What It Means to Be a Black Journalist in Pittsburgh Right Now

Michael Santiago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and one of the few people of color on staff there, stood in front of his newspaper’s building and tried to explain to reporters why his managers wouldn’t let him cover perhaps the largest protest for African American causes in history. But, he didn’t really have an explanation. On Saturday, Post-Gazette managers pulled him off of a shoot he was scheduled to do with one of the main organizers of Pittsburgh’s recent protests against racism and police violence, but they haven’t told him why.

“I haven’t gotten a reason yet,” he said today at a press conference for the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which is defending him and another Post-Gazette staff journalist, Alexis Johnson, who was also pulled from protest coverage. “It’s been two days and I’m still waiting for that answer.”

Newspaper Guild President Michael Fuoco, a reporter at the Post-Gazette, said that the paper pulled the Santiago and Johnson from protest coverage over a tweet that Johnson sent where she jokingly compared looting with pictures of trash and damage from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. The post went viral, and Johnson says Managing Editor Karen Kane told her that her tweets showed bias in her coverage. Fuoco and Guild members disagree, as does Johnson, vehemently, and have filed a grievance on her and Santiago’s behalf, saying they were denied due process. Kane didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, other Post-Gazette staffers who tweeted last week in support of Johnson under the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis were also pulled off of protest coverage. In one case, two protest stories that were written by reporters who publicly proclaimed support for Johnson were temporarily pulled from the site and then republished with words and photos modified, and without the reporters’ bylines. Fuoco said the Guild is now asking the Post-Gazette’s advertisers and the public to “exert pressure”on the newspaper over how Johnson and Santiago are being treated.

“Of course, I want to go back to work, and I want to pretend none of this ever happened because it shouldn’t have, but the reality is that it did,” Johnson said at the press conference. “To say that it didn’t make me uncomfortable, and to just sweep this under the rug would be a lie. I can’t say that I’d be jumping for joy, ready to go work under these people again.”

Black journalists across the nation are publicly struggling with how to maintain their professional composure amid widespread protests, ignited by the viral video of a white Minneapolis police officer killing African American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. They are also publicly vexed about being targeted, harassed, and injured by police and military at demonstrations while trying to adhere to editorial rules about staying objective.

“I was taught the importance of the so-called balanced take like every other journalist, but early in my career I noticed the bar was always higher when black reporters were writing black stories,” said Deborah Todd, a former Post-Gazette reporter, in an interview. “The credibility of my sources, the accuracy of my stats and the overall news value of the topic were all picked apart in ways that felt like sabotage. For Alexis and Michael, who have to swallow their opinions and participate in this uprising as observers to do their jobs, being taken off the story is being taken out of this moment in history altogether.”

Johnson and Santiago’s trials with the newspaper have garnered the attention and support of elected officials and journalists nationally (including this journalist, who is a native of Pittsburgh and has voiced support via social media). The Guild backing them is demanding that the Post-Gazette apologize to them, reinstate them back to protest coverage, and stop retaliating against reporters. The Guild and the reporters said they have yet to hear from the paper’s management team. These black journalists are essentially working for a newspaper that won’t work for them, in a city that hasn’t worked for black people since its beginning.

The problems between the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and black journalists long predate coronavirus and the current protests against police violence. The Post-Gazette’s op-ed page is known nationally and disgracefully for unapologetically running racist editorials — ”Racism as Reason” and “Remnants of Slavery” are two stand outs — and for its lack of diversity. But it’s hard to separate the racism of the newspaper from that of the city at large — if anything it’s a reflection.

Letrell Crittenden, a black media scholar, detailed the unique pains of being a black journalist in Pittsburgh in a 2019 report he produced for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. For that study, he interviewed 20 former and current journalists in the city to document how they felt about their treatment in newsrooms and in the city.

What he found was that journalists’ ideas and pitches for stories related to black and non-white communities “often fell on deaf ears,” that newsrooms did not cultivate environments where black journalists could express their concerns, that they did not receive “the same level of mentorship or advancement opportunities” as white journalists, and that the city itself is “unwelcoming to people of color.”  The report is clear throughout that it’s not just a Post-Gazette problem, but a “Pittsburgh problem,” that keeps African Americans from living their best life. The report reads:

The city, due to a multitude of factors, is not a place where people color can thrive. Compared to whites, they have significantly less wealth, fewer social spaces and feel less respected in their workplaces.  One under-appreciated impediment to recruiting and retaining diverse talent is that many people of color have no desire to live in areas where they believe they will not be able to thrive—even if that place has a large population of color. If a newsroom is in an area that people of color do not find appealing, many potential journalists will not be inclined to seek employment in such areas. If they do arrive, fail to plant roots, and perceive the area to live down to low expectations, they likely will not stay long.

