Vibe Check with Tiffany Walden
The Triibe editor-in-chief talks launching a media startup, intersectional reporting and the shifting state of journalism in Chicago.
|Mark Stenberg||May 29, 2020||4|
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A song to read by: “Aurora Summer,” by George Clanton, Nick Hexum
What I’m reading: “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Good morning, Lyters, and welcome to another edition of the only newsletter to have ever been considered for a Pulitzer Prize, an honor it only narrowly missed because, to quote the committee, “There is no newsletter category, Mark, stop emailing me. And you wouldn’t win anyway, you idiot.”
Today’s Q&A is with Tiffany Walden, one of the co-founders of The Triibe and the publication’s editor-in-chief. I first saw Tiffany earlier this year at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, an event organized by Chicago journalists Ken Davis and Linda Paul, which functioned as an emergency meeting to discuss the health of the journalism industry in Chicago. If you have a high tolerance for very bad, very amateur filmmaking, you can watch this video I made about it for a class.
There were two rounds of speakers, and Tiffany was in the second round, which I unfortunately did not cover, so you won’t find her in the video. However, that is when I first heard her story and the story of The Triibe, and it so caught my attention that I have been following her and her work since then.
She is a native Chicagoan, an alumna of the Medill School of Journalism and an important figure in the changing face, tone and mentality of journalism in Chicago, so it was very exciting to speak with her.
Whomst: Tiffany Walden, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Triibe
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Could you describe The Triibe?
The Triibe is a digital media platform that’s reshaping the narrative of black Chicago, while giving ownership of that narrative back to the people.
We started The Triibe back in 2017 to combat the harsh, and most times dangerous, narrative about black Chicago that was being spread across social media.
We wanted to show a Chicago that we know and love — to tell our stories, from our perspective, and center black folks in telling their own stories.
What are some of the challenges that come with launching a startup media company?
The biggest challenge was money. We didn’t have any [laughs]. We spelled “Triibe” with two i's because the domain for the regular “Tribe” was thousands of dollars, but the price for the domain we came up with was $2.99.
We started The Triibe as a passion project, but trying to build a company and tell stories with no money, while also trying to support yourself by freelancing and driving Lyft and working part-time jobs to eat, that was a challenging time.
How did the idea for the publication come to life?
I graduated from Medill undergrad in 2011, then I did the grad program and graduated in 2012. When I left school I had a few newspaper jobs, but I really wanted to be back home. I saw the way the news was being portrayed; while I was away, the Laquan McDonald murder had happened, and I saw the way people outside of the city would talk about Chicago.
When I told people I was from Chicago, specifically from the West Side, people would say, “Oh God how did you make it to Northwestern? How did you make it out? Have you ever been shot? Have you ever seen gunshots?”
So I moved back home and started freelancing, telling cultural stories about black Chicago that were doing really well on social media and sparking conversation.
It made me realize that there was a need here, and that black folks weren’t being represented in the media.
My best friend, Morgan Elise Johnson, who also went to Northwestern and graduated in 2011, encouraged me to start thinking about what it would look like if we started our own thing. She is a documentary filmmaker, so she naturally brings video and photography to the table, so we started really considering it.
Then we saw David Elutilo, who went to Northwestern too, at a party one night, and he said, “Hey if y’all ever need a website or anything let me know,” and we did [laughs]. So he brought that to the table. We worked for about a month and a half, just putting stories together and building a website, and our final product was The Triibe.
My end goal is to start a publication after graduation. As someone who’s done it, could you elaborate on how you eventually raised the money to get The Triibe off the ground?
The money didn’t really hit until the demand came. All of a sudden, folks started writing about us, wanting to read more stories from us, and it quickly turned into a full-time job. Then it became an issue of balancing what you want to do versus needing to eat.
We had some Indiegogo campaigns that went well, and we won a grant for storytelling in our first year. But that first year was really rough, going from being a content creator to building a company — and trying to build it a different way, because we didn’t want to be like traditional media.
It definitely was a challenge, and I don’t recommend people start a company without having some money saved. Saving money will definitely save you tears.
How have things evolved since then?
We started at a time in Chicago when people were just starting to rethink the impact of the media that we have here, so there was a lot of interest in how we could use media to tell solution-driven stories to really engage and involve the community.
We really hadn’t seen a strong, modern black publication in Chicago since The Defender or Ebony Magazine, and those two entities were struggling at the time.
