National Press Club

L.A. Times coverage of rap singer's shooting illustrates benefits, challenges of newsroom diversity

June 12, 2019 | By Louise D. Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

A "community conversation," sponsored by the National Press Club's Journalism Institute, June 11, illustrated the role of diverse Los Angeles Times staff in bringing a rap singer's life and legacy into coverage of his fatal shooting in the neighborhood that raised him.

As soon as she learned that Nipsey Hussle, a Grammy-nominated rap artist, born Ermias Asghedom of Eritrean and African American heritage, was shot, black reporter Angel Jennings asked her night editor to let her tell the story of his life and legacy.

“He’s the link to the South L.A. community,” Jennings explained. “I wanted to tell the community story," emphasizing what he meant to residents, how he bought stores to keep them open, and not how he died. Hussle, 33, was shot dead March 31 in front of his own store.

Hussle's music told stories of gang life, struggles, survival and overcoming adversity. He had a meeting scheduled with the Los Angeles police commissioner and police chief to talk about ways to curb gang violence and help police help kids, but he was killed before they could meet the next day.

Coverage in the days after his death broke web traffic records for the newspaper, according to Erika D. Smith, assistant Metro Desk editor, who worked on Jennings’ stories. Smith’s first day as night editor had begun just 20 minutes after Hussle died.

"This was personal to me,” said Gerrick D. Kennedy, author and award-winning staff writer who has covered music and pop culture since 2009. He spoke by phone.

“I spent a lot of time with Nipsey, we ate dinner together…and I had to explain what [he] meant to the city.” In his coverage, Kennedy wrote how the beloved artist was “cut down in the middle of a community that raised him,”

The conversation covered newsroom diversity and the big challenge that comes after hiring black journalists: retaining them and moving them into middle-management. “What does it mean to be a minority in the newsroom?” asked Kimberly Adams, the panel’s moderator and D.C.-based Marketplace correspondent.

“For years, I was the only black reporter,” said Jennings: “Things happen when I have someone (like her editor Smith) who got it!” Smith, also African American, said, “What ends up happening is you hire these people (minorities) and then you don’t listen to them, so it defeats the point of diversity.” Also, “You have to have everyone, including copy editors, on the same page.”

In covering Hussle’s death, “We reached people we don’t normally reach, to subscribe—that’s a win for us,” said Smith. “Our subscription base is white and wealthy,” but Jennings’ stories brought in readers who were “younger, and black, and skewed more female.” Diversity also means hiring people who live in the communities you cover, she added.

Jennings covers issues that affect residents in South Los Angeles and spent hours talking to people who rarely if ever spoke with the media: “I don’t work from a desk. I’m in the coffee shops. I deal with everyday people, not politicians.”

Julie Moos, executive director of the Institute, introduced Adams, who introduced the speakers.