It's been a rough month for media outlets. Well, really a bad era in the traditional media industry. But this past month brought particularly rough news, with the shuttering of SFst, LAist, DCist and the rest of the Gothamist/DNAInfo sites. Sports giant ESPN announced that 150 people will lose their jobs as the company shifts resources from traditional roles like studio production and digital content. There was also the conservative takeover of the LA Weekly, whose new owners just fired the entire newsroom except for one staff writer, the future of the paper uncertain.
And then, last week, San Francisco-based New America Media closed its doors for the final time, citing unsustainable growth and not enough funds.
Beyond losing another media outlet, the world has lost a platform that supported the stories and lives of people who don’t traditionally have the luxury of becoming writers. Low-income folks, people of color, and women who aspired to be published all got their foot in the door at New America Media. Young people who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds — and thus couldn't make the sacrifices required for most journalism internships — were granted the opportunity to share their perspective with the world.
I was fortunate to be one of the many.
When I first walked into the New America Media office, I was a broke teenager, just looking for a job. I had some experience producing media, via a similar organization in the East Bay, Youth Radio. But working at New America Media's print publication YO! — which stood for Youth Outlook — helped me develop my career path.
I jumped BART gates to get to YO!, borrowed their cameras, got some loose change from my editor for BART fare — used it on food — jumped the BART gates back to Oakland and started filming. Days later, I took that footage back to the YO! desk in the New America Media office, locked myself away in a room and edited until I started seeing stars from staring at the computer screen.
But when my video was published, I got paid.
Ok, well, it took a while for me to get paid. My best friend Jesus El, NBA acro-dunker, dancer and subject of my first documentary (which I produced in the New America Media office), also wrote for YO!. We used to joke that asking about our paycheck was like Milton from the movie Office Space asking about his stapler.
And even that was a lesson in itself: this freelancing shit isn’t easy.
But maybe the biggest thing I got was encouragement at an important age. That editor who gave me spare change for BART? That was the late Kevin Weston, YO!’s former editor-in-chief.
Weston’s professional title didn’t properly illustrate his body of work. He wasn’t just someone who critiqued your writing and made sure you got paid when your piece got published. He was a gatekeeper to the journalism industry. There’s a whole diaspora of people he worked with who went from young wannabe reporters to Rolling Stone writers, videographers for top-tier music videos and scholars who hold Masters degrees in journalism.
Even if it took longer than expected, Weston made sure we were properly commissioned for our work, and as teenagers, that’s what mattered the most. Not just making money, but seeing that the stories of our lives held value.
Sandy Close, head of New America Media and founder of YO!, was in her office packing boxes with 45 years' worth of files when I called her last week. I asked her if she knew how important Youth Outlook was in forming the career paths of young journalists. Her response spoke volumes.
“YO! wasn’t created because we wanted to turn people into journalists,” Close told me. “We wanted to learn what they could share with us about their lives.”
Close added that having young people speak on forums, be present in the newsroom and ultimately produce content was “like getting a look at the other side of the moon.”
Having started the program to dispel the national narrative at the time that inner-city kids were “super predators,” she soon found that they were super geniuses. She also realized that it wasn’t just inner-city kids looking for an outlet, but kids in the suburbs, skinheads, kids wrestling with their own sexuality and more.
When that platform was coupled with a coach like Kevin Weston, the production took off.
“What Kevin brought was a kind of artistry, informed by hip-hop,” said Close. “And he had the wonderful ability to work with the kids we brought in. He was a really gifted editor with them.”
And I was fortunate to be one of them.
In April of this year, Weston's widow, SF BART board member and president of the Akonadi Foundation Lateefah Simon wrote an open-letter Facebook post, addressed to her late husband. A portion of the letter reads as follows:
"Your loved ones are producing art and voice worthy of low bows from the departed. Pendarvis Harshaw was in the LA Times today. You would have blown him up and bought that man a crab dinner.”
While I’ve never been one to turn down a crab dinner, I’d pass on every piece of shellfish offered from here on out if I could just show Kevin Weston that clip from the Los Angeles Times, or any of the other things I’ve accomplished since his passing in 2014.
Just last month, when news of New America Media’s shutdown broke, Simon penned another Facebook message, “Tears flowing for many reasons today. Reading the news about the closure of New American Media/PNS is sobering. So in awe of the NAM alumni, the many minds who put their souls into stories.”
So here's to those New America Media alums who put their soul into this thing called journalism. Whatever the future of journalism is in this day and age, with the closure of New America Media, it just lost a very necessary pipeline for underrepresented voices.