Santiago arrived in Pittsburgh in 2018 after shooting for several national media publications including The New York Times, The Undefeated, and BuzzFeed News. One of his first big assignments landing at the Post-Gazette that year was covering the protests after Antwon Rose was killed by a police officer. He also covered protests when Rose’s killer, former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld, was acquitted by a jury. His photos from the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 won him a Pulitzer. And despite having a job with a steady, livable income he says he immediately felt the sting of racism in Pittsburgh

“I got the illest crash course in journalism here,” says Santiago. “When I moved here I was able to move into an area that is now considered one of the best places to live, East Liberty — but I’m hyper-aware that it’s considered this only because black people got pushed out of here. There are people who grew up in this neighborhood, who now can’t move back because they can’t afford to move here.”

Johnson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and she also joined the Post-Gazette staff in 2018, after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University. Her father is a retired state trooper and her mother is a retired probation officer, which as Guild members pointed out at the press conference, makes her perhaps one of the best-qualified reporters to cover protests against police violence.

“I felt like my voice was silenced,” says Johnson. “Black journalists have been covering these stories since the beginning of time. Racism is in the fabric of our country. So whether we tweet our sentiments or how we feel, we still have to experience that trauma in real time and then show up to work and be able to report the news fairly and accurately.”

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Doing the Right Things Right

My colleagues like to joke that no matter what we’re talking about or what meeting I’m in, I’m always asking: Are we doing the right things and are we doing them right? This is how I make sure that we are not only trying to solve the right problems, but we are solving them in the best ways we can. This quote originally comes from Mark Friedman and the Results Based Accountability approach, but I’ve become so associated with that question at Living Cities that staff sometimes don’t even say it–they just shorthand it as “that thing JaNay always says.”

This question has taken on more importance and prominence for me in my new role as Chief Strategy Officer. I am spending more time around the country speaking about our work and hearing what others are doing. I have seen how critical it is for an organization like Living Cities to not only have a clear-eyed focus on results, but also to center racial equity in the work we do.

This reckoning is an on-going process, one that will never be done.

Living Cities has been on our organizational racial equity journey for several years now, and many of us as individuals have been on that journey for much longer. We announced last year an updated results statement that recognizes the importance of racist policies in our society as a root cause for inequity. This evolution came from our organizational and individual reckoning with our past, one that was not without pain and sacrifice, but also driven by hope, authentic relationships, people willing to take risks, and creating environmental conditions that held us to account.

This reckoning is an on-going process, one that will never be done. But there are moments when it’s important to reflect back on what we have accomplished, how the organization has changed, and share out what we have learned. We have been doing this recently by highlighting our new mission and vision, which represents a further commitment of Living Cities and our members to undoing the legacy of racism in this country.

As the revised mission and vision were being developed, I was playing my usual role and asking the “JaNay question”: Are we doing the right things and are we doing them right? It became clear that to truly know if Living Cities was going to have the impact we wanted, we needed to develop something to give us a sense of what exactly we wanted to achieve and how that would help us get to our ultimate North Star Result.

Today, I am proud to announce our new Theory of Change, which shows what things we are doing and how we will do them right. You’ll see that the top of the theory of change is the vision for our North Star Result: All people in U.S. Cities are economically secure, building wealth, and living abundant, dignified, and connected lives. Everything else flows from that, all the way down to the most basic activities, like developing relationships in local communities or understanding the landscape of organizations in communities.

Achieving Results by Centering Race Internally and Externally


More information 

I encourage you to explore the theory of change in full. But you will see that it isn’t a typical nonprofit theory of change. We center dignity within the model, because we recognize that traditional metrics of well-being (like “yearly income” or “net worth”), while important, are not sufficient to explain what a truly equitable society would look like. We pushed ourselves to hold true to our vision and come up with something radical.

Living Cities is uniquely positioned to influence systems in more intangible ways, such as relationship building, facilitating communities coming together, testing and sharing learning, connecting the dots for leaders in cross-sector relationships, and casting cover for leaders to take risks, innovate and push the boundaries they face. We wanted to be a bit more radical in our theory of change because of the luxury of our position.

It is important for our staff and partners to see this as a tool to be used to achieve results, rather than something external and prescriptive.

The initial reaction to this new theory of change was not overwhelmingly positive. We have shared it with our board, and while they approved it unanimously, the approval was not without questions. Staff had strong reactions to it as well, because, ultimately, a theory of change is a tool born out of white institutional culture, which we try to resist at all times. We’ve also received questions about how the day-to-day work of Living Cities connects into this model, as well as where our board members fit in. We are still working and responding to these valid concerns, because it is important for our staff and partners to see this as a tool to be used to achieve results, rather than something external and prescriptive.

