A year later and Huffington Post still can’t find the money in its budget to pay Ferguson Reporter Mariah Stewart?
By JEAN MARIE BROWN
Mariah Stewart, Huffington Post’s Ferguson reporter, has spent much of the past year chronicling the structural inequities affecting the city and its surrounding communities. But as her one-year crowdfunded appointment draws to a close, there’s still uncertainty about whether Stewart will still have a job come September.
“She’s still our fellow!” wrote Sujata Mitra, senior director of communications for Huffington Post in response to queries about Stewart’s role with the media company. When asked about the future of the Ferguson beat and Stewart’s future with the news organization via email, Mitra didn’t respond.
Stewart said separately there has been talk of an extension, but nothing has been decided.
A year ago this month 374 people contributed $43, 380 to allow Stewart to cover Ferguson for Huffington Post. The beat was expanded to include providing content to the St. Louis American in January.
When initially announced, Huffington Post said that they raised money from contributors to pay Stewart because the money was not included in the company’s budget.
“The crowd funding is really unique,” Stewart said. “It showed how much readers really were tuned into this story.”
But how interested can HuffPost readers be if the future of Stewart’s beat is still undecided?
Stewart works primarily with Huffington Post Washington, D.C,-based reporter Ryan J. Reilly, who Stewart shadowed in the early days of Ferguson protests. She has since been stationed at the St. Louis American, the city’s African American newspaper where she is located in the heart of one of St. Louis’ black communities. At the St. Louis American, she has access to resources that journalists at national mainstream outlets don’t, Stewart said.
In addition to working out of the St. Louis American’s newsroom, she’s also producing copy for the 70,000 circulation weekly newspaper.
“It’s been great,” Stewart said of the decision to move her into the St. Louis American. “There’s a ton more resources and more people to learn from.”
In the days immediately following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Stewart was part of the cadre of citizen journalists who used social media to file reports about the rioting and unrest that was sparked by Brown’s death. That’s what caught editors’ attention at Huffington Post and has helped the news organization uncover issues that it would have missed otherwise, Reilly said.
Stewart said the experience with Huffington Post and the St. Louis American, have helped hone her digital skills and learn how to do tough interviews. “Before I was a little bit hesitant and out of my comfort zone when it came to asking tough questions to people in authoritative positions. Now, I’ve gained a little bit more confidence with that and I’m ready to do it.”
Stewart graduated from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, mere months before Brown’s death, but wasn’t practicing her craft. “I fell out of love with journalism through school. I really didn’t find my niche,” she said. “I was working in retail as a professional bra fitter.”
Working for Huffington Post has helped her find her niche, social justice, and that she now sees journalism as a career, she added.
The visceral reaction to Brown’s death might have caught the nation off guard, but not Stewart, who grew up about 30 minutes away from Ferguson in St. Charles County. “The fact that the town erupted, I honestly wasn’t surprised,” she said noting there were protests after unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. There was always talk that if something similar happened in St. Louis, the city would be out of control, Stewart said.
Once Ferguson ignited, Stewart said the journalist in her reacted. “I came down to Ferguson without any news organization attached to me,” she said. Stewart posted video and tweeted developments on the ground as they were happening.
She soon learned Beacon was looking for freelancers. After a week, Stewart said she was told the Huffington Post was interested in creating a crowd funded fellowship that covered her salary while the site provided benefits. Some in the media criticized the fellowship at that time and questioned why Huffington Post didn’t hire her outright.
That’s the same question AllDigitocracy asked this month, and so far there still isn’t an answer.
Jean Marie Brown is an instructor in the School of Journalism in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She has a master’s degree in journalism from TCU and she earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Prior to teaching at TCU, she worked for Knight-Ridder and later McClatchy newspapers as a reporter, mid-level editor and senior editor.