In our fifth See It to Be It podcast interview, Amy C. Waninger chats with Barrington Salmon, an award-winning journalist and writer with over 30 years of experience in the newspaper journalism field. They talk a bit about how he got into journalism, and Barrington offers a few pieces of advice for aspiring professionals looking to break into this industry. These discussions highlight professional role models in a variety of industries, and our goal is to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support black and brown professionals. Check out some of the SI2BI blogs we’ve posted while you wait for the next episode!
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach Nunn. Now, listen here. Y’all know what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build, inspire, encourage, empower, all on a platform that affirms black and brown experiences in corporate America. And it’s interesting because as I came up just kind of coming into myself as a professional, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me in consulting. I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me in human resources either. But when I would come across someone who looked like me doing something I wanted to do, it gave me encouragement. It gave me a stronger sense of hope that I could do it too, and so it’s with that that we’re really excited to talk to y’all about and bring you another entry, actually, into our See It to Be It series. So the next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview between Amy C. Waninger, a guest on the show, a member of the team, and the author of Network Beyond Bias, and a leader who just happens to be an ethnic minority. In fact, yo, Sound Man, give me some air horns right HERE for my leaders. [he complies] Yo, and give me some more air horns right HERE [he complies again] for the See It to Be It series. So catch y’all next time. I know you’re gonna enjoy this. Peace.
Amy: So Barrington, thank you for joining me today. I am so glad to have you here.
Barrington: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Amy: And you are a journalist, and specifically a journalist within black media and black reporting, and so I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you got into journalism and what about it appealed to you.
Barrington: I’d always [known] since I was, like, four years old, that I wanted [to write.] I was fascinated with words, fascinated with the concept of putting thought to paper, and so I knew that I wanted to write. I didn’t know it was gonna be journalism. So I went to Miami-Dade Community College and Florida State. I did three years, like, three-and-a-half years of international relations, and then I was like, “Why am I even doing this?” So I said, “I need to find something that I’m gonna enjoy” and that I was hopefully gonna get paid for. So I went to a small newspaper that was in Tallahassee called the Florida Flambeau. Tallahassee had, like, the first hurricane in its history, like, recorded history, like, in… it was, like, in ’84, and I had a friend who went out to the cape because he had never experienced a hurricane and he almost got blown away. So I wrote the story, and when I brought it back the guy said to me “I don’t believe you wrote this.” So I told him “I’ll sit in the office, you give me a topic to write, I’ll find people and do the research and do a story.” And when I did that he was like, “Oh, well, I guess you really wrote it.” [laughs] So I worked for them in the evenings, and public relations always paid more, so I’ve always gone back and forth between public relations and journalism. So I got a job with the Department of Labor, the Florida Department of Labor, as a writer. So I worked for them in the morning and worked for the newspaper in the evening. I finally got to a point where I got a job with the Tallahassee Democrat, which is the main paper in Tallahassee, and I’ve been doing that for 34 years. It’s only been in the past maybe ten years that I’ve really begun to focus on–and it wasn’t even intentional. I kept on pitching my stories and pitching ideas and trying to get a foot in, a leg in, somewhere, ’cause it really is about who you know. You have lots of talented people running around who nobody knows about who can’t get a leg, a foot in the door, that type of thing, and so you have to first be persistent. You know, my sister said to me “I couldn’t do your job because you always have people telling you no.” “No, I’m not interested in talking to you. No, get out of my face. No, I don’t like the media.” And I said, “Rejection is a part of what I do.” So you gotta have thick skin, and you gotta be persistent, and every now and then you have to find an angel, because I went to the Democrat–I sent in applications seven times, and they told me no seven times, and the eighth time I went in and I said to the managing editor, “I need for you to give me a chance, because I need–” I was getting ready to get kicked out of the job at the other [?] I was working for because I was really clashing with the guy who was my boss. And he said, “Give me some of your stories.” He called me back and he said, “I believe I’m gonna give you a chance.” And that’s how I became a journalist.
Amy: That’s wonderful that you had somebody in your corner that believed in you.