A theory of change should always be a living document, and ours certainly is. But even as it evolves, this theory of change represents Living Cities’ unique position on how to close racial gaps in this country. We will continue to refine the model as we grow in our work and learn from those around the country. I will be sure to publish other updates as we continue our struggle to answer that ever-present question–are we doing the right things, and are we doing them right?

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Why Cities Should Support Right-of-Way Charging

Cities that are serious about reducing carbon pollution from transportation need to promote walking and biking, expand transit and micro-mobility services, manage development, and use pricing to reduce traffic and parking congestion.

Many of these steps are designed to reduce the use of single occupancy cars. At the same time, though, cities will also need to electrify everything that moves, including those passenger cars. Just as our approach to solid waste requires a “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach, city transportation policy needs to pursue a “both-and” strategy. Making it easier to use an electric car does not conflict with encouraging alternative transportation options, any more than making it easier to recycle conflicts with discouraging single-use packaging.

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The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

Back in 2017, New York City passed a law to guarantee free legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction. The first of its kind in the nation, the law established a standard for due process for vulnerable families with an aim to level an unfair playing field in housing court.

While landlords in New York appear with counsel in more than 90 percent of eviction proceedings, tenants were represented by attorneys in just 1 percent of cases in 2013. The new law is working: Over the last quarter, more than 32 percent of tenants facing eviction brought lawyers to their hearings, and in 2018, evictions were down by 5 percent from the year before.    

“Housing court was literally like David v. Goliath,” says Steven Banks, commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services.

The right to counsel in eviction cases is a movement that’s gaining momentum. Today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce that the law is expanding to five new neighborhoods, with full implementation in sight by 2022. Other cities and at least one state are drafting their own right-to-counsel laws. And on Thursday, a bipartisan pair of senators, Colorado Democrat (and 2020 presidential aspirant) Michael Bennet and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, a law that would support legal services nationwide.

“No person should lose their home because they cannot afford a lawyer, and New York City is the first city in the country to make this a reality,” de Blasio tells CityLab. “Over 350,000 New Yorkers have received free legal assistance so far, setting us on the course to be the fairest big city in America.”

The eviction crisis is national in its scope. According to Matthew Desmond, the author of the definitive 2016 book Evicted, more than 2 million eviction filings are issued every year, which exceeds the number of foreclosures at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Evictions are the engine of the cycle of poverty, fueled by a shortage of affordable homes everywhere and the legacy of racial discrimination built into the pattern of our neighborhoods.

Tenants who lack access to legal representation have very little chance of winning a case in housing court, even when the facts are on their side. Tenants frequently face eviction when they’ve paid rent but landlords claim that they haven’t, for example. For low-income families, coming up with proof that passes court muster may be a challenge. And in New York, rent increases that cause a family to face eviction may often be illegal. “On their own, tenants can’t establish that the rent is unlawful, that conditions are violations, or that the rent was actually paid,” Banks says.

New York City’s new law would expand the right to an attorney in eviction cases to Morris Heights in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway in Queens. Overall, evictions have declined by 30 percent from 2013 to 2018.

The movement has gained traction in San Francisco and Philadelphia, cities that have passed legislation for similar protections. Other cities, including Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C., have established programs to provide legal representation to low-income households. Boston is looking at a bill of its own, but Massachusetts could beat Mayor Marty Walsh to the punch by passing a statewide right to counsel law. Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles—the idea is catching on.

Arguably, cities can’t afford not to pass right-to-counsel laws. New York’s law, for example, will cost $166 million to fully implement across all five boroughs. But putting families out on the street creates costs that are borne by the entire city. It’s hard to put a cost savings figure on keeping roofs over people’s heads, but evictions touch every corner of a local economy, from social services to productivity to healthcare.  

While major metro areas where the eviction crisis affects the greatest number of renters are taking up the mantle of right-to-counsel laws, there’s still room, and need, for Congress to act. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Place to Prosper Act would guarantee a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings nationwide, a boon especially to rural residents or renters in conservative states that won’t see new tenant rights any time soon. For housing advocates, that’s the ultimate goal, but AOC’s suite of social justice protections is still a ways off.

The Eviction Crisis Act proposed by Bennet and Portman has bipartisan support, on the other hand. It stops short of a sweeping right to counsel, but would benefit renters everywhere in critical ways. The bill would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on Eviction Research and create a national database to track evictions, which would help local authorities monitor the toll of evictions and tailor better legislation to help prevent them. The Eviction Crisis Act would boost those local efforts by increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a public-private partnership that helps to provide legal aid for low-income Americans. Finally, the bill would set new standards for fairness and transparency with regard to how consumer reporting agencies generate tenant screening reports.

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600—an insignificant sum considering the enduring havoc the process plays in the lives of those who lose their homes. Guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel will raise the cost of pursuing eviction for landlords: These won’t be open-and-shut cases in which only the property owners have the lawyers.

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