Media get the South all wrong, so ‘movement journalists’ are stepping in

Project South wants to tell stories of grassroots power in a way that avoids the stereotypes outsiders bring.

Image Credit: Raisa Janjua

As more local daily newspapers across the U.S. cut back or shut their doors, communities are losing a critical source of information about civic life. Many studies have warned that the decline of local journalism may increase the amount of political polarization and discourage participation in voting.

In response to the rise of “news deserts” across the U.S. South, Project South, a leadership development nonprofit focused on racial and economic justice, is creating a media hub that will expand coverage of people in the region working on social, political, and economic transformation, a type of reporting they call “movement journalism.”

Anna Simonton, the editor of Scalawag Magazine, recently conducted a survey of independent media in the region for Project South. The survey highlighted the history of local movement journalism and demonstrates how issues in the South affect the entire nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kevon Paynter: How do you define movement?

Anna Simonton: By movements, we mean people and communities who are working toward their survival, well-being, and self-determination, and people who are doing so collectively rather than as individuals. That’s when it becomes a movement, when folks get organized. We see that as a driving force shaping society that doesn’t get covered like electoral politics gets covered. Yet it has an impact and it’s important to note the impact so more people can get engaged with that civic action.

Paynter: Why is it important to change how the mainstream media covers movements in the South?

Simonton: This is a question that I posed to a lot of the folks that I spoke with over the course of doing the research that went into this report: What’s missing? Or, how are we – the South as a region and also movements in the South – being portrayed currently? Carlton Turner, who at the time was the head of Alternate Roots, a very important Southern arts organization, said, “The national media uses Mississippi as an example of how not to be.”

I would add to that the same could be said for the whole South, when in reality the South is the site of power being constantly contested and has been for 400 years. In that are some of the most powerful examples of resistance that have spread beyond the South to impact the whole country, and [it] has a lot to teach in terms of how people are living under very oppressive conditions and surviving, and changing those conditions. That’s not usually visible in the national reporting about the South. And it’s really not visible in the Southern media landscape.

It’s a question of value and where you place your value. Journalists currently tend to place value on sources who are elected officials, who have some kind of public official nature, so not only elected officials, but police officers. Journalists tend to place value in those areas of power, and it’s just as important to value relationships with people who are not vested with that same power but have perspectives that matter and who are making an impact on society in different ways.

Paynter: Politically and nationally, what is there to gain for the rest of the country from Southern movement journalism?

Simonton: The South has the largest congressional delegation of any region in the country. And the South is proving as a testing ground for regressive policies and practices that often times make their way out of the South to the rest of the country, right-to-work being a good example of that. W.E.B. Dubois said, “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” So folks everywhere should be concerned with what happens in the South because it’s going to impact everybody.

Southern movement journalism should be of interest to everybody because it is a way to better understand not only the oppression coming out of the South and the way the folks in power down here are co-opting and strategizing ways to hold on to power, but to also understand the ways that power is being contested and the ways that people power and grassroots power is being won.

Another way Southern movement journalism stands to benefit everybody is everyone would benefit from having movement journalism in their own states and localities because it’s a way to understand why the conditions of your community are the way that they are and who is involved in shaping that. It’s also a way to get involved yourself. First is to be aware, to have better knowledge, and understand ways to plug in. If movement journalism can be strengthened and expanded in the South, and we can do it here, it usually follows that places with more resources can also implement it. Typically down here we are doing the work with less resources.

Paynter: At a time when Trump’s political ties to the South are apparent, what do we stand to lose from the absence of this movement journalism in the South?

Simonton: It calls to mind an interview I did with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, who is the co-director of the Highlander Center, which is an institution that has been a home to Southern organizing for 85 years. Rosa Parks was there to get trained, Martin Luther King Jr., so many people. Ash-Lee was talking about this very thing shortly after Trump was elected to office, and she said, “I think America is about to get a dose of the neo-Confederacy, and who better to turn to for answers on how to deal with that than people that have been beating them back. Because I know people in Alabama who have been dealing with Jeff Sessions for years and I know people in Tennessee who have been fighting Lamar Alexander and not just losing, so what do they have to teach us?”

