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MU students bring black-perspective publication online

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
From left, senior Veronica Wells, a convergence major; senior Daryl Kirkland-Morgan; a broadcast major; and senior Victoria Uwumarogie, a magazine major, unpack food for the BLACKout launch party in the Black Culture Center on Jan. 29. Wells and Uwumarogie revived the student-led publication in September 2009. "We want to report on the black community on campus and nationally because you don't get to hear about those so much," Uwumarogie said.

COLUMBIA — Dorothy Gaiter remembers national outrage when the Ohio National Guard fired into a group of protesting college students at Kent State University in 1970. Gaiter, then a journalism student at MU, participated in a campus vigil for the four dead and nine wounded.

Journalist Robin Stone at MU

Journalist Robin Stone will talk about her late husband, Gerald Boyd, and his journey from MU to the New York Times, where he became that paper's first African-American managing editor.

"A Trailblazer's Lessons on Empowerment" will be at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, 813 Virginia Ave., MU.

"The Story Behind the Story: Boyd's 'My Times'" will be from 2 to 3 p.m. on Thursday in room 100-A of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, on South Ninth Street at the north end of Francis Quadrangle, MU.


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She also remembers that 10 days later, police fired at protesting students at Jackson State College, a historically black school in Mississippi. Although two students were killed and others injured, Gaiter and other black students found that news coverage fell far short of that surrounding Kent State.

From their perspective, the times were already hard enough: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been murdered, and the draft for Vietnam had claimed far too many young black men.

"There was a general turning inward by many black Americans," said Gaiter, who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1973 and whose career so far has taken her to the Miami Herald, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Months before the shootings, Gaiter helped start "Blackout," a publication by the Legion of Black Collegians at MU meant to unify the black community on campus and provide a black point of view.

"Our coverage of the Jackson State killings was one of our most memorable efforts," she said.

Forty-one years later, two MU seniors think black perspectives are still needed. Veronica Wells and Victoria Uwumarogie, both journalism majors, have revamped the original newsletter, which ended in 1971, and turned it into an online publication that addresses national and local issues.

Its name slightly modified, the BLACKout began in September with a mission similar to that of the founders: adding a distinctly black perspective to Columbia-area media. In its first month, the publication included Uwumarogie's reaction to Kanye West's interruption of fellow music artist Taylor Swift's speech at the Video Music Awards  and Wells' story about an MU student who created Dream Outside the Box, a program for underprivileged minority students.

"The publications here are good, but there is always something missing," Uwumarogie said.

Gerald Boyd, who became the first African-American managing editor of The New York Times, also felt that something was missing when he helped found the first Blackout as a journalism student. "Our biggest problem, and one faced by all revolutionaries, was the inability to communicate our concerns to the broader campus," Boyd wrote in his memoir, "My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times." 

Boyd, who died in 2006, wrote that the publication reflected how black students felt excluded from participating fully in university activities. Excerpts from Boyd's book can be found on the Missourian's Opinion page Sunday and online at ColumbiaMissourian.com. His wife, journalist Robin Stone, will be at MU this week; please see the sidebar for times and places.

"You can imagine how a lack of diversity played a role in the (original) Blackout," Wells said.

Uwumarogie said that although racial and cultural diversity in media coverage has improved since the 1970s, there have been situations during her training in the School of Journalism in which she has felt obligated to cover stories about the black community.

Wells mirrors this belief, "You don’t want to be put into a box and be the black girl writing about black people," she said. "But sometimes it’s like, if you don’t take it (the story), no one will."

Gaiter thinks the opportunity should be embraced. She said that after successful stints at the Missourian and the Savitar, MU's yearbook, she was told by an editorial writing teacher that he wished she had written more about the black community in Columbia. "Gee, I wish I'd known he felt that way," Gaiter said.

"It was an opportunity that I should have made more of, but I didn’t," Gaiter said. "Over an almost 37-year career, of which 27 were spent writing about race, I tried not to make that mistake again."

The BLACKout Breakdown

The online publication covers any topic staff writers think is of overall interest to blacks. That includes:

"We know what is going on, but we wanted other people to know about what we are doing and be participatory," said Jehan Roberson, president of the MU chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Staff also sound off on issues and topics that affect blacks on a national level.

Freshman Calvin Stovall examined Tiger Wood's recent sex scandal. An article about director Spike Lee’s derogatory comments about Tyler Perry, written by sophomore Dreana Johnson, is one of the most viewed on the Web site.

Uwumarogie and Wells search mainstream media for national stories that could be expanded by incorporating a black perspective. "I don’t think these publications are racist, but people just get comfortable," Wells said.

They also look at Web sites geared toward the black community such as The Root, an online magazine devoted to the black perspective and Young, Black and Fabulous, a gossip blog about black celebrities.

Wells and Uwumarogie think being "comfortable" can result from unbalanced media. They want to combat negative portrayals of blacks, who they feel are too often highlighted in crime stories at the expense of more positive accomplishments in the community.

Gaiter has given this a lot of thought. "One reason why I devoted so many years to writing about race was because I felt that the media, even when good-faith efforts were made, often fell short in their coverage of race in America," said Gaiter, who returned to MU last year to deliver the May commencement address for the School of Journalism.

Sophomore Jamal Andress doesn’t think there is a failure in local media coverage but rather an untapped interest on campus for topics the Web site addresses.

“It’s not that the Missourian wouldn’t cover it," Andress said. "It’s just that I can go to the BLACKout and know I’d be interested in what I’m reading.”

Freshman Jade Earle said she joined the BLACKout staff after learning about the publication through the National Association Black Journalists. Earle said it has allowed her to cover aspects of campus she would not have known about otherwise, such as the African Students Association’s Miss Africa Mizzou pageant.

"You get a sense of different ideas, events or issues that are not really talked about," Earle said.

Concept to Reality

Wells and Uwumarogie first started hearing about bringing back the publication when they were sophomores. Students were excited, but the NABJ executive board had differing opinions on the format. The idea stalled.

So when Uwumarogie ran for NABJ vice president in April 2009, she included revitalizing BLACKout in her platform. In September, Roberson challenged members to create a publication before the end of this school year. Wells and Uwumarogie created the Web site in less than a week, writing most of the posts until more students became interested in becoming contributing writers. The students said the skills they learned in their Journalism School training have prepared them to successfully manage the BLACKout.

Currently, the Web site is not financially supported; a strategic communications committee is looking at ways to bring in money. Staffers hope to move it off its Wordpress host and eventually become a print publication.

“I was surprised by all the freshmen who said they wanted something tangible,” Wells said. She and Uwumarogie think that younger students will step up to lead the publication when they graduate.

The BLACKout has pitch meetings at 6 p.m. every other Monday in the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The next meeting will be March 1. New writers, of any race, are welcome.

"It’s for the enlightenment of everybody," Uwumarogie said.

But just to be clear, Wells said, the focus is on black issues locally and nationally.

"We want the campus to know that we are here," she said, "and we are going to be here for a long time."


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