HuffPost BlackVoices Gains Digital Ground

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The website launched last week and strives to unite the black community while spreading their experiences far and wide. Its news stories and blogs are mainly written and edited by African-American themselves. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with HuffPost BlackVoices' heads Sheila Johnson, Rebecca Carroll and Christina Norman about the new platform.

ALLISON KEYES, host: And now to news about a new website, HuffPost BlackVoices. It's one of the latest features of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. It brings the African-American perspective on news and cultural trends and promises a fresh, fearless point of view and a diversity of opinions.

Joining us to talk about the website and the role of African-Americans and the rapidly changing media landscape are managing editor Rebecca Carroll, executive editor Christina Norman and strategic adviser Sheila Johnson. Welcome, ladies.

REBECCA CARROLL: Nice to be here.

CHRISTINA NORMAN: Thank you.

SHEILA JOHNSON: Thank you.

KEYES: Rebecca, let me start off with you 'cause the HuffPost Media Group president Arianna Huffington recently wrote a blog saying we're living in a split screen world. And she says this division is more pronounced in the African-American community. What do you think she meant by that?

CARROLL: There are a lot of plight stories in the African-American community. And there always has been. What there is also is a tremendous amount of innovation and imagination and creativity. And what we want to do is have HuffPost BlackVoices live somewhere in between those two extreme perspectives.

KEYES: You've said it's not BlackVoices if it's not black. Where'd you find your writers?

CARROLL: Colleagues and word of mouth and, you know, you look to sources where great work and journalism happens and go from there. We have the extraordinary Tremayne Lee who is our senior reporter and was part of the Pulitzer winning team for their Katrina coverage at the Times-Picayune. It's an effort to recruit black writers and journalists and we're very committed to doing that.

KEYES: Ms. Johnson, how will this site be different from TheRoot.com or your basic black newspaper like the Defender in Chicago.

JOHNSON: Yeah, well, this is, this is really news that has become social. I mean we're going to talk about everything. This is going to be fearless reporting. I just learned this little phrase and I just love it. It's the digital water cooler. We are bringing the voices of the black community together. They have now got a whole new platform where they can blog, call in to us, they can send in articles or ideas that they would like us to discuss.

CARROLL: I would just like to add to that, if I could. It's Rebecca. That we're not only bringing black voices together, we're also dispersing them. We're not going to be a sort of self-segregated news spot. We're going to be a place where everything that's on the site should be and will be interesting to everyone in America and beyond. It's not just black readers, it is for anyone who is interested in issues that are really important to the entire country.

KEYES: I'm interested that you said that because I was looking at your site, and you're talking a lot - it's kind of an ode to HBCUs. There was also a piece on the president's war on drugs. And I'm curious, Christina, with stories like that up there today, how do you bring in the racially diverse readers that you were saying that you would like to see?

NORMAN: Look, I think these stories are of a concern to everyone. So to Rebecca's point, it's about making sure that we can disperse these stories throughout the rest of the Huffington Post universe and use those to bring people to BlackVoices, where they're going to be able to poke around and discover things on their own, be able to contribute, become part of this community in a very engaging way.

The thing that was so attractive to me is the Huffington Post platform with, you know, they just celebrated their 100 millionth comment on the site. People want to engage there. And I think that's the huge opportunity for us to really open up this dialogue.

KEYES: I want to ask all three of you a question. And I want to start with you, Ms. Johnson. There's been a lot of discussion as to whether or not we're living in a so-called post-racial world. So I wonder what you would say to those who would ask why African-Americans need a website written by and for black people. And I want to start with Ms. Johnson, then you, Rebecca, and then you, Christina.

JOHNSON: Well, it's been interesting, over the years, you know, even when Black Entertainment Television started. I think we then were able to take advantage of media on television where we were able to really tell the stories of the African-American community, to really post the stories. This is now different. We're now in a digital media world. And if we don't take advantage of this now, we're going to continue to lose our voice. And I think that's what's been happening over the years.