Now I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s exactly right. The opportunity we have with movement journalism in the South is to illuminate, amplify, and uplift the groundwork that people have been doing for decades to hold ground, to make progressive advances in public policy, in the electoral space and in alternative spaces, and to go head to head with these people who are now in the 45th administration. That’s a powerful role movement journalism coming from the South can play.

Paynter: What is something that surprised you doing your field research?

Simonton: Something that surprised me, to be honest, is the extent of the movement media infrastructure that we do have already. It makes me a little bit sad to admit that. But I think that in the South it’s easy to internalize the idea that we don’t have resources. We don’t have the same resources for radical organizing as they do in the Bay Area or wherever. And it’s just not true. It might look a little bit different, it might be a little more spread out. It might be that folks are hanging on by a shoestring and could do a whole lot more if there was more resources available to them.

But folks are there. We mapped upward of 90 radio stations that are either low-power FM, so that’s a type of community radio station; full-power FM community-owned radio stations; Black-owned radio stations and college radio stations that all have some type of public affairs programming that in our view aligns with the principles of movement journalism. I’ll tell you that’s an (incomplete) survey, that was just me doing what I could in the moment, I found upward of 90, and I’m sure there are more. We have the building blocks. I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, but that sort of tells you what the narrative is about the South and how it’s possible for even folks who know the truth to internalize that, unfortunately.

Paynter: What contemporary movement stories are going untold in the Southern region?

Simonton: Some stories that are going untold or under-told in the South are the incredible prison organizing of folks like the Free Alabama Movement, who organized a historic nationwide prison strike in 2016, and their work is ongoing. It was covered at that time as a flash in the pan, but there’s much more to the story that has taken place since then. It’s important to report on.

Another is worker organizing across the South, for example, what’s going on in Nashville is incredible to me. The organization Workers’ Dignity organizes migrant and other primarily workers of color in Nashville to win back stolen wages, win better conditions in public spaces that impact their work such as the public transportation system.

Other stories going untold in terms of movements are young folks who are organizing through the Southern Movement Assembly around a national student bill of rights, have a lot of solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline, and other things impacting them in their school system. That’s an important example of folks who are directly impacted being the ones to lead on alternatives and solutions to pretty horrific conditions. We have young folks in Atlanta who have experienced getting pepper-sprayed at school and have put forward a plan for the school district that would reroute funding from the school resource officers, a.k.a. police officers, into better technologies, childcare for students who are parents, textbooks that are up-to-date, and some of the other things that are falling short even as those school police are very well-funded.

There are folks in North Carolina. SpiritHouse has a model for harm-free zones where they’re training up folks to respond to the kind of situations where people might call police for help when somebody else who’s not police would be able to help in that situation. They could avoid an interaction with police that can lead to police brutality. The harm-free zone model is being implemented in different parts of the South coming out of North Carolina.

Black Mama’s Bail Out and the National Movement to End Money Bail started with Southerners on New Ground and Mary Hook having a vision of collecting money from folks who are free to bail out Black mothers ahead of Mother’s Day. Since then there have been other mass bailouts for Black fathers. That is in direct relationship with the legacy of freed people of color pooling their resources to buy their loved ones out of bondage. That spread nationwide to where other organizations signed on formed the National Bailout Collective, and so Mother’s Day in 2017 and then this year hundreds of people were getting bailed out all across the country.

Paynter: What can readers with money and resources do to help strengthen and expand Southern movement journalism? Which funding models are you testing?

Simonton: The models that really inspire me are cooperative models where there is some kind of membership and buy-in from the people that are benefiting from the service. But that takes time to grow so I think what movement journalism in the South needs is seed-funding from large donors and foundations. And that is a call-out! (Laughs)

We are in funding conversations so we are not starting from scratch with that, but I want to make folks aware that is definitely something that would be a good way to start this, because what we took from looking into historical examples is it’s hard for journalism projects that are totally grassroots, in terms of really having no money, to have staying power. Good journalism is expensive and that’s what we want. This should be valued by folks with resources and those resources should be put behind this. So the funding chronology I’ve been in conversation with folks about is fleshing out that idea for a cooperative-membership model and also seed funding that I think will give us a strong head start.


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