What Happens When Local News Erases Black Stories?

Meet Dana James, who is writing for Black Iowans and Black Iowans only

Dana James is writing to save lives. James is an award-winning journalist, who worked for the Des Moines Register for seven years. She left journalism in the early 2000s, when newsrooms began downsizing. She worked for years in the corporate world until May of 2020.

“When the pandemic came, local news wasn’t talking about the impact on the Black community here in Iowa. I needed to do something.” James had previously written blogs focusing on the news. But with those, she’d been writing about local and national news and was writing to please everyone. The pandemic created purpose and audience. 

“I wanted to write to the Black community in Iowa,” she said.

On May 9, James sent her first newsletter, Black Iowa News, which is hosted on Substack. “How do we survive the very real forces like health care inequities, police brutality and the racism affecting #BlackLives right now? I don’t have the answers, but I want to open a conversation,” she wrote.

Three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, and the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in Iowa, as thousands of people began protesting racial inequality and police brutality in Des Moines, yes, but also in Sheldon and Sioux City.

When James launched the newsletter, she also had a full-time job working for an insurance company. But she quit, just weeks into the job, when the CEO sent an email stating “all people matter.” 

James has lived in Iowa her whole life, where Black people make up only 8.5 percent of the total population and is often on lists of worst places to live for Black people. ”My whole work career is nothing but painful racial conversations and microaggressions. So I reached my limit then, like, nope.” She was tired of trying to always work to make white people better. So, she quit and began working on the newsletter full time. 

Her goal was to talk specifically to Black Iowans, first about COVID-19. “So often, I’m writing and I’m like, I’m talking to you specifically, Black Iowans. You know, don’t do what these other people are doing. Don’t do what Governor Kim Reynolds is saying to do because she’s leading you right off of a cliff. And I really felt that strongly. And I still feel strongly we were getting bad advice all the way around.”

Black Iowans were not in the same pandemic as white Iowans.

But 2020 convulsed, compounding pandemic and protest and James wrote about that, too. Her newsletters are personal and political and range from deeply reported, such as her series on Black women and domestic violence, to creative, like her piece “Jolted,” a parable about a metaphorical “Karen” forced to face the injustice and brutality she ignored on earth.

It’s writing with a reporter’s depth and research, coming from a place of lived experience.

I began reading James’ newsletter in the fall, when I saw a link to a Substack slide on Twitter. Here were stories not being told. 

There has been a lot of lamenting about the death of local news. Over 1,800 small newspapers have closed since 2004, and the pandemic has brought thousands of furloughs and lay-offs, further lancing an already anemic industry. 

And in their place are pay-for-play and hyperpartisan sites that spread misinformation. But there are also opportunities. Media companies like Axios are launching small, hyperlocal newsletters, and nonprofit outlets like Pro Publica and States Newsroom, which is the parent company of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, are launching small, targeted outlets. And City Cast is beginning a network of hyper-local podcasts.

James’ newsletter is part of a new media landscape, one that holds just as much power and promise as it does peril. And what she offers is a look at part of our state that is often erased from the narrative.  

James hopes to build out the newsletter, eventually hiring contributors and expanding. 

In a newsletter dated January 28, she wrote, “The systemic issues facing Black Iowa can’t be fought or won with quintessential Iowa nice. Hope exists within the social justice movements that pushed Iowans of all hues out onto city streets, fists raised, signs in the air.”

You can subscribe to Black Iowa News here. Also, send James story tips to dana@blackiowanews.com.