Celebrated Black Reporter Laid Off By Newspaper

Old-timey journalists. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Old-timey journalists. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

A newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama, a predominately African American city famous for civil rights battles in the 1960s, has laid off its last black reporter.

The Birmingham News, which is owned by the Alabama Media Group, announced it would be laying off a number of staff members as it continued to make a transition to the digital era. Michelle Holmes of the Alabama Media Group said in a staff memo: “We wish the best for those who leave our organization today and thank them for their dedication and good work.”

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One of the reporters laid off was Barnett Wright, which All Digitocray said was the last black journalist on staff. ThinkProgress received comment from AMG suggesting this isn’t the case.

Holmes wrote to ThinkProgress following publication of this post with the following statement:

As I am sure you understand, we don’t discuss specific employees past or present. But it is simply false to say that our newsroom is devoid of diversity. I can tell you that we do indeed continue to employ talented black journalists, in positions ranging from reporters to content director (one of the 4 most senior managers in our newsrooms) to community manager and columnist, to photojournalist. We have had a number of other black journalists voluntarily move on to new jobs in the last few months, as happens regularly in any healthy mid-size news operation. We are actively recruiting and interviewing black candidates and are very happy to accept more. Two job links on the National Association of Black Journalists detail several of our positions, including those seeking candidates for our new AL.com Studios effort. For those positions, we are seeking video journalists with proven ability in digital storytelling, and advanced shooting and editing experience. In general, for all our roles, we are looking for journalists with strong digital acumen who are committed to storytelling, experimentation, and a willingness to deliver significant journalism on multiple platforms. I want to clarify, as well, that all our employees work for the Alabama Media Group. We produce a suite of media products, anchored by AL.com, one of the largest local news sites on the web. The Birmingham News is an important piece of our company, but does not have its own distinct employees as was the case in decades past. We are recruiting for journalists who understand that and can help us continue to build audience in that way. I can unequivocally say we want, and continue to seek, a diverse staff to help us find and tell more stories here Alabama.

Andre Natta of the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists told ThinkProgress in an interview, “I think Barnett Wright is one of the best journalists in the city, good at his job and representing the citizens as far as making sure they knew what was coming before it happened. I think people need to be aware of the fact that, as this continues to happen, it’s going to become a bigger issue. Not just in terms of losing black reporters, but losing levels of coverage across the board.”

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“They’re going to seem more gaps in terms of things getting done and laws being passed and things like that where they aren’t as informed as they need to be,” Natta said. “And they probably need to be a bit more prepared to continue to raise the issue of diversity and as much coverage as humanly possible and be more focused on the need of the community above all else.”

Natta continued, “I think in the case of Barnett there will be gaps in county coverage, and issues regarding county government which is important to the residents in metro Birmingham, but it also speaks to the fact that there hasn’t been a lot of boots on the ground in the individual neighborhoods in the city. And that was an issue even before Barnett left.”

Wright covered the Jefferson County Commission and had won first place in deadline for the Alabama Associated Press Media Editors newspaper contest in 2012. Wright covered everything from corruption charges to residents fighting unjust property liens to a story titled, “Did death of lion draw more outrage than death of black males?”

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, who co-founded the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists and previously worked at the Birmingham News, told All Digitocracy that when she started in the 1980s, there were only “six or seven” black journalists on staff. After that, Stewart said, there was a greater emphasis on hiring more African American journalists, which is important for covering a city that is nearly three-quarters black.

Birmingham is also home to many fights over civil rights for African Americans. The Birmingham Campaign consisted of lunch counter sit-ins, marches in downtown, and protests against the “Whites Only” signs on restrooms, which were finally removed in May 1963. It was also where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” At the time, he wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

Update:

Updated with an interview with Andre Natta and statement from Michelle Holmes.