Keeping It Real

In the age of consolidated media companies, what sets The Real News Network apart?

Lisa Snowden-McCray - December 2018

Keeping It Real

In the age of consolidated media companies, what sets The Real News Network apart?

Lisa Snowden-McCray - December 2018

Khalilah Harris, Paul Jay, Dharna Noor, and Eddie Conway -Frank Hamilton

Paul Jay thinks we are far past the time for journalistic niceties. The CEO and senior editor of the Baltimore-based nonprofit journalism outlet The Real News Network (TRNN) minces no words as he speaks from his spacious downtown office. “How broad do you want to be on the truth?” he asks. “Do you want to narrow the truth, so it’s so limited and you don’t tell people the big picture and what the threats are?”

He’s talking about an innovative style of news-making that seeks to bypass corporate journalism and advertisers, making media that is more accessible to broad populations. And his offices look like the kind of place where innovative work is being done. The renovated warehouse space is all exposed brick and steel beams. Some staff members work out in the open, at several long, wooden tables. Others have glass-walled offices. Windows let in plenty of natural light, as well as views from the bustling city below (TRNN is within walking distance from City Hall).

The space includes three studios for creating videos, one of which is also equipped for podcasting. Modern soul food restaurant Ida B’s Table is on the first floor, and there are work spaces available for rent. Outside is a marquee that posts weekly messages about the latest in local news—sometimes bitingly direct, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek.

“Pugh wants ethics exemption. LOL,” read the marquee in May when Mayor Catherine Pugh requested a sweeping exemption from city ethics rules. One day in September there were seven murders in 24 hours, and the block-letter text simply read: “7 murders in 24 hours. What’s next for Baltimore?”

Jay says he likes to cut through the noise. On the day of our interview, for example, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just issued a calamitous new report, which makes the case that the world had just 12 years to stave off the most detrimental effects of climate change.

“Either you believe in science, or you don’t,” Jay says. “I’m not a climate scientist, but the leading climate scientists are saying this. So why don’t we say that? What’s wrong is most of what’s calling itself journalism isn’t journalism. It’s either the narrowest reporting without any real historical social, economic, context. Or it’s like what’s going on with CNN, MSNBC, or FOX, in which they just chase ratings. They don’t give a damn about the actual truth of the situation.”

“If we are going to do local news in Baltimore, we’d better look like Baltimore.”

Founded in Toronto in 2003, The Real News expanded and made Baltimore the headquarters 10 years later. The company employs more than 30 people, who work as editors, camera operators, managers, journalists, and office managers. TRNN is a nonprofit—they don’t accept advertising and are supported by donations, and by the organization’s separate, for-profit business entities.

“There would be no problem if we had a budget even a fraction of The Baltimore Sun,” Jay says. “Our whole budget is around $3.3 million.”

They have large and small donors, and they also have a for-profit segment that helps keep the lights on, too. TRNN purchased their building using donated funds ,and they rent out space. TRNN is also the primary investor in Ida B’s Table, so they get funding from that, although vice president of finance and operations Leandro Lagera is quick to point out that the primary goal of Ida B’s is not to make money, but to foster community.

Jay says that he and his team knew they wanted to expand operations beyond Canada and into the United States as early as 2008. In 2009, they opened a small office in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. Then they decided that D.C. wasn’t the place for them.

“After a couple of years, we really started to understand that if we want to speak to ordinary working people, we needed to be in a city and learn how to do local news,” Jay says. “For most people, news and politics are local.”

He and his team settled in Charm City, partly because they’d gotten to know about it through their time in D.C. They also elicited the help of veteran journalist Marc Steiner, who, after leaving Morgan State University’s WEAA-FM radio station, produces his eponymous show through TRNN.

After that came the work of creating a newsroom that looked like the city.

“We made a determination when we came here that if we’re going to do local news in Baltimore, we’d better look like Baltimore,” he says.

One of TRNN’s more recent hires is education expert and attorney Khalilah Harris, as host and executive producer. A black woman from Brooklyn, New York, who has lived in Baltimore since she came to attend Morgan State University 24 years ago, Harris has worked for social justice around education for several decades, but never in front of the camera as a television host. Among other things, she served as deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans under the Obama administration.

Harris says she is there to not only bring her knowledge of policy, law, and education to the table, but also her perspective as a black woman.

“How do we serve as good stewards of helping people find solutions for themselves or bring to the surface the solutions that already exist locally in Baltimore?” she says. “Baltimore is really a microcosm of all national issues and also in a location that could prove to provide solutions to those things.”

Jay oversees the management of the outlet with the help of his wife, Sharmini Peries, a journalist and former economic and trade adviser to ex-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and author and former Black Panther Eddie Conway.

