See It to Be It: Newspaper Journalism
By Amy C. Waninger
About the series: See It to Be It is an interview series highlighting professional role models in a variety of industries. The goal of this series to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support systems available for people of color within the industry
This interview features Barrington Salmon, a journalist who works for multiple black-owned newspapers and magazines.
LC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in journalism and what about it appealed to you?
BS: Since I was four years old, I wanted to work with words. I was fascinated with the concept of putting thought to paper. I always knew that I wanted to write, but I didn’t know it was going to be journalism.
I went to Miami Dade Community College and Florida State. I studied international relations for three years and started to wonder, “Why am I even doing this?”
I needed to find something that I was going to enjoy and that I was hopefully going to get paid for. I went to a new small newspaper that was in Tallahassee and asked for a job. The young man asked for proof that I’d written stories for some reputable publication. I didn’t have any, and he said he couldn’t help me.
Having no money at the time, I offered to do the work for free. Tallahassee had the first hurricane in its recorded history. I wrote a story about a friend who, never having experienced a hurricane, went out to the Cape and almost got blown away. When I brought back the story, the guy said to me, “I don’t believe you wrote this.” So I told him, “You give me a topic to write, I’ll find people and do the research and do a story.” Then he believed me and gave me the job.
LC: What has been the biggest surprise to you about the newspaper industry?
BS: In larger newsrooms you have news meetings twice a day to figure out what stories they’re going to put in the paper the next day. That process blew my mind because of the arbitrariness and the randomness of the way that they chose stories. The thing is that they find stories and the angles of stories and types of stories that they feel comfortable with.
LC: How is working for black newspapers different from working inside white newsrooms?
BS: I always criticize what I call corporate media because they’ll send a reporter to say, “You have a corporation with 10,000 people and you only have three 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 is going on in journalism. Most newsrooms do not have a person of color. And the problem with that, how can they tell stories that they don’t know exist. What could be more arrogant? Because they think that they know.
I’ll give you an example. In 1996, I worked for a Washington DC newspaper. I came back from an assignment, and I saw a group of guys laughing and joking. I walked over, and there was a picture of a black man in handcuffs. They were talking about what a fantastic picture was, in terms of the quality of the picture. I said to them, “Have you thought about the fact that you have a black man in handcuffs? Why not a white boy? Why not some other person? All you’re doing is perpetuating negative stereotypes.” They hadn’t thought of that.
LC: What’s something you love about your job?
BS: You’re constantly changing. I love that. I’m always learning because I’ll talk to people without knowing where the interview is going to go. Sometimes it goes off a tangent that ends up being the real story. You’ve got to be flexible. You may have to put aside what you came for and go wherever you need to go with that.