Fresh off the Los Angeles Times hiring S. Mitra Kalita as its new managing editor for editorial strategy, the newspaper today announced four new hires, including that of Dexter Thomas, who will cover #BlackTwitter. In a statement, the Times said “this will no longer be a team that only tweets or posts to Facebook. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are simply one component of our strategy to build readership. Our new colleagues will work across the newsroom to guide experimental storytelling, story selection, distribution and partnerships, and conversations with and among Times readers.”
Thomas, a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University, will work closely with the newsroom and #EmergingUS to find communities online, including Black Medium, Latino Tumblr and Line in Japan. In his role, he will both create stories with, and pull stories from, those worlds.
Originally from San Bernardino, Thomas has taught media studies and Japanese and is writing a book about Japanese hip-hop. He began working in digital media at UC-Riverside as a student director of programming at KUCR-FM (88.3), independently producing podcasts, music and news programs. He writes regularly on social justice, Internet and youth culture, and video games.
In an interview with AllDigitocracy.org, Thomas said that although he was an early adopter of Twitter, he didn’t use it much in the beginning. “I thought it was like a non-private version of AOL instant messaging. I didn’t start really using it until I started living in Japan,” he said.
He heard about the LA Times job through contacts made while freelancing on social justice for publications including Al Jazeera and the Guardian. In an interesting twist, Thomas said he feels that Black Twitter was spoken into existence by a non-black person, then came into existence. “Black Twitter didn’t exist until someone decided it was something that could be studied,” he observed. “But that doesn’t mean that what Black Twitter is talking about isn’t important, but it was influential even before we called it Black Twitter.”
How does a PhD candidate who studies Japanese hip-hop and questions whether Black Twitter exists get this job? “It’s a background that makes sense because it’s a mix of different things, just like Black Twitter is a mix of different things,” Thomas said. “Not everyone who follows Black Twitter is black. Just like in the past, a lot of activism happening today has people who have covered these same issues and served as a bridge between larger media outlets and the activists, and many of them have been Asian-American. It’s important to explore the fragments of those who are telling the stories. I’m interested in what blacks, Asians and Latinos are doing offline with this.”
The #BlackTwitter beat will be less about the stories that will be covered, said Thomas. “I want to work with people to tell their own stories, not make things like listcicles on the top 10 things people think about Beyonce’s hair,” he said. “You also see people take tweets on a subject and build an article out of it, and sometimes that’s helpful. But I’m more interested in working with people to tell their stories, using my access to resources that others don’t have.”
Thomas will also look at outlets including Black Tumblr and Latino Tumblr. “With Twitter, you can search for a hashtag and within five minutes, you’ll have hundreds of tweets, and boom — you have a story,” he said. “But when you look at Black Tumblr and Latino Tumblr, they are more interesting and harder to poach things from. I won’t get things 100 percent right, but I’ll work with people and help them tell their stories.”
Other Times hires include:
- Michelle Maltais, deputy director for audience engagement. She will help develop strategies that strengthen The Times’ connection to community and conversation. She’ll also help train staff around the newsroom on new tools and techniques, and resuscitate efforts around its coverage of parenting. She’s been with the Times since 1996;
- Annie Yu, hired as a producer. She will help define the voice of the L.A. Times and infuse shareability into its journalism through creative storytelling and packaging. She comes from ProPublica, in New York City, where she worked as an audience engagement fellow and has also worked for the Arizona Republic and the Orange County Register; and
- Lisa Biagiotti will join the team on July 13 in a role straddling video and social. She will work closely with our photo, video, social, RealTime and Metro desks to help make multimedia offerings newsy, creative and shareable. She has been an independent journalist and filmmaker, serving as the director-producer of “deepsouth” (2014), an award-winning documentary about poverty, HIV and LGBTQ issues in the rural American South. She has produced work for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Times, PBS and NPR, among other media platforms.