We came in and showed what it could look like when you really bring community to the table and allow them to be centered in the stories.
Around that time, a lot of foundations started coming into Chicago and wanting to see how they could support media, so we’ve been blessed to have a lot of foundation support in the last year. Now we’re in the process of building out our staff and our operations, so it’s not just Morgan and me doing six or seven jobs; we can start spreading that work out and producing more stories for the community.
Black people in Chicago, like in many other cities in America, have been disproportionately affected by Covid. The Triibe has reported on that discrepancy, but is there a part of that story that you think isn’t being told or getting enough attention?
The perspective of black folks who are being asked to shelter in place, not go to work and abide by social distancing rules without consideration as to what their environment looks like. That became evident a few weeks ago when there was a house party on the West Side of the city, and people started reporting on it, but no one had actually spoken with the people who started the party to see why they threw it. We took that extra step.
TMZ jumped in with a sensational headline that said “1,000 people at a Chicago house party,” and I wanted to find out why they had a party and what was going on behind the scenes, because I knew a thousand people couldn’t fit inside a house here in Chicago [laughs]. That story really took things to a different level and shared a perspective about coronavirus in Chicago that people didn’t know about.
It got to the point where people were blaming black folks for being the most impacted by the virus, but no one was taking a step back and looking at the historic disparities for health care for black folks in the city; no one was looking at how poverty plays into a pandemic and makes things worse. All of these systemic issues are worse in the middle of a pandemic.
The story highlighted that for some millennials and Gen-Z, violence is at the forefront of their thoughts every day; violence happens every single day, so a pandemic is not at the top of your mind. You’re just trying to get through your day.
When it comes to staying at home, look at the different resources that different communities have. You’re asking people to stay home, but people with nice homes, nice parks and walkable streets, it’s easy for them to do that. How can you ask people to stay home when there’s maybe four or five people living in a two-bedroom apartment?
These things weren’t being taken into consideration when we were first talking about coronavirus, but now those conversations are occurring.
What’s one trend in media/journalism that you predict will gain popularity this year?
That’s so hard to say because journalism right now is just imploding [laughs].
That could be the trend. The evaporation of journalism could be the biggest trend in journalism.
I think you’re going to see a lot more community and alternative outlets thrive in the coming years if they can survive the pandemic. Folks are starting to realize that mainstream media has missed the mark, and a lot of mainstream media has continued to perpetuate the stereotypes and sensational views of communities of color that have damaged our communities for years.
Folks like The Chicago Tribune — not to say there aren’t folks there who do great work, because there are — but institutions, I’ll say, like The Tribune are so out of touch with what’s going on in the neighborhoods. They cater to the communities that pay their subscriptions, and they’re not interested in repairing relationships with the black and brown communities they’ve harmed over the years, and even in recent years with the way that they’ve covered gun violence in the city.
A lot of people have strayed away from mainstream media, so there’s really an opportunity for indie media to step in, forge those relationships and become sources of storytelling for those communities.
What’s a project of yours that you were especially proud of or thought was particularly interesting? Either past or upcoming?
A project I did for The Triibe called Out West, which had been on mind since I moved back to Chicago in 2015. Part II of Out West is the story of my grandmother, who passed away when I was a senior in high school.
I used my journey of trying to dig for her ancestry to tell the story of the West Side of Chicago, and how black people ended up on the West Side of Chicago. I’m hoping to put Part III out next month.
I’m also really proud of my business partner and best friend Morgan. She held on to the vision of The Triibe through everything, through all the struggles, when we didn’t know how we were going to pay rent next month. She worked hard and kept us all afloat. She did everything she could to bring operational funds into The Triibe, and we definitely wouldn’t be here without her. I’m always in awe of how she moves and how she works.
What are your favorite things to read online?
What’re you watching right now?
I just finished “The Last Dance,” which everyone in Chicago should have been watching. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do with my Sunday evenings. Recently I’ve started watching “Lizzie McGuire” again on Disney+.
Morgan and I also just finished watching “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix, which was so, so good. And “Insecure”! This season is about friendship, so it’s been interesting to watch. As a black millennial woman, we haven’t had a show that unpacks a friendship that’s falling apart.
What podcasts do you listen to?
What’re you reading?
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
Have you picked up any new hobbies during Covid?
No, my bad habits have just gotten worse [laughs], like sleeping. I’m more exhausted after work during Covid. It took everything I had today to get out of bed.
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