilities of DNA and the Internet — it will bring people who may not necessarily be looking to find out what's going on in a presidential campaign, or what a bunch of intellectuals are talking about. But once there, maybe they'll find something they are interested in."

Piquing reader interest is something Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University and a blogger on The Root, hopes to do on a daily basis. Along with fellow academic Hill, assistant professor of Urban Education and American Studies at Temple University, Harris-Lacewell maintains "down from the tower," one of The Root's featured blogs.

"Down from the tower" is meant to be a discussion of politics and race, Harris-Lacewell says, but the blog has featured posts about other topics, such as the shootings at Northern Illinois University in February and this year's Grammy Awards. But don't take the seemingly off-topic posts at face value, she says. "I don't think at any point we're going to talk about music as music. We're always going to talk about music in the context of politics, and politics is really broadly defined. Anything that's about power, anything that's about disparities, anything that's about how black people have a broad sense of self-understanding."

Fulwood sees The Root as an extension of the long tradition of black newspapers. "If you go back in history and look at John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, who created the first black newspaper, they talked about wanting to create a place where black folks can speak on their own behalf," Fulwood says. "And this strikes me very much as a 21st-century effort at that, using 21st-century technology. And I think a lot of people are excited about the possibilities of something like that happening."

Hadadi (rhadadi@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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