Closson: Being a black journalist is hard — but necessary

Troy Closson, Op-Ed Contributor

I didn’t want to write a story about the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover last spring, but I wanted one to be written.

When I first pitched my vision for the story, I basically said if anyone else also had a similar idea, they could just do it. I hadn’t reported in a while for The Daily and really wasn’t confident taking it on.

But no one else did, so I did.

Before that spring, I had written opinion columns for three quarters — most of which had something to do with race, diversity or being a black student at Northwestern. When I was first texted about writing the story, I second-guessed whether I even had the ability to because of that. I knew I’d be writing about progress — and the lack thereof — in other black students’ experiences at Northwestern since the 38-hour Takeover. And I wondered whether I could really be “objective” writing the story.

I definitely wasn’t.

At the start of almost every interview I did, I talked about my experience and challenges at Northwestern as a black student myself — what I’d written columns about — in explaining what prompted me to write it. And I think the story was better for it.

As a black journalist — especially as one of a few on staff — most of what I do is informed by my identity. This includes reporting and editing, but also other decisions.

Earlier today, some radio host in Houston tweeted about CBS’ reveal of its 2020 election team — a reveal which didn’t include one black person. His perspective on it: “Has anyone considered the obvious explanation that many black people have no interest in journalism?”

As many pointed out, there’s literally a National Association of Black Journalists of over 4,000 black people whose interest is … wait for it … journalism. One of the replies pretty much summed up how I felt:

This is the worst take ever.

But it made me think of that Bursar’s Takeover story. Because none of those 4,000 NABJ members were in The Daily’s newsroom when I first got here. For multiple quarters, I was the only black editor on staff. And being one of a few changed the things I cared about and the ideas I brought to the table.

Like pushing for us to call Satoshi Kanazawa’s work racist — as opposed to “controversial.” Or writing columns about race for three quarters because there weren’t really any columnists who would talk about things I wanted to see talked about. Or pitching a story about the Bursar’s Office Takeover.

This quarter, I’m working at the Chicago Sun-Times for my Journalism Residency. By the end of last week, all the black journalists in the newsroom had introduced themselves to me and let me know I could reach out to them if I needed help with anything. Part of that was because there’s not many black journalists there to begin with.

Walking into the newsroom on any given day, you might not know they’re there. But I do.

And having them there means a lot. On the outside — at The Daily and other organizations — you might not see the full impacts of having black people on staff, but they’re real. From the editing and writing choices advocated for to the “second jobs” played in supporting younger staff members. And while you might not see any of us who are interested in journalism, we’re here.

Maybe it’s just that you’re not around enough black people.

Troy Closson is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.