How Pulitzer-winning writer moved Trayvon Martin story from margins to mainstream
Trymaine Lee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer many people might not have heard of until recently. He’s one of three journalists – all black men – credited with pushing the story of the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin into the mainstream.
It’s a big story to be sure, but it isn’t the first big story Lee has reported. He writes for BlackVoices, a niche website catering to African Americans that was taken over by The Huffington Post a year ago. Lee was able to help move Martin’s story from the niche and tell it to a wider audience.
Martin’s shooting by a neighborhood watch captain has captured the nation’s attention in what some speculate might be a watershed case in forcing the country to re-evaluate race and justice in America. There was some local coverage by Orlando-based news organizations when the story first broke, but national wire services only paid cursory attention and other national news outlets passed on the story completely for a myriad of reasons, including: The story did not fit into a narrative easily embraced by national newsrooms, editors did not recognize that the story would resonate with their readers, and/or editors did not see the bigger picture. Lee knew instinctively that his audience at BlackVoices would be interested.
Lee said he knew Martin’s story was an important one as soon as a source he’d worked with in the past told him about it.
“It’s the kind of story that had all the pieces there,” Lee said in a telephone interview. “It has race issues, social justice issues, gun and gun violence issues. For me it was a no-brainer. It was clear there was going to be some movement.”
Like Lee, the other two writers credited for bringing the story into the national spotlight are also African American and male: Charles M. Blow of The New York Times and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. Of the three, Lee is the only news reporter, Blow and Coates are columnists.
Lee’s first story about Martin was published March 8, more than a full week after the shooting.
“As a young black man this story can’t help but settle in a certain place inside of you,” Lee said. “Here was a 17-year-old kid who, at the least, was stereotyped or racially profiled from the beginning. I think we’ve all, regardless as to your experience as a young black man in America, have experienced, thought about or seen coverage of this kind of thing happening. This very well could have been me. This could have been my brother. This could have been any of us.
“I think sometimes it takes people to care about an issue, a subject, a source in order to bring it to light. As journalists, that’s our task. To bring issues and stories to light and to spread it to the masses, spread it to readers,” Lee added. “I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t hear about this story, if Charles Blow or Ta-Nehisi Coates had not heard about this story. But I can’t help but believe that our being black men played some role in our motivation to get out there.”
Lee was a police reporter who became part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of The Times-Picayune four months after he landed at the New Orleans paper. After leaving Louisiana, Lee became a beat reporter at The New York Times, covering Harlem for the paper’s metro desk. He became a senior writer at The Huffington Post in March, 2011, almost exactly one year before Trayvon Martin’s death. The first African American journalist hired after the two Internet companies merged, Lee covers national news stories that impact the black community.
Lee primarily writes for HuffPost BlackVoices. But with Huffington Post’s search engine optimization tools, his reporting could also appear on the politics, business or front pages, which allows Lee and his stories to get more exposure to more people who aren’t black.
Lee said he is able to cover more in his job at HuffPost BlackVoices than he could in his previous newspaper life.
“At the New York Times I had my beat, I had a number of beats, but I was in that lane,” he said. “There’s a hierarchy there and the institution matters. There’s nothing above the institution. Of course it’s full of great reporters and great writers. Here at the Huffington Post though, I cover issues and stories that impact the black community period, from politics to culture to crime and breaking news. My experience is different here because if there is something happening in Florida, well I’m on a flight and headed to Florida. I couldn’t necessarily do that in my capacity at The New York Times.”
Ironically, BlackVoices.com (the precursor to the Huffington Post version) was launched in 1995 as part of The Orlando Sentinel under the leadership of Barry Cooper, the paper’s first online editor. Cooper is African American. The site quickly caught the attention of African Americans in the Orlando region and eventually acquired a national following. Eventually, the site became independent of the Sentinel.
Content featured on the site included news and entertainment, sports features, career advice and job opportunities, clubs, contests, chat rooms and member photos. By 1999 the Tribune Co., which owns The Orlando Sentinel and The Chicago Tribune, committed to expanding Blackvoices.com with a $5 million investment. Cooper, along with Blackvoices.com's headquarters, relocated to Chicago and it became a division of Tribune Interactive Inc. In July of 1999 the website had upwards of 400,000 registered members and according to PR Newswire, more than 14 million page views. BlackVoices was sold to AOL in 2004, where it floundered until Arianna Huffington assumed control as the Huffington Post closed its merger with AOL in 2011.
Aside from being a senior writer with more autonomy over the types of stories he writes, Lee said his job at The Huffington Post BlackVoices differs from his previous newspaper jobs in that his voice and his stories resonate with more readers at a faster pace.
“When Charles Blow tweets or Ta-Nehisi Coates hits send, that story is out there much more because, online, that information is easier to access and is more easily spread. At the Huffington Post that amplification is even more heightened,” he said. “We live in this space, we thrive in this space. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of followers. We have a community of very active commenters. We have a tremendous number of bloggers with influence in the community. So with us, it’s heightened even more because of the nature of the space that we operate in.”
The flip-side of that amplification and heightened exposure, unfortunately, is that not all the feedback Lee receives is constructive. The very name of the site, BlackVoices, attracts a certain negative element, he said, which is heightened with a racially charged story like Martin’s shooting. That negativity was ratcheted up further when President Barack Obama chimed in on the topic.
Lee said the feedback he’s received in response to the Martin story has been particularly nasty and racist.
“As black reporters covering these types of issues, there is going to be some person spewing some kind of racist nonsense at you just for doing your job, just because you’re writing about minorities, black people. That alone puts a target on your back,” he said.
“I’ve been around the block a few times; I’ve been doing this for a while, like I said it comes with the territory. But it is kind of sad because you have to wonder, who are these people, is it your neighbor? You have all these people online and the comments are coming from all over the place, so you have to ask who these people are and where they are.
“They are everywhere obviously.”