New Black Website “The Root” is at the Root of What’s Wrong with Media

Amid modest fanfare, the Washington Post announced the debut of “The Root”, a black “online magazine” co-created by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and Washington Post Company Chairman Donald Graham. The new site features commentary by leading black thinkers as well as “information on genealogy”. Gates, who serves as editor-in-chief, told the Associated Press, “We see ourselves as a daily black newspaper in a magazine format with three channels – news, views and roots. And it’s the roots channel that makes us completely unique.” The Harvard professor wants to provide a “forum ‘as diverse as the black barber shop or the black beauty parlor.’”

As the saying goes, promises are made to be broken. Gates has been down this road before having created another “black” site, Africana.com which was later sold to AOL in 2000 and subsequently morphed into AOL Black Voices (AOL BV). Gates involvement with the online publication ceased following the sale. The current incarnation of AOL BV with its emphasis on soft “news” and celebrity, bears little resemblance to Africana.com which featured well-written and thoughtful stories on little addressed issues. (Full disclosure: I wrote a piece for Africana.com and have written several stories for AOL BV. My last one was posted well over a year ago.) If the past is prologue, Gates will soon tire of the day to day challenges of running and growing a publication and return to more academic pursuits.

As much as I’d like to champion such an effort, I question the necessity for a “black” online magazine. First, we need to define, or perhaps redefine, the term, “black”. The assumption is that blacks speak with one voice, have similar experiences, desires and needs. As we are coming to learn, especially in this election year, thanks to the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama with his racially and ethnically diverse background, being “black” in America isn’t what it used to be.

What is needed is coverage of more diverse topics by mainstream, widely-read and highly influential publications like the Washington Post. (And no, a series on “diversity” is not sufficient. The effort should be an ongoing integral part of the publication’s mission.)

Unfortunately, we don’t hear enough about the problems returning veterans are encountering as they try to readjust to life after the war and how these problems will have an impact on our economy and on our communities, perhaps further taxing increasingly limited resources thanks to the current housing/mortgage crisis. And what about state of education, not just in the inner cities but also in the rural areas of our country? And I want to know about other members of the Latino community – Domincans, Puerto Ricans, South and Central Americans. What are their thoughts about the illegal immigration debate and the current redefining of “latino” and “Hispanic” to mean “Mexican” and “illegal”? I want to know what it is like to be poor and white in America? Who speaks for this group? Why is such vitriol hurled at them from their wealthier white brethren? (If I hear another white person refer to a less fortunate white person as “white trash” , I might just unleash a serious earthshaking tirade.) Finally, I want to hear from my Caribbean American and African American (defined as people with no roots in American slavery) folks whose voices are often unheard or drowned out by their native black American counterparts.

I am also concerned that black contributors to “The Root” — those who aren’t widely known and well established –may become ghettoized — seen as “black” writers only capable of writing “black” stories. (Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt.) It is not hard to imagine the Washington Post subtly steering these writers to “The Root” thus encouraging them to bypass the highly prestigious newsroom of the Washington Post. Their active involvement in such an environment would do more to advance their nascent careers than any byline on “The Root” ever could.

Just in case you are wondering if I have actually looked at the Web site, the answer is yes. Technically, the design is clean and the site easy to navigate but it is very light on content. It does offer some general news –- links to other sites including Newsweek. If “The Root” really hopes to serve the “black” community, it should include a section on business and finance with a special emphasis on small business and investing.

Perhaps it’s too early to make any real predictions regarding the success and possible influence of “The Root”. But if it continues along this less than ambitious path, “The Root” may be buried by its limited vision of the needs and wants of its intended audience.


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