Dispatch from Blogging While Brown 2012

It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d get asked, “Can bloggers apply for a Knight Fellowship?” That was code for, “HEY, YOU GUYS WOULDN’T TAKE A BLOGGER, WOULD YOU?”

We’re past that stage, thankfully. Many of our fellows have blogged for years. One of this year’s fellows, Judith Torrea of Juarez, Mexico, blogs as her primary medium; next year’s class of fellows includes LaToya Peterson, owner and editor of Racialicious. And casting a wider net for potential fellows is a key element of the changes we’ve been making in the program.

So it was that I joined 150-plus African American bloggers at the fifth Blogging While Brown conference (#BWB2012) in Philadelphia last week. Blogging While Brown is the brainchild of Gina McCauley, an Austin attorney who herself started blogging in 2007. She told me the organization emerged from frustration of black bloggers who often weren’t included in larger conferences of social media. This was reinforced by a much-circulated 2006 photo of Bill Clinton at his office, in Harlem, surrounded by 20 liberal and progressive bloggers – all of them white.

Gina McCauley

Gina McCauley, founder Blogging While Brown

McCauley said she sympathized with the frustration, but took the attitude, “if you feel as if you’re unwelcome somewhere else, start your own conference.” And thus was born Blogging While Brown in 2008, its “seed funding” coming from a vacation money McCauley had saved up.

The premise was simple. Even – especially? – in a virtual world, there were important connections that could only be made in person. The first conference, which about 70 people attended, focused on activism, reflecting McCauley’s interests. It has broadened since then. At this year’s conference, much of the conversation was on business models and sustainability. As McCauley phrased it, “I realized that sustainability is an act of activism. Scalability is an act of activism.”

There are some significant overlaps between the world of blogging and the world of journalism. Each domain is struggling with how to finance itself. For many people at the conference, blogging is something they have to do on the side, which rankles them. As Melinda Emerson(@SmallBizLady), said of the panelists in one discussion, “none of these guys should have a full-time job. Their blogs should be how they eat.” Journalists trying to figure out how to make their craft pay can empathize with that.

Kaneisha Grayson, Jim Bettinger and Tamara Jeffries

Director Jim Bettinger (middle) talks with Kaneisha Grayson (left), a blogger and consultant, and Tamara Jeffries (right), an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Bennett College for Women. photo: Blogging While Brown

Bloggers at the conference, like the blogosphere in general, represented a wide range of subjects and approaches, including health, relationships, fashion, politics, culture, gender and more. (Full list of sites represented here.) What they had in common was a reliance on their blogs (and other social media, like Twitter and Facebook) as their primary mode of publishing.

I think of blogging, like journalism, as a verb, not a noun. People blog and people commit acts of journalism, and those who are adept at one have something to learn from the other. Journalists, for example, can learn much from the way that bloggers bond and engage with their communities. The wild new world of social media poses a challenge for journalists and bloggers alike.

Those real and potential overlaps drew the Knight Fellowships to be a co-sponsor of the Blogging While Brown conference, which is the second I’ve attended after being tipped to it by Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and a member of our Board of Visitors. I was there to learn, which I did, and to spread the word about the Knight Fellowships and its desire to include all manner of journalists in its fold. I did that, too.

Finally, I was reminded again that it’s valuable for me – an Anglo male in a position of authority and prestige – to be a white face in a sea of faces of color. Much of the world doesn’t look like me, and the Knight Fellowships needs to reflect that (and in fact, seven of our 13 U.S. Fellows next year are journalists of color).