USA Today shares 4 tips on creating Black History Month content

By Summer Moore


Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA


February is Black History Month in the Untied States. While we celebrate Black culture throughout the year, this month is set aside for special reflection and storytelling.

No one knows that more that USA Today’s enterprise editor for racism and history, Nichelle Smith. Smith has been at Gannett/USA Today since 2003, when she joined after a stint at Black Entertainment Television and the Smithsonian. She never imagined she would still be here, nearly two decades later.

Since 2009, Smith has been especially focused on Black stories of Black history. Early on, she helped launch a Civil Rights in America Web site that eventually spawned USA Today’s annual print prublication for Black History Month. Over the last decade, Smith has led several award-winning racism and diversity projects. Those include the Changing Face of America, the 1968 Project, 1619: The Search for Answers, and Never Been Told: The Lost History of People of Colour. She is also the founding editor of USA Today’s annual Black History Month special edition, now in its ninth year.

Nichelle Smith is the founding editor of USA Today’s annual Black History Month special edition, now in its ninth year.
Nichelle Smith is the founding editor of USA Today’s annual Black History Month special edition, now in its ninth year.

This year’s section is called Black Progress. It focuses on the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, as well as stories about the Reverand Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket programme, which became Operation PUSH/Rainbow PUSH Coalition. There are also stories about Blaxploitation films and Black health and wellness, which was this year’s theme chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). It was the largest section to date, at 128 pages, and sold out in six days.

I talked to Smith about why this section has struck a chord with readers and advertisers alike. Smith answered these questions and shared the secrets to her success and the inside scoop of her content strategy.

This year’s section, Black Progress, is the largest to date at 128 pages.
This year’s section, Black Progress, is the largest to date at 128 pages.

Here are four tips from Smith on how to connect with readers and lean into your own expertise to engage them.

Tip #1: Focus on the big moments — but don’t shy away from powerful stories that need to be told

USA Today’s Black History Month sections have traditionally focused on big anniversaries because these are moments that are the most well-known or with which people are most familiar. These include the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960; the March on Washington in 1963; and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 and the aftermath.

This year, Smith wanted to focus on a lesser-known anniversary: the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. More than 10,000 delegates from across the country came to the city to forge a common agenda for Black America — to address stark inequities in economics and politics by working for change from within the system.

“I’m happy to go there because it’s an overlooked time,” she said.

Black people were still reeling from King’s assassination, and a second generation was coming of age whose parents had moved north to escape Jim Crow and had been faced with another version of it, Smith said. They were restricted to certain neighbourhoods, sub-standard housing, and hard labour or low-wage jobs. They noticed they had not gotten much further than their parents.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a build-up of frustration and a call for Black Power. This meant not only expressing cultural pride but also self-determination. The defiance of this period is often difficult for people to assess because of the way civil rights philosophies splintered after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luter King, Jr. It is unfairly conflated with violence.

“It can be murky and a little scary, Black Panthers with their fists in the air and guns,” she said. “People look at that and say, ‘I don’t know if I really want to dwell there.’”

But the convention within this tumultuous period was a big moment in Black history, and one close to the Gary native. It was also a moment of hope, something she hopes comes across in the content. “They were saying we are going to determine what we are going to do as Black people,” Smith said.

Tip #2: Do not be afraid to bring your own history

Smith was 4 years old when the National Black Political Convention came to Gary. “It was fascinating that I was at the centre of this,” she said. “Part of it is me, a Black woman from Gary. It’s baked into some of the experiences that I’ve been through.”

Smith told the story of her grandfather, who came to Gary to escape persecution in the Jim Crow South: “My grandfather was working at a creosote plant in Fernwood, Mississippi, and his boss ordered him to do something dangerous, which he refused to do,” she said. “The story goes that they got into a fist fight. You didn’t get into a fist fight with a white man and survive, so he got on a train and went first to Youngstown (Ohio), then ultimately to Gary.”

Tip #3: That history needs to be authentic — and that means diversifying your room

Smith said she was often the only Black person working on the Black History Month section.

“Reaching into this audience doesn’t happen without people who are part of this audience,” she said.

Being authentic means having people in your newsroom who know firsthand the experiences of the audience you are trying to reach, according to Smith: “Whenever we want to reach out, we need to have representatives in our newsrooms from that audience. That is a key to success.”

Tip #4: Make free copies available

A big reason Smith’s work often shows up in curriculums across the country is that she works hard to make sure there are free copies made available to institutions and people who might benefit from them. The Smithsonian receives 500 copies each year. In 2019, she worked with circulation managers to make 15,000 free copies available across the country to organisations like the NAACP and local school systems.

“This is knowledge from which people can teach and learn, so we need to make it available,” Smith said.

About Summer Moore

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