KEYES: Rebecca?

CARROLL: Well, I think that the post-racial America concept is really a fiction. I live in a racial world as a black woman, and I live in a racial world every day. Insofar as why we need a site that is written for and about and by black folks, you know, why do we need to be black? Why do we need to pass traditions? You know, why do we need to find out about people we don't know about? There are many, many ways to be black and to experience black America. And that's what we're trying to do.

KEYES: And Christina?

NORMAN: I also don't believe in the notion of post-racial. I don't understand what that phrase means. You know, race is a part of all of our lives in ways big and small every day. And I don't think that's something to be afraid of. I want to know the perspective of someone who is a young African-American woman in a city, in a rural area, you know. I want to be able to have that dialogue. That, again, is the beauty of the Internet, is that we can invite all sorts of voices in and not just have it be a singular perspective.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're talking about a new section of the Huffington Post called HuffPost BlackVoices. We're joined by three of its leaders: managing editor Rebecca Carroll, strategic adviser Sheila Johnson and executive editor Christina Norman.

So, Rebecca, BlackVoices is also featuring people from around the country that are stepping up to help their communities. For example, Omar Freilla, is giving back to his South Bronx neighborhood as founder of Green Worker Cooperatives. Tell us about that.

CARROLL: Omar is one of these young, sort of rare-but-great maverick green workers who has put together an organization where young people can really find out about, you know, simple things: recycle, ways to learn about the environment. There's mentorships in place. It really came from a, you know, his own sense of making change.

JOHNSON: I guess I would also just say that as great as the kind of serious stories that I know we're all devoted to covering are, I think the thing about Huffington Post that's been so great is the mix of high and low. So many black entertainers are leading popular culture right now. We have to make sure that we embrace, support, celebrate and, you know, get involved in those stories, as well as the ones that are, you know, more politically charged.

CARROLL: Yeah. And to reiterate, we are not looking to be the black take, you know. We don't want to be, OK, this such-and-such happens, you know, let's go to HuffPost BlackVoices to see what everybody in black America thinks. We just - we can't possibly do that, and we don't really want to do that.

KEYES: Ms. Johnson, you were co-founder of BET, of course. And I'm curious as to how do you keep this from getting the same kind of flak for content that BET eventually did for the content of the music videos. It was criticized for not having a lot of positive programming that was uplifting to the black community.

JOHNSON: Well, I think that happened just lately. I think when we put BET on the air, it was a totally different network. I mean, we had news. We had talk shows. We brought the conversation to a very high level. And it was right towards the end is when the launch of the videos really came in and got a little bit out of control there.

But I'm coming to this on the business side of it. It could be as far as branding with advertisers. It's going to be bringing other bloggers in there, introducing other journalists that I've come in contact with.

KEYES: I'm curious with so much else on our business plate, what compelled you to get involved in this?

JOHNSON: Frustration. I was very frustrated, actually, walking into newsroom and not seeing people of color - there was no diversity - trying to find news that was going to interest me. I wanted to know what was going on in the black community.

KEYES: In just the couple of minutes we have left, Ms. Johnson, I just want to ask you, what kind of reaction are you hearing from the public so far on this? I know you're at a soft launch now, but...

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, this has been going on, actually, for a long time. And this is probably one of the most exciting weeks ever. We've been trying to work on this, and we have been working on this since last November. And all along the way, of course there's been some skepticism. And we have our critics out there. There's no doubt about that. But there is general excitement.

I mean, because what we're doing is we're really empowering the little guy. I mean, we're giving them a voice. And we've got a huge platform here, a really huge - I mean, we have 35 million users a month. I mean, this platform is as big as it can get. And so we're just very excited about being able to do this.

KEYES: All right, ladies, got to leave it there. Sheila Johnson is the strategic adviser for HuffPost BlackVoices. Rebecca Carroll is managing editor. She joined us from our bureau in New York City. Christina Norman is the executive editor and joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Thank you so much, ladies.

NORMAN: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CARROLL: Thanks.

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