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What the Black Intelligentsia Are Thinking

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Link-Up Digital

The magazines Ebony, Jet, and Essence target African Americans. But until recently, there hasn't been a website aimed at the black intelligentsia. Seeing a niche available, the people who developed Slate, which is owned by the Washington Post/Newsweek group, introduced The Root ( in January 2008. 

Terence Samuel, deputy editor of The Root, describes it as a "daily online journal of ideas, analysis, and commentary of interest to African Americans. It's by African Americans about African Americans and for everyone." He described its dominant tone as "really smart without taking ourselves too seriously." Many of its articles tackle race and ethnicity in the U.S., which trigger a dialogue among African Americans. 

"Since Obama became president, we're not always discussing the problems caused by white people or (black) anger," Samuel says. He adds that most of its black readers "have white friends, attended integrated colleges, read the Washington Post or New York Times, and are engaged in a post-racial universe." The site also attracts many white users "who like to eavesdrop on our conversation," says Samuel, who previously worked as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and U.S. News & World Report.

Publisher Donna Byrd says that the site averages 1.4 million unique visitors monthly, most of whom are college-educated, affluent African Americans aged 24-45. Everything on The Root is free, and its revenue derives solely from advertisements. However, the site hasn't turned a profit yet, and Byrd says it's exploring developing new revenue streams. A connection to social networking sites could be part of The Root's future. 

Because The Root is published online, it encourages interaction among readers. And because many of its articles are highly provocative-concerning whether Obama is meeting expectations, the legitimacy of affirmative action programs, and police profiling of blacks-it triggers strong and immediate reactions. 

Entering the site, The Root is organized into the following categories: Views, Buzz, Blogs, Multimedia, Roots, and Family; it also contains job postings. Recent articles included "Making School Cool" by Cord Jefferson, which is about how educators need to market education to appeal to young black males, and "The Real Affirmative Action Babies" by Sophia A. Nelson, which explains how white women gain more from affirmative action than black females. 

Jefferson's "Making School Cool" says one way to make school more palatable to African American boys is stressing how earning degrees means making more money. "[W]ouldn't you rather have another tacky plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills than another dead black kid in Compton?" he asked rhetorically. Jefferson quoted liberally from Orlando Patterson's op-ed piece in The New York Times, which made his essay seem more derivative than original.

The site also specializes in cultural articles such as why sound bites didn't tell the whole story of the Henry Louis (Skip) Gates incident in Cambridge, Mass., and what we can still learn from Martin Luther King's teachings in a post-racial world. A bevy of articles about how to improve public education for minorities appear on the site.

Sometimes it tries to be hip and tabloidlike, as evidenced by a lead story in August 2009, "Naomi Sims Was No Supermodel." But Samuel defends the article, saying, "Naomi Sims was a woman of great accomplishment and forgotten by a new generation."

Just as most cable TV news stations did, The Root covered the Michael Jackson story extensively. "That story was huge and caused racial divide," Samuel says. Some blacks thought Jackson delivered "the soundtrack of their lives," while others thought his life was sordid and that he hated being black. Several users questioned the site's ongoing coverage.

The Gates' story catapulted The Root into media prominence because Gates serves in an advisory role as The Roots' editor-in-chief, though he is not involved in its day-to-day operations. Gates recused himself from getting involved in its coverage of the controversial event, but he did release original statements from his attorneys on The Root and conducted a Q&A online after he had done a similar one with The Washington Post. Samuel noted that readership was up because "people were coming to The Root for what Skip had to say."

Gates and Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post, developed The Root. When it was launched, Gates compared the site to The Crisis, which W.E.B. Du Bois started as the first black magazine in 1910. Though owned by The Washington Post, which also owns the websites Double X and Big Money, The Root operates independently of the other sites, except for some cross-promoting. 

Without a full-time staff, it depends on freelancers such as Kai Wright, who is also on NPR, David Swerdlick, an attorney who writes about biracial identity, Marjorie Valbrun, a former immigration reporter, and Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor of civil rights at the University of Maryland Law School. Its bloggers include Jimi Izrael, who wrote provocatively about Gates, saying, "If a mild-manned, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane can be pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don't stand a chance." 

The Root has attracted a strong, loyal readership. "We've done it with old-fashioned good writing and reporting. And we've taken advantage of the web's interactivity," Samuel says. "We live in a time of information gluttony, and our goal is to add value to the conversation and tell something new," he says.

 Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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