Obama fever helps a new site put down roots

The Root, a website run by 'The Washington Post', aims to fulfil America's long-held desire for a national black paper, says Rachel Shields
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The Independent Online

Barack Obama has pushed ahead of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination and the US might be looking at its first black President. Campaign tactics, voting patterns and press coverage have all been scrutinised through the prisms of colour and gender – yet, ironically, these issues are being covered by a media largely made up of white, middle-class men.

One of the world's most influential newspapers is trying to bring a fresh perspective. The Washington Post, best known for its exposé of the Watergate scandal, has launched The Root, a website offering a discussion of current affairs from a black perspective.

The site is being billed as a historic endeavour – a 21st-century iteration of the long-held desire for a national black newspaper. A movement that began with the publication of The Freedom Journal in 1827 may finally be coming to fruition. "The Root is ground-breaking, and I believe it will change the media landscape for black America," says Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the popular US online magazine Slate, also owned by the Post.

While there are plenty of websites targeting African-American audiences – AOL Black Voices and Bet.com being two of the most popular – their primary focus is entertainment. The Root hopes to have a solid news base, covering politics and social issues.

The site aims to raise the profile of black voices in the mainstream media. If the standing of The Washington Post – which sells more than five million copies every week – is not enough to guarantee The Root's success, the distinguished editorial team behind the project might. The site is the brainchild of Donald Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company, and Henry Louis Gates Jr, director of Harvard's WEB Du Bois Institute for African American research.

The Root's three sections are neatly summed up in the website's tagline: "News, Views, and Roots". The interactive "Roots" section allows users to trace their family's genealogy.

Although the site doesn't yet have its own reporting staff, the "News" section gathers major international news stories and gives space to events of particular interest to black readers.

Click on the link to "Views" for sharp commentary from black writers at the top of every field. Despite its limited budget, The Root has had no problem attracting heavyweight commentators, a fact that has quietened some sceptics. Famous names such as Malcolm Gladwell – author of the bestselling book The Tipping Point – can be seen alongside those of John McWhorter, whose book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis of Black America caused a stir last year with its radical vision of black intellectual leadership.

"Many people in the US feel that while there are black voices being heard, it's the same black people being quoted over and over. . . there are more African-Americans out there with things to say," says Lynette Clemetson, the editing manager.

One of the site's main aims is to dispel the notion that America's 37 million black residents all belong to a single monolithic community. "Black America contains as many different people as America as a whole, and we need to reflect that," Clemetson says.

So, a piece on how to prevent black literature being branded as "ghetto fiction" runs next to an article questioning whether Barack Obama will be able to extend his appeal to Latino voters. "In the US the HIV epidemic is a black epidemic, and we can hone in on this issue in a way the main news outlets can't," Clemetson adds.

Some worry The Root could have the opposite of its intended effect: that it could end up marginalising black voices. Clemetson disagrees. "As a woman, I want publications like The New York Times and The Independent to run stories that reflect women's views and discuss issues important to women, but I still like to read Cosmopolitan and Oprah magazine. The publishing world has space for us."