Barrington: Yeah, and I’ve been fortunate that way. I’ve met people who see something and who have–you know, they’ve gotten an opportunity and they’re paying it forward. So yeah, and if you–you know, for the young people who might be thinking about doing this, you’ve gotta read. You’ve gotta read everything. You’ve gotta read every day. You’ve gotta read incessantly to keep up with what’s going on, of course, you know, in this digital age. Watch the news. I don’t like American news, because there are 204 countries in the world, and most times you don’t hear anything about the ones–particularly, you know, countries in Africa, African countries or countries with people who aren’t white unless it’s a drought or a famine or a war. And there’s so much more. Like, one of the things that has been news that isn’t really news here is that ten of Africa’s 54 countries have the fastest-growing economies in the world. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. The young people I think under 18 is the highest of any continent in the world, so they are the future, and these young people in a lot of cases are doing with much less than people do here, and they’re doing fantastic things in technology. My job has always been really to let people know what’s going in the world, why it’s important, why they should care, especially black people. So I write–I used to write for seven newspapers. I’m now down to four, because the same type of [?] you see in–I don’t know if you know, but last week more than 1,000 people got fired from Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and Gannett.
Amy: I was gonna ask you about that. We went from a 24-hour news cycle to an on-demand news cycle, and I think journalism has seen a lot of disruption in the last 10, 20 years.
Barrington: And I keep on thinking I’m crazy because “Why am I still doing this?” But it’s what I love. I’ve been in several instances where I’ve been at a crossroads in my life, and I’ve always been like “I don’t know what else I want to do.” So I’m still [?]. And you find different ways. I write for–I do web content. I write speeches for non-profit CEOs. I got married a month ago, and my wife is a filmmaker, and she’s into all of this other stuff. She has a radio show on WPFW. So we did our first co-hosting thing last week. It was pretty cool. I was scared to death. [laughs] But we’re gonna do that. So, you know, you just gotta find ways to–you gotta adapt. Adapt or die. So I’m adapting, always looking for opportunities. The thing is is that when you put in the work and you’re able to attain a certain level of excellence, if you want to call it that, and you show consistency in what you do, people are gonna see it. Now, I don’t need to be, like, one of them dudes in New York, like, on NBC and that type of stuff. I don’t like the limelight. I’ve always been content to kind of be in the background and do what I do. So that’s what [?].
Amy: That’s wonderful. So can you tell me about a story or the impact of a story that you’re particularly proud of in your career?
Barrington: I got called by a lady who’s a program coordinator for the College of Health, the Annenberg College of Health in health communications at USC in California, and she said, you know, “We’re looking for some fellows. If you have a good idea, give us an idea, and if we like it we’ll, you know, give you a stipend and bring you out for a week to talk to other fellows and learn some things, how to develop and push your story.” So gentrification has been ravaging Washington, D.C. and its surrounding areas. We’ve seen people like me, who are medium-income people, middle-income people, we can’t afford to live in D.C., you know? $5,000 rents, million-dollar houses, $800, 900, 1 million dollars for a house–a regular house. You know, nothing fancy [?]. And so it’s a phenomenon that has raged across the U.S. San Francisco. Oakland is out of control. You know, wherever people are living in Silicon Valley, you have the techies making millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they can afford to live, and other people are living in their cars or living on the streets or having to find somewhere else to live. I’ve moved about four or five times in the Washington, D.C. metro area, because it’s like a ripple. You know, I lived in a community called Hyattsville, and five years ago it was about maybe $600 or $700 a month for rent. When I left it was $1,300 a month. And so that’s the type of stuff that we’re dealing with. I have a friend in Indianapolis, and she’s always like “Come on out. At least you can afford a house out here.”
Amy: Exactly. Exactly what I was thinking, yes, because I live in Indy. [laughs]
Barrington: Yeah. So I did a three-part series on the health effects of gentrification on displaced D.C. residents, and it’s gotten a lot of buzz. I went to a friend’s play. The play was about gentrification, and the director asked me to come up and talk to and field questions from the audience about, you know, my stories, my research, and the effects. I was invited to Anacostia Smithsonian Museum to give a presentation about it. And, you know, it’s just something that is on people’s mind, and people are living through the experience. So I don’t know if that–I think the greatest thing that reporters love is when you do a story and there’s a policy change [and] the policy makers or the elected officials see it, and it hasn’t gotten to that because there’s so many moving parts and it’s so complex, but it’s one that I’m very proud of.
Amy: That’s wonderful.
