Today, TheRoot.com, the website focusing on African-American news and commentary, unveiled a comprehensive redesign, nearly five years after the Washington Post Company-owned website first launched in 2008. “We’re changing just about everything on the website,” says Donna Byrd, the site’s publisher. The redesign will also include optimization for tablet and mobile devices, and heralds a new editorial direction for the site, one with an expanded focus on video–including some fictional and comedy-driven entertainment.
Visitors to the site in recent months will have gotten a taste of the innovative ways The Root has been covering the black community. Recently, The Root launched The Chatterati, a section of the website focusing on the black community’s use of Twitter. “It’s a snapshot of what’s going on in real time on black Twitter,” says Byrd, noting that African-Americans over-index in their use of the site; it’s been known for years that a higher percentage of black Internet users are on Twitter than white Internet users.
“We manually built the database of African-American Twitterers,” Byrd explains, a process that the editorial staff continues to expand on. The system also tracks the top hashtags trending on “black Twitter,” which she says are “very different than on main Twitter.” (The Kerry Washington ABC series Scandal is a perennial favorite.) Many a tech pundit or cultural critic has dissected the ways in which black Twitter differs from more mainstream use; Fast Company contributor Baratunde Thurston has argued that Twitter’s call-and-response form dovetails nicely with a “long oral dissing tradition in black communities.”
The Root has also experimented with mirroring more lofty traditions on Twitter, too. In March, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the website organized a “March on Twitter,” complete with a full day of “panels” that ran every hour on the hour and focused on issues as varied as gun violence, poverty, and immigration. People tuned in using the hashtag #marchon, with nearly 3 million participants beaming tweets out to 8 million timelines.
Though revenues have steadily grown over The Root’s lifetime, says Byrd, and though the site had reached an average of 2 million monthly unique visitors, the site decided to shift gears this summer and plan for today’s big redesign. Byrd hired Lyne Pitts, a broadcast journalist veteran who had worked for CBS for 25 years, among other gigs, as interim managing editor. The Root’s leadership began to rethink the site’s future. “The ‘roots’ of The Root are in commentary and analysis,” says Pitts (which is fitting, given that the site shares offices with Slate, also owned by the Washington Post Company). Still, Pitts decided that The Root could stand to diversify–particularly when it came to video.
Pitts says she foresees the site being geared “a little more toward the entertainment side, including fiction series as well as non-fiction.” The site will likely dabble in politically charged comedy, as well, beginning with a partnership with Azie Mira Dungey, a comedian who worked as a “living history character” at Mount Vernon, portraying a slave. Her web series, “Ask A Slave,” was based on real (and stupid) questions actual visitors to Mount Vernon asked her about slavery. Comedy that doubles as “smart witty commentary” could have a frequent home on the revamped site, says Byrd. “I don’t think we’d do a comedy series on just any topic,” emphasizes Pitts. “We’d have to find content that feels comfortable for The Root.”
It’s a tough time for the media business in general, and that’s no different for black media. Recent articles have suggested that legacy brands, like Ebony and Jet, while still important in their communities, may be struggling financially as they adapt to a new age. The Root, which launched as a digital-only business and never intended to be otherwise, has a head start in some regards. Though it faces a competitor in the form of the MSNBC-affiliated The Grio, The Root has a distinct, respected brand–one entrenched in a more serious tradition of reporting and analysis. The site also has plans to increase revenues in novel ways: for instance, by partnering with a genealogy site to offer research services into readers’ own personal roots. (The Root’s editor in chief, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has firsthand experience of African-Americans’ demand for genealogy, having hosted a PBS series tracing the family histories of illustrious guests.)
“It’s a trusted site,” says Pitts of The Root, adding that after decades of working in the mainstream media, she became aware of a “growing distrust of mainstream media in general, but more keenly felt in the African-American community.” One thing The Root has built firmly is trust in its audience, say Byrd and Pitts. Around the time of the Troy Davis execution, recalls Byrd, “We had so many readers writing thank-you notes saying, ‘Right now you are my CNN.’ They trusted we had the story, and were offering a perspective that connected with the way they were feeling.”