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Meet the Staff: Aaron Foley, Founding Director of the Black Media Initiative

  • By Center for Community Media
Photo: Douglas Zimmerman

In June, Aaron Foley joined the Center for Community Media (CCM) as the founding director of its Black Media Initiative. Here’s a chance to get to know Aaron and his vision for this new initiative.

Q: You’ve said you “grew up” in Black media, with a mother who was editor for the 80-year-old Michigan Chronicle. Did you ever visit the newsroom with her? Do you have any memories that stick out in your mind, and that may have shaped the way you approach journalism yourself?

A: I visited all the time. My mom was a single parent, so sometimes I’d have to go with her back to work after she picked me up from school. Because it was a small staff, one thing I remember most is her and everyone else, whether they were a reporter or otherwise, having to lay out the paper piece by piece on a lightbox, with rollers and glue. You really had to do it all back then, but it also showed the dedication the staff had to putting the paper out. Another thing I remember is the number of Black celebrities my mom encountered, on a regular basis. Black celebrities did and still do take time to speak with Black outlets, because they know their stories can be told right.

Q: You were chief storyteller for the city of Detroit. What kinds of stories did you find, and are there any you think the rest of the country should know?

A: I’ll always say that the best stories we did were around Black millennials, which I’ve said is the most overlooked audience and the most undercovered subject in Detroit. We profiled a young man who started an internet marketplace for Black-owned businesses in the city, a trio of queer women who started a performance space for LGBTQIA artists, young women who bought an abandoned house and converted it into a space to teach girls about feminism, and a man who had a mission to document every mural in the city. A lot of the narrative around Detroit centered “white saviors” and their contribution to the “comeback” of the city, which I knew angered longtime residents. Any story that challenges those narratives are ones more people should know about.

Q: Speaking of stories, what kinds of stories do you see – and tell yourself – in Black media outlets, that you wouldn’t see in the so-called mainstream?

A: I think the everyday success stories of Black-owned businesses, which now you’re starting to see more of post-George Floyd, is something the Black press has always championed. I’ve always thought that more could be done with those stories, though – what kinds of trends do you see in who’s opening them, what kinds of services are needed, how businesses actually open in the environments they’re in, things like those.

Q: You’ve been a journalist in the Midwest and on both coasts. Often, so-called mainstream outlets speak of and to a regional divide. Do you see a similar divide in Black media outlets in different regions, or is there a different kind of conversation within different parts of the community? How do you see Black media outlets speaking both to very local concerns and keeping communities in conversation nationwide?

A: I wouldn’t call it a divide, but I do think there’s a lot more visibility given to Black issues in some places – I’m thinking New York, D.C. and Atlanta – than elsewhere in Black America. If a major development happens, for example, at Morehouse College or Howard University, which are two outstanding schools, then you’ll read about it in several outlets, both Black and mainstream, and it’ll be the talk across Black Twitter and other Black networks. But you don’t always see that with other HBCUs. The focus on a handful of places is symptomatic, in my opinion, of the lack of understanding of all Black communities, and what each one can learn about the other. I think one potential solution with this is networking and collaboration; how can Black media outlets work together to amplify stories from all regions?

Q: You have just joined us as the founding director of the Black Media Initiative at CCM. What is your vision for this initiative? Is there anything you want readers to keep an eye out for?

A: My vision is to elevate the stature of Black media so that it receives the same kind of notice, industry accolade and credibility as their peers in the mainstream. Too often, Black media is overlooked for the big awards – though I must shout-out Soraya Nadia McDonald being a Pulitzer finalist for her lush work with The Undefeated – or overlooked when it comes to defining what a hyperlocal outlet is. I’d like to see that change. I’d also like Black media to be open to the same kind of innovative tactics – like new subscription models, new forms of fundraising, and the like – that you see with newer, startup outlets. And generally, I’d like to invite all kinds of new ideas around Black media. This is still an exciting time to be experimental in journalism, pandemic or not, and I’d like to be in those conversations.

One thing to keep an eye out for is our upcoming state of Black media report, which will be a comprehensive look at what Black media looks like in 2020. From there, we can identify ways CCM can support these outlets to hopefully achieve some of the things I’ve outlined above. The report is due at the end of September.

Read more from Aaron in this interview he did with Nieman Lab on the Black press and the initiative.