The newsroom is considered far left by mainstream standards, and its goal, in essence, is to skirt the extraneous elements that come with traditional journalism (no ratings to chase, no advertisers to satisfy), and reach out directly to the people—specifically Baltimore’s black working class. TRNN does this with stories that can be read on their website, streamed on YouTube, or watched on television through Baltimore’s public access channel and Comcast On-Demand.

“We want to become the mainstream media for Baltimore,” Jay told a City Paper reporter in a 2014 story about the network’s beginnings.

Now, after a 40-year run, City Paper is gone, and nationally, many other outlets have shuttered as well. There is no other large-scale alternative outlet to serve the city. Suddenly, TRNN is poised to play an even bigger role in the city’s journalistic ecosystem.

The fact is that Baltimore is a decidedly black, working-class city (according to the 2010 Census, 63 percent of the city’s population of over 610,000 is black), but most of the people telling the city’s stories are white. TRNN’s reporters and producing team, however, skews far browner, mostly Baltimore born and bred, and much more working class in terms of their background and world view.

TRNN offers updates on national and international news (you can find news from Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean among the network’s offerings), but Baltimore takes center stage. You’ll find news related to the city in its own highlighted yellow section on TRNN’s website. Reporters have covered topics such as labor issues at Johns Hopkins and the toll climate change takes on poor communities and have interviewed local third-party politicians. In their series “Hidden Victims,” reporters Taya Graham and Stephen Janis tackle the ways that black women in Baltimore can be victims of police violence.

Jay says that he’d like to see the network bring more black women aboard.

“I’m more experienced, but I’m white, and it’s harder for me to be heard in this city,” Jay says. “It’s black working women who will decide the fate of this city, and so we need to be better at finding women, black women, who can do this kind of journalism.”

“There are not as many reporters holding politicians, institutions, and the powerful accountable.”

In 2014, shortly after being released from prison—he served more than 40 years stemming from the 1970 murder of a Baltimore City Police officer—Conway came to The Real News.

Conway, who has always maintained his innocence, was already an established name in the activist and prison abolitionist community and was working in Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes. He said people he knew kept coming to him and telling him the journalists at TRNN wanted to interview him. Finally, he acquiesced. TRNN had a number of black activist groups as tenants, and Conway liked that. He also liked the idea of widening the number of people who could learn about the causes he cared about.

“I said, ‘Look, I like what y’all are doing because even though I’m down there and I’m reaching 100, 200 people—what you’re doing is you’re reaching potentially millions of people,’” he says.

Conway, who was trained in journalism by famed writer and columnist Tom Wicker while he was in prison, reports and also produces a show called Rattling the Bars, about issues around life in and out of prison. But working at TRNN is a little different for him. Conway admits that he brings a very distinct point of view—and even an activist’s sensibility—to his journalism, but he thinks there’s room for that.

“There is no such thing as objective reporting,” he says. “Everything you do comes from your paradigm. And if your paradigm is one of conscience-raising and activism, then your journalism will reflect that.”

However, he says he does not cover or have anything to do with stories TRNN produces about any activist causes he is directly involved in.

Reporter and show host Eze Jackson is another TRNN hire who comes from an activist background. After serving in the Navy, Jackson found work at Service Employees International Union, where he stayed for 10 years. He was also president of Marylanders for Marriage Equality in 2012, just before Maryland legally recognized same-sex unions.

Like Conway, he has learned to walk the line between his personal convictions and his journalistic integrity. He’s learned on the job from veteran reporters like Stephen Janis and former TRNN editorial director and City Paper editor Baynard Woods.

“I just decided to try it,” Jackson says of reporting. “I kind of naturally grabbed onto it because I was like, ‘Oh, this is not very different from making music, making songs, or creating a music video.’”

While some of this is old hat for TRNN, more journalists are looking to the nonprofit model to investigate and report meaningful stories.

“As traditional legacy news organizations in many places get smaller, these nonprofit news organizations are filling a void and doing important work for democracy,” says former Sun associate managing editor and current University of Maryland visiting scholar Marty Kaiser.

Kaiser sits on the board of the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and has helped lead other nonprofit outlets around the country. “There are not as many reporters holding institutions, politicians, and the powerful accountable,” he says. “That’s where many of these nonprofit news organizations can make a difference.”

If it sounds like a daunting responsibility, it is. TRNN journalists wear many hats to get stories covered.

“We all have general beats but we’re a small team, so we tend to focus on multiple things,” says managing editor of the Baltimore Bureau Dharna Noor. She says it’s basically like having multiple plates spinning at one time. “I cover climate stuff and environmental racism, but sometimes I also report on labor because we don’t have a labor reporter.”

Noor also writes her own scripts, helps write and edit other people’s scripts, and helps out at various TRNN events.

“Our difficulty is money more than anything,” Jay says. But he thinks that as TRNN continues to hone its mission, those donations will come. “Part of it is we have to be better storytellers. We have to be better at taking specific things that happen, report on them, but then give them this kind of context, this kind of analysis, this kind of meat on the bones.”

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