The LA Times memo the other day about hiring a reporter to cover and engage with the community of active black posters on Twitter has spurred a good bit of coverage. LA Times managing editor for editorial strategy S. Mitra Kalita, who wrote the memo, says "I've said many times that Black Twitter has saved my career over and over and over again where it forces me to realize that a Ferguson is going on before everybody begins covering it." The quote is from a piece by NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates for Wednesday's "Morning Edition," exploring the Times' hire and introducing the concept of Black Twitter to listeners who may not be familiar with the term. Listen here. Excerpt:
GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: You cannot physically find Black Twitter. It's not a place, although its members have a prominent online presence. Look at what's trending on Twitter any day and many of the top trends come from Black Twitter….
DEXTER THOMAS: I don't think anyone has ever captured the depth or complexity or variety of Black Twitter.
BATES: That's Dexter Thomas. The LA Times just hired him to cover Black Twitter and what the paper likes to call communities of interest. Thomas stresses that this community isn't a monolith.
THOMAS: I rarely see Black Twitter agree on anything. There are a lot of conflicts within it. There are a lot of conflicts with other people.
BATES: ...Plenty of media organizations have reporters watching Black Twitter, says Jamilah Lemieux, the senior digital editor for EBONY.com. Lemieux says she welcomes the LA Times's decision if it results in more nuanced coverage of black people in the broader media. But she doesn't want the voices that make Black Twitter muted or changed to appeal to a broader audience.
Bates, who is based in Los Angeles, also quoted Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas who did her dissertation last year on Black Twitter. Clark writes today at Poynter's website that mainstream newspapers should "pause before they reconfigure their social media and audience engagement strategies without considering the historical context and demographic trends that underpin such a decision. There’s no portal to Black Twitter. No special password."
From Clark's piece:
Some online reaction to the Times memo reflected concerns of corporate media surveillance. Users are wary of news editors watching and collecting field notes to report on Black users who are otherwise “using the Internet the way it was intended to be used,” said Sydette Harry, a cultural commentator who tweets as @BlackAmazon.
“Is this going to be an area of consistent, dynamic change? Or is this going to be another sense of ‘we’re going to have an ethnography where we look at all the Negroes?’” she asked.
Newsroom leaders watching the development with designs on changing their social media reporting strategies should take note: Assigning a reporter to cover Black Twitter only works if that person is attuned to the history, culture and issues of race, gender, identity and power that makes the community what it is.
For his part, Thomas, a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University hired to cover the beat, is acutely aware of the challenge. It is, in part, untangling what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “webs of significance” within this culturally linked network of communicators. But the reporting is designed to tease out news and connect with people sources outside traditional channels.
“I was skeptical about it because I don’t think that Black Twitter exists as a monolithic entity that everyone treats it as,” he said.
But the news media’s fascination has been building for years, as indicated by Choire Sicha’s 2009 musings about “What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night?” and Farhad Manjoo’s observations on “How Black People Use Twitter” in 2010. #BlackLivesMatter, created in 2012 by three Black feminists to draw attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more men, women and children memorialized via hashtag campaigns, has attracted greater visibility and better helped define some of the community’s boundaries.
Here's what Kalita's memo said about Thomas, the new Black Twitter reporter for the Times:
Dexter Thomas joins us today to cover Black Twitter (which really is so much more complicated than that). He will work closely with the newsroom and #EmergingUS to find communities online (Black Medium to Latino Tumblr to Line in Japan) and both create stories with and pull stories from those worlds. Dexter is from San Bernardino and is a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University. He has taught media studies and Japanese and is writing a book about Japanese hip-hop. He began working in digital media at UC Riverside as a student director of programming at KUCR-FM (88.3), independently producing podcasts, music and news programs. He writes regularly on social justice, Internet and youth culture, and video games.
Thomas has also been discussing the new assignment at his Twitter account. There's a lot of support and also a current of concern that his reporting won't get the nuances of the existing Black Twitter community or that his presence will be disruptive. Here's a sampling of his reply tweets since the news broke; a lot more at his feed.
it's not so easy. are your parents/grandparents on Twitter? Black Twitter is a tiny fraction of the black experience https://t.co/qPN2aLYESt— でじことdex digital (@dexdigi) July 7, 2015
what would you rather me do? serious question. https://t.co/Z42Q2atDSs— でじことdex digital (@dexdigi) July 7, 2015