News Makers #1: Meet Madeline Faber of High Ground News and The Tri-State Defender’s Karanja Ajanaku


This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard: Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story. They will be published throughout the rest of the week.
Madeline Faber
  • Madeline Faber

High Ground News is an online publication that’s been in Memphis four-and-a-half years. It’s part of network of 15 small, digital newsrooms, each unique, but all parented by the Issue Media Group in Detroit. Issue was created to get beyond tyrannizing negative narratives that contributed to the Motor City’s decline, and tell more complete stories about the place and people who live there.

“We stand out among the other publications because we have this explicit focus on neighborhoods,” High Ground executive editor Madeline Faber says. A different approach to community engagement, combined with not being held to the rigors of daily publishing, creates a petri dish environment where new strategies can be tested.

• On identity and adaptability
“Our on-the-ground program within High Ground News started out as a kind of 'special section' where we would cover Memphis neighborhoods. Now that’s really all we do, because we saw people responded to this kind of coverage. It fills a gap in the landscape — covering neighborhoods in context.”

• On High Ground’s “pop-up” newsrooms:
“We open pop-up newsrooms for four months. The first month is for research, relationship building, and working with partners in neighborhood, followed by three months of weekly coverage — written articles, profiles of business owners, nonprofit leaders, elders, and video and photo essays. We’ve piloted community engagement techniques that other publications don’t really have the capacity to do. So we do a lot of face-to-face with our readers. We do that with community newsrooms. We have office hours where residents can meet with journalists, talk about how their neighborhoods have been depicted in the media. We convene residents and ask them, ‘What is the information you need about your neighborhood? What are the problems going on now? What are the themes here we need to really flesh out?’ And and events. We do lots of events. Storytelling panel discussions.”
• On a “positive” news identity
We’re not in the positive news business or the advocacy business, but I do feel like it’s our responsibility to put some heft in the other side of the scales that have been so unbalanced over the years. It surprises me there are still people who don’t know about Orange Mound’s legacy as the first subdivision where African-Americans could own their own homes on their own property, and that it was built on top of a former plantation. That’s such cool information.

But what we do is take that knowledge and consider it when we consider the fact that there hasn’t been quality affordable housing built in Orange Mound in forever. The affordable housing they have may not be quality affordable housing. The elders of the neighborhood don’t know how to encourage the young people to stay and grow because there isn’t any housing being built or rehab that speaks to a young professional demographic. We show that people choose to live there, thrive there, and open businesses. They shouldn’t be pushed to the margins because there aren’t multimillion-dollar deals happening in these neighborhoods. And a lot of Memphians don’t live in our economic centers, they live in neighborhoods.

• On capacity
We are limited by our capacity in what we can do. It was just me ... But what we’ve been trying to do in our own small universe is rebuild trust in these neighborhoods with media. To explain to them, we’re not helicoptering in. We’re here to show a side of the neighborhood that hasn’t been shown. That’s important to us ethically as journalists and personally as Memphians.

• On Transparency
One of the antidotes [to issues in contemporary journalism] is going to be transparency. We should connect people to other resources … . It’s not up to us to hoard access; we should be sharing access as much as we can. Even putting footers at the bottoms of stories explaining how we came to stories. The more we decentralize that process the closer we get to information justice.


Executive editor and sssociate publisher Karanja Ajanaku has been with the Tri-State Defender since 2007. He had previously worked for the Commercial
Karanja Ajanaku
  • Karanja Ajanaku
Appeal for, “26-years, 6 months, three weeks and two days.”

The Tri-State Defender is 68 years old, having launched in 1951. “Our intent was to be an expression of the desires and needs of the African American community,” Ajanaku says, quoting copy from an early editorial page. “That intent and that need is as fresh today as it was in 1951. That’s what we stay focused on,” he says.

Like many of Memphis’ print news businesses, The Tri-State Defender is trying to develop new revenue streams. Online content is being reorganized behind a paywall.

•On The Tri-State Defender’s unique position
“When we look at ourselves, we understand, generally speaking, what’s going on with the newspaper industry and the challenges. But when we look at it specifically relative to Memphis and specifically relative to Memphis, we’re in growth mode. We have reason to think we have been underperforming relative to our possibilities.
•On the Tri-State Defender’s role relative to The Commercial Appeal
“Even if the Commercial Appeal was at full capacity, the need that we meet isn’t affected. It doesn’t matter if the Commercial Appeal is at full capacity or goes out of business.”

•On being uniquely positioned to tell the story of African-Americans and Memphis
“We’re the longest ongoing entity that can tell the story from the inside out. The Commercial Appeal does a good job. I did a good job when I was there writing about the African-American community. But you still can’t quite tell it from the inside out. There is a value to that position.”

•On what matters.
"We have to do better as journalists, better in Memphis. What does better mean? We have to be what we’re supposed to be: Watchdogs. We have to ask questions. We have to get in there and dig. If we do a better job with that we may just find a larger market."

Editor's note: Going to Pieces
looks at Memphis' information providers and news environment at a time when the city's daily newspaper has been greatly diminished. We hope these excerpts provide some depth/context, and give readers a better sense about what's unique about various organizations in terms of product and process.

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