Barrington: It took me 18 months to do it, and I think I interviewed about 30 people. I read about 100 stories and research paper and everything. It took forever, but I’m very proud of what I did.
Amy: That’s wonderful. So would you liken the health effects or the–and pardon me if there’s ignorance in this question, but it almost sounds like a refugee situation. Like, what we’re seeing in other parts of–
Barrington: Yeah, it is. It is, because D.C. has [lost] about 60,000 residents in the past maybe five years, long-time residents, native Washingtonians who have had to move because they couldn’t afford it. I’ve talked to researchers and scientists, and they talk about the fact that the stress and the anxiety of trying to find somewhere to live, the stress of trying to find the money if you decide to stay there, the clash of cultures–because D.C. used to be 72% black. It’s now 49%, and the folks who are coming in are mostly white, mostly young, and the biggest complaint that residents have is that these folks come in and they want to change the names of streets. They want to change the names of communities. They want to erase and whitewash the history that is D.C. So that has been problematic. For example–let me give you an example. It’s a common thing in D.C. where black people like to sit on the stoop, especially in the summer time when it’s hot. These guys are calling the police because they don’t want them sitting on the stoop. On Sundays it’s always been a wink and a nod that if people were going to church, you could double-park in front of the church instead of having to park down–you know, a mile down the road. They have been calling the police to move people’s cars. So there’s a disconnect and a lack of respect for the folks who have been there before. And economically, I mean, the D.C. government has a bunch of programs to help fire fighters, teachers, and other middle-income people to stay in D.C., because without, you know, things like [?], which is a housing program where you can get, like, $10,000 for a down payment and extra money if you live in D.C. So there are different things that they’re trying to do to get people to stay, because you have folks who–there are cops and fire department people who live in West Virginia, who drive in New Jersey, who commute to work, which to me is crazy.
Amy: That’s ridiculous, yeah.
Barrington: So think about the stress. Think about the wear and tear. It’s just nuts.
Amy: Well, and everybody–I mean, I think there’s some consensus that if you want effective law enforcement in your communities, law enforcement needs to come from and reside in those communities, right? Not the kind of job you want to outsource.
Barrington: Yeah, and that’s been a big issue, because folks complain, you know? “These guys don’t live here. These guys don’t know who we are. These guys don’t care who we are. They don’t respect what we’ve done here. They just look at us as people, black people, more than not likely to have committed a crime.” [laughs] And so that’s where they’re coming from. So it’s a multi-faceted complex, crazy issue, and as long as money is the god of this country it will continue, because, you know–in the same way that we’re looking at… like, I worry about automation. AI, automation, man versus machine. After a while, you know, people need to start trying to figure out “What are we gonna do when automation takes over?” Because it’s much cheaper. So they hire the outsourcing jobs to China or overseas or in Mexico or it’s AI. So folks who have been working their whole life and don’t know any other paradigm are at a point where they don’t have a job. And I read a piece last week that said that the corporate so-called brains of this country are saying that they only have enough money to pay for a quarter of the retraining that people are gonna need if they want a different type of job, and so it’s gonna fall on who? The taxpayers.
Amy: That’s right. As it always does, right?
Barrington: Yeah. So they have made choices and done things to make sure that they continue making money, and we’re not benefiting from none of that, but we’re gonna end up paying for them. And for me, the outrage of those types of issues are things that drive me to write certain stories. I did a story recently about the fact that most people can’t live–most people have to have two, three, four jobs in order to make a living, in order to stay above water. What does that do for your family? What does that do for relationships? What does that do for you in terms of your health? It’s crazy, you know? So those are the issues I explore.
Amy: That’s fascinating. So do your assignments come from the newspapers that you work for, or are you out there kind of figuring out what it is that interests you and what you want to write about?
Barrington: It’s a mixture.
Amy: A mixture? Okay.
Barrington: I’m always reading, talking to people, looking at stories and looking for unusual angles, and in several cases I have the type of relationships with editors who they’ll call me and say, “Can you do this story? I want you to do this story.” So it’s a mixture.
Amy: Excellent. So what’s different about working for or pitching to black media outlets as opposed to kind of the big corporate, you know, white media outlets that most people see on TV?
