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Panelists share advice in The Black Experience

Credit: Abhinav Gautam/Photo Editor Credit: Abhinav Gautam/Photo Editor

In honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Carnegie Mellon University’s Black Graduate Student Organization arranged a discussion panel last Wednesday to address what it is like being black and involved in the media.

In attendance were: Tony Atkins, digital content producer for WPXI-TV Pittsburgh, Kyshira Moffett, creator of thisishermovement.com and Damon Young, creator of verysmartbrothas.com. In a second portion of the event, these individuals were joined by Clarece Polke, a reporting fellow at the Washington bureau at Reuters, and Tory Parrish, president of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation. Each of the panelists has established themselves professionally in the media, either online or on television, and was open to discussing both the obstacles and the successes they faced in their journalistic pursuits. Kristin Warren, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Black Graduate Student Organization, acted as moderator.

The panelists were first asked about their beginnings in the media world and how they climbed to the positions of power they are in now. Moffett talked about her passion for writing, saying “Initially, I started a blog for finding jobs. Then I launched another blog, rebranded a couple times while I was trying to find myself. ‘This is #hermovement’ is the newest rebranding. Now, it’s a voice for millennial professionals who care about their work – a media site to normalize black women who are not stereotyped in other media.” Atkins added that as a child he really enjoyed visual storytelling and drawing. He stated, “At first, I wanted to go into politics and be a politician, but being a journalist allows you to go into multi-faceted interests. So I studied sports journalism, and from there I went to the newspaper, the news, and now TV.” Finally, Young discussed his transition from being the associate editor for his school newspaper to becoming a high school English teacher to then running his own business at Dusquene University. “I started a personal blog, became friends with another blogger and created ‘verysmartbrothas.com.’ During the recession, I got laid off at Duquesne, but my blog continued to grow,” Young said.

The panelists were then asked to address the difficulties faced by people of color when trying to impede the media industry. Young believes that the answer to this depends on what type of media is being considered. “There is never a better time than now to go into what you want,” Young said. “There are all types of people who have voices and a platform. You need to find a way to separate from the bullshit and what’s real and what makes sense. If you’re a person of color who has an interest in media, there are literally dozens of ways to do that. Go to school, be a social media star, or just try your best to excel in your passion.”

Agreeing with Young, Moffett added that “the biggest thing is defining who you want to be. Separate who you see from your authenticity. What is your expertise and niche, passion and outlet, what can’t you stop talking about?” Atkins added his own anecdote about working in sports media in Milwaukee, describing it as being like “the good ol’ boys.” “More often than not, the guys that were ‘in’ were old white dudes who didn’t want to let go of their positions. After nearly a year, I felt more tolerated than wanted at my first internship, so I decided to leave, and join my friend’s blog called ‘bucksketball.com' and ‘acmepackingcompany.com' and I blogged and built a following through nontraditional media. I was writing and exercising those muscles when I graduated. I saw a door and I broke it down, but sometimes you have to go around it.” Young continued, “just because there are less barriers to entry now, doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles. As you continue to ascend in certain media, there are glass ceilings for people of color and women, say, The New York Times. There are people of color everywhere else, but once you start going into those boardrooms where people are buying and making decisions, you’ll start seeing less of people of color. There is a perception that because it’s by a black person, it’s less reliable.”

Now, given the panelists’ respective struggles, Warren inquired what each media personality felt about their following, and what truly defines the meaning of “success.” “Brand creation is more of an art than an actual science,” Young said. “I can’t think of a specific point where I thought I made it, it’s just an organic feeling where certain things happen and certain opportunities continue to come. It has to do more with engagement and opportunities through your work.” Atkins added that “engagement is definitely very important.” “Try to relay any information to your friends,” he said. “I think people follow me because I’m the newsperson that’s not traditionally uptight, I try to be friendly and outgoing in my tweets and reply back and connect back, as opposed to being a stiff-type celebrity.” Additionally, Moffett noted that the most important aspects of influence are authenticity and consistency. “I didn’t expect my blog to be a business but my blog was getting customers. I know I have a good following because if I don’t post, I know people miss me. When people recognize you for your work and have taken your advice, this shows that your brand is sustainable. Therefore, it’s important to take opportunities from it. My writing gives me opportunities to talk, which is very interesting.”

At this point in the event, the audience was open to ask their own questions. One member asked whether each of the personalities felt that they were a spokesperson for a specific group or if they’ve broken the barrier for anyone of other demographics. Young responded, “My blog is a very unique style of humor, satire, style, etc. By being who we are, it has made us more popular. People who aren’t in our targeted demographic know where to find it. It’s like the cheesecake factory, you have so much on the menu. Those types of media outlets do exist, but if you don’t have that type of bank, then the best thing is to be very, very direct and specific to your goals and your brand.” Atkins agreed, noting “that different news outlets cater to different demographics.” Moffett added her own personal experience with her website. She stated “for instance, ‘bombshellbranding' is geared towards women, but I’ve had five men come to me. I’ve had a lot of men feel comfortable with coming to events. My content blogging definitely helps with that.”

Finally, in light of recent discussions surrounding the Oscar nominations, Warren inquired as to whether any of the panelists felt strongly regarding the lack of nomination of people of color in the Oscars. She surprisingly received very opposing responses. Atkins replied, “as someone who had to create his own thing to get in, I never would care. But if I was Will Smith in the Oscars, I wouldn’t boycott it, because I would never really care”. On the other hand, Young felt differently. “These awards are valuable. They give you name recognition, help your personal brand, and allow you to increase what they can command (from 2 to 10 million per movie)” said Young. “You cannot minimize the value and psychic benefit of being recognized.”