This story is being republished in partnership with the John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellowship. Our editor-in-chief, Tiffany Walden, is a current JSK Journalism Fellow. Here, she writes about the project she’s working on at the fellowship.

I had to call Morgan for reassurance before writing this. Not only is she a co-founder of The TRiiBE alongside me and David Elutilo, she’s also my best friend. Since our college days at Northwestern University, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time nerding out about the state of media, and what our dream media organization would look like. She listened to me vent about how I didn’t feel like my style of writing and storytelling fit into the traditional Medill School of Journalism system. As a vérité documentary filmmaker, she questioned me about the journalistic ideals of “objectivity” that I learned in J-school, and particularly opened my eyes to the ways it harms marginalized and impoverished communities who sit at the tailend of clickbaity crime coverage that privies police narratives over the systemic racism handed to Black people. Together, we cheered on an early 2010s platform called Very Smart Bros, where Black people paired politically-smart commentary with witty writing in a fun and digestible AAVE flair. We, as Black millennials, finally felt seen in the media; something I hadn’t felt in years.

I’m just a girl from the West Side of Chicago. I only wanted to be a journalist because I loved Vibe Magazine. Ebony and Jet magazines were always around the house I grew up in with my mom and grandmother, but Vibe really stirred something in me. It’s one of the first magazines I begged my mom to buy a subscription to. The covers, the conversations around hip-hop and political movements, the interviews, the super Black advertising, the writing, the clever use of slang… I saw myself in each and every page of that magazine. It opened the doors for me to learn about my position in the world as a Black person, and to discover other Black publications doing this work, like Sister 2 Sister, Honey and The Source. I wanted to tell stories just like them. Just like Vibe Magazine, I understood the importance of documenting the complexities, nuance and breadth of Black thought, for example, prompting intersectional conversations around politics by placing Black presidential candidate Barack Obama on the same cover in August 2007 that a prophetic hip-hop revolutionary like Tupac Shakur graced before his untimely death. I wanted to be the antithesis of what I saw on the TV news every night. I wanted to capture the multitudes of being Black in America.

But Medill introduced me to the unfavorable side of journalism. As a freshman, once when I proudly proclaimed Vibe Magazine as my favorite publication in class, I was met with blank stares. The other kids in my predominantly-white freshman class listed the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other similarly high-brow publications that I’d never read. Imposter syndrome became my new journalism sidekick. As I watched many of the aforementioned Black publications either go bankrupt or be bought out by big white corporations, consequentially becoming a shell of themselves, I, too, became a shell of myself. I quieted my voice, conformed, and followed the rules, just to make it in the industry I’d gone into significant student loan debt to be a part of.

This fall, while sitting in a parking lot outside Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford University campus, I realized that I’ve buried much of that experience, and all accompanying feelings, in a box in my mind until I had to write this piece. I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for me to write about what I’m working on while I’m here as a John S. Knight Journalism (JSK) Fellow. Per usual, the imposter syndrome had kicked in, and I was going into that place where I feel the need to prove that I belong. I’d put pressure on myself to pen some profound piece about my project. As she did when we launched The TRiiBE in 2017, Morgan reminded me of my why.

Tiffany Walden, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE, interviewing Brandon Johnson. Also pictured (far left), Morgan Elise Johnson, co-founder and publisher of The TRiiBE. Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiiBE®

So… what exactly is my JSK project? I’m creating a journalism style guide to covering Black communities. I’d like for this guide to be a living, breathing document that empowers Black people to have agency in telling their stories and that heals the mistrust between them and the media. The guide would be a resource to Black veteran and young reporters, and even bloggers and “hood journalists,” who want to responsibly, ethically and authentically cover their communities. Additionally, the guide will unpack traditional and conservative journalistic practices, detailing how those practices have caused a great deal of harm to Black communities, making a case for why we should unlearn and remove them from modern-day journalism.

Essentially, the guide will be a resource that I wish I had as a Black girl entering a white, traditional J-school environment. There are so many young Black people who want to tell stories and want to get into journalism, but do not see their authentic voices represented well in the industry, are intimidated by the idea of conforming to fit in, or simply can’t afford to take on the student loan debt only to land an entry level low-paying reporter job in rural America. Some would argue that these sentiments, followed by the Black community’s distrust in media and the financial struggles of Black-owned journalism publications over time, have given rise to hip-hop blogs and other social-media influencers who aid in the fear mongering and misinformation spread within Black America. It is my hope that the guide could work to combat misinformation spread by educating consumers and content creators on the ethics behind responsible storytelling.

So far, my entryway into this project has been understanding and documenting “The TRiiBE Way.” For those who don’t know, The TRiiBE is an award-winning digital news platform that is reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago and giving agency to the people. We carry the torch of our abolitionists ancestors such as Ida B. Wells who advocated for Black liberation through journalism, unafraid to highlight racism. One of our most recent successes was our coverage of the 2023 Chicago municipal election, in which Brandon Johnson — backed by a progressive multicultural coalition of grassroots organizers and labor unions — beat out the city’s merciless political establishment, winning 52 percent of the vote in the runoff.

A sample of Twitter posts from readers during The TRiiBE’s coverage of the 2023 Chicago municipal election. Graphic by David Elutilo for The TRiiBE.

As co-founder and editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE, I witness our mission-driven journalism every day. I sit in on editorial discussions about story framing and impact, choosing sources that best represent communities, and how best to add educational elements that enhance readers’ understanding of a topic. At The TRiiBE, we produce impact journalism. It is our editorial imperative to interrogate and ask questions of political leaders and hopefuls that critique their plans for Chicago residents.

However, for the first time since our launch in 2017, it seemed we’d captured lightning in a bottle during the 2023 municipal election cycle. Everything from our reported stories about progressivism to our award-winning political written and video commentaries gave readers the nuance and political education necessary to make an informed decision on who to vote for. The community credited our tiny newsroom for having the best election coverage out of all the Chicago newsrooms.

In the days following the election, praise for our team’s electrifying work continued to pour in, and some of our journalism peers reached out to me, wanting answers. They wanted to know how The TRiiBE achieved its months-long mayoral election coverage, and how it could be replicated in their respective cities.

I didn’t have an answer to that question. The only answer I could think of was that I started creating an election editorial calendar in September, and we started prepping our audience to shift their thinking to the election in fall 2022 with our reporter Tonia Hill’s story, “Are there too many Black people running for Chicago mayor?”

TRiiBE multimedia reporter Tonia Hill conducting an interview outside of Chicago’s City Hall. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE

At The TRiiBE, we’ve always just done the work. We’re driven by our passion and love for Black Chicagoans. These people, this city, is my home. This work is my life. I hadn’t ever thought about there being a formula to that work.

Being here at Stanford allows me the space to figure out the answer to that question.

If you find our work at The TRiiBE interesting, or even the historical work and role of Black publications, please reach out to me at tnwalden@stanford.edu or tiffany@thetriibe.com. I’m in the research phase of my project, and your expertise could help fuel my research.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.