The Root's Danielle Belton: 'We were going to fully embrace being black'

danielle belton headshot
Danielle Belton

The Root has a lot to celebrate when it turns 10 years old this month. Billed as a "highbrow, political alternative" to magazines like Ebony when it launched in 2008, The Root has since managed to succeed in ways other influential black media brands have not.

As Ebony, Jet and other print-centric legacy black brands struggle to adapt to the tectonic shifts in the media business, The Root has seized on multiplatform tools to share its content and engage with its audience on subjects like systemic racism and white supremacy. Its readers are exposed to content that is insightful, witty, and sometimes provocative ('The 5 types of 'Becky'" is among the site's most popular posts last year). Whether you enjoy its style or are put off by it, The Root's voice is hard to ignore, and is in many ways an extension of editor-in-chief Danielle Belton's own.

Belton, who was catapulted to success by her personal blog The Black Snob, brought her "punk rock" writing style to The Root as a contributor at first. She was hired full time as an associate editor in 2015 and then became the site's managing editor the following year. Belton was promoted to editor in chief last September.

With Belton at the helm, The Root's staff of nearly 20 writers and video producers provide news and commentary from an African American perspective that appeals to a range of readers. Twenty percent of its audience is Hispanic, and approximately 35% of its readers are white.

Belton said The Root has taken on a voice that is a departure from the "professorial" tone of the site's early days, when founders Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and Donald E. Graham, the former CEO of the Washington Post Company, wanted to create a blog for black readers with a genealogy component. The Root launched in January 2008, when Barack Obama was running for his first term as president.

CNN interviewed Belton at Gizmodo Media Group's headquarters in New York City. We talked about her new role, about covering race relations in the age of Trump, and about what's next for The Root as it staffs up and prepares for its tenth anniversary celebration. Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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You've been with The Root for many years. How has the site evolved over time? What's different now that you are in the driver's seat?

Our voice has changed throughout the years. The biggest shift happened this January, when we moved to the Kinja platform and became part of Gizmodo Media Group under Univision. I told my staff that we were going to take a big risk and really fully embrace our... well, there's no better way to put it: We were going to fully embrace being black.

We're a black site. We have certain points of views that come with that. We love our culture. We love our people. We're very, very passionate and we're just going to put that passion into everything that we write.

Our writers were basically allowed to be themselves. We felt like we finally had this freedom to really just embrace who we are and no longer hide.

What does diversity look like at The Root?

Diversity at The Root looks like diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of experience. Sometimes it involves people who may not even be black themselves: we just recently brought on a News Fellow who happens to be white and Filipina.

For the most part our staff is majority black. The site is led by black women, but we're all very different women. We come from very different backgrounds, some are from California. I'm from the Midwest. Some have grown up poor. Some grew up middle class, or upper middle class. Some went to state schools. We've had people in the past who've gone to Ivies, who've written for the site. We've had people who have had a very East Coast-Washington D.C.-kind of black upbringing, versus people who are more familiar with Compton, or Chicago, or the deep south. We've had a writer for the longest time who's based in Mississippi who's now in Texas.

It's dangerous just to put any one black person in a box.

The Root was born in the Obama years, and is about to turn 10 in Trump's America. Has Trump impacted The Root's editorial process in any way?

Because [the advent of Donald Trump] took away so much of the civility and politeness in our conversation, especially around race, it didn't seem to make sense for us to continue to be on the sidelines. To just talk about things from this really objective, far off place.

There's no reason to mince words. It's better just to talk about Trump's opinions and viewpoints and statements as they are, as opposed to pretending like the era of civility around race still exist in this country, because it just doesn't. That politeness is gone and 2016 killed it.

The goal is to get back to a point where we are going to make progress, because we're no longer in denial about what race in America really means. We're at a pretty low point, so having an honest dialogue can only make things better.

White readers represent 30% to 35% of your audience. How do you think about them? Are they invited to participate?

We're written to be geared towards an African-American audience. But the key word in African-American is "American," so it makes sense that white people who are also from America would be equally as interested in the American stories we write on a daily basis. Because we're all in this together. We're all part of this melting pot, or salad bowl of a country that we all exist within.

So as part of being thrown together in this racially dysfunctional family, I want white people to read The Root, but it comes with the understanding that this site is for and by black people. We talk about what matters to African-Americans, we talk about race, and we talk about racial identity, we talk about white supremacy.

If you're not comfortable with getting a front row seat to what is really going on in this country around race, maybe The Root is not for you, but we're not going to tone anything down, or dampen anything, or put training wheels on it to make it easier, because we feel like that's part of the problem. Historically it's been a lot of hand-holding. If we just try to baby-steps our way into solving racism, it'll get solved. We don't believe in any of that.

The African American media landscape is shifting, as legacy brands shrink and fail to transition to digital. Are you concerned about it?

I'm of mixed feelings about it. Print just isn't a viable economic model anymore for journalism, and we're still trying to figure out how to make things work on digital. That's for both black and white sites.

I feel like there's this narrative that black media is in trouble, when really black media is just being pulled by the same cycle that is affecting all media. There's just this extra layer of vulnerability, because so many of the legacy [black] publications where print, and print is having a hard time right now, across the board.

But nobody couches it as "white media is in danger, y'all!" No one says that. Even though they are going through the exact same thing. I think it is a turbulent time, but it's a turbulent time for everybody.

What's in store for The Root's future?

You're definitely going to see more video from us. You're definitely going to see the events get bigger. It is our 10th anniversary, so we're really going to push that out. We want to celebrate all year long.

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