Barrington: I think that one of the problems that we have–I always criticize mainstream, what I call corporate, media, because they’ll send a reporter to Amy and say, “Amy, you have a corporation with 10,000 people and you only have 3 black people in your entire organization, and woe is me, and how could you do that?” And blah blah blah, and the exact same thing that they’re criticizing other people for are the exact same things going on in journalism. I see different figures–it might be 10%. I think it might be less than that. 80% of newsrooms do not have a person of color–a Native-American, an Asian, a black person, a Latino, at all. All white men. And the problem with that–
Amy: How can they–how can they tell stories that they don’t know exist or that they can’t understand?
Barrington: They’re arrogant, because they think that they know, and I’ve been in–I’ll give you an example. I worked for The Washington Times when I came to D.C. in ’96, and I went out on an assignment and came back and I saw a group of guys laughing and joking, and so I walk over and there was a picture of a black man in handcuffs, and they were talking about what a fantastic picture it was and the quality of the picture and da-da-da, and I said to them, “Have you thought about the fact that you have a black man in handcuffs? Why isn’t it a white boy? Why isn’t it some other person?” I said, “All you’re doing is perpetuating a negative stereotype, because all of us aren’t criminals.” And they were like, “[gasps]”. They hadn’t thought of that. So you need women, and you need people who don’t have the same cultural experience to be in the room, you know? ‘Cause usually in larger newsrooms you have meetings twice a day, news meetings twice a day, to figure out what stories you’re gonna put in the paper next day. That process in itself blew my mind, because the arbitariness and the randomness of the way that they chose stories, I was like, “Whoa.” It just–and it… [sighs] the thing is that they find stories and the angles of stories and the types of stories that they do are stories that they feel comfortable with. If they’re not comfortable, they’re not doing it. And my thing is that as a journalist, [I’m?] supposed to be uncomfortable every day, whether it’s in the places that I go, whether it’s the people I talk to. I went to Baltimore to do a story after Freddie Gray had gotten killed by the police, and my editor kept on telling me “You need to go on the street. You need to talk to people.” It was the best thing I did. Now, I know people at all of the papers that I’ve worked who would not go into the quote-unquote ghetto or a rough neighborhood because they’re afraid. I’ve been in situations with civil disturbances where people were throwing stones and bottles at the media. I’ve been in situations where they’ve sent me out for stories where people are shooting at people, and you don’t know–you know, you’re crouching down because you may get shot, you know? You talk to people who are like, “I don’t like you. I think you guys are just like cops. Get out of my face.” So you have to deal with a lot of stuff you don’t necessarily want to deal with, but how else are you gonna get the story?
Amy: Right. Well, it’s much more fun to cover the new menu at the country club.
Barrington: I guess…
Amy: But it’s not very interesting, is it?
Barrington: No, yeah. And how many times are you gonna do that, you know? And everybody has a story. I believe that everybody has a story, and our responsibility is to give them an opportunity. So one of the things that some of my friends laugh at is that every time I do a story, I interview an equal number of men and women, because I believe that we are not the same as women, we don’t think the way that women do, and to me they bring a special flavor and a sauce to any situation that men don’t bring. I want to hear what they’re saying, and to me it’s a good balance when you have men and women, because men will look at something one way, and you talk to a woman and she has a completely different perspective, and you go, “Oh, I never thought of that.” So it’s a constantly evolving process. You know, you’re constantly changing. I love that I’m always learning, because I’ll talk to people and I’ll think, “Well, I don’t know where this interview is gonna go,” and it just goes off a tangent and you go, “Oh.” That may end up the tangent. It may end up being the story. So you’ve got to be flexible, because you get–some incident has occurred or something, you go to an event, and you may be talking to someone, and there’s something that they say that you go, “Oh, that’s the real story.” So you have to put aside what you came for and just pursue, go wherever you need to go with that. So that’s something that I’ve learned over my 34, 35 years as a journalist. [laughs]
Amy: That’s awesome. Thank you, Barrington, so much, for sharing this, all of this, with me. I really appreciate it. In the couple minutes that we have left, I’m hoping that you will finish a couple of sentences for me. The first is “I feel included when __________.”
Barrington: When I’m allowed to voice my opinion. When I am not ignored or overlooked.
Amy: And the second question is “When I feel included, I ________.”
Barrington: I feel on top of the world. I feel like a human being. I feel like someone whose thoughts and ideas are valued.
Amy: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much.
Barrington: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. This has been fun.