Ayana Taylor: Gaining the Trust of Resistant Sources

Editor’s Note: This is the 15th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Ayana Taylor is a young freelance writer for the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. In her short but eventful journalism career, Taylor has squared off with white supremacists, covered John Kerry’s visit to her college campus, and tracked the debate over a Mississippi voter identification law.

She began working at the Free Press as an unpaid intern while she was still a journalism student at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., and wrote a political blog for the paper.

After the Free Press won a Diversity Internship grant from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, it was able to hire Taylor as a paid intern for five months in early 2004.  She also was editor at the Harambe, her college newspaper, and participated in another AAN-sponsored program, attending the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the summer of 2004.

Two of the three pieces that won her an AltWeekly Award in the News Story–Short Form category report on racially charged issues in Mississippi.  For her article "X Marks the Boycott," she interviewed Richard Barrett, leader of a white supremacist group called the Nationalist Movement, about a booth he was granted at the Mississippi State Fair.

What’s it like to work for editors as a younger writer?

My editor, Donna Ladd, is really hands-on, and it helped during my transition from intern to full-time writer.  She really has been more like a mentor to me than just an editor.  I think when you’re a young writer that you hear a lot of horror stories, and you’re afraid of being on your own. You have to be independent to go out and get the story, but if you can have somebody who can help you hone your skills so you can be more independent, that’s better than just the "sink or swim" method.

What techniques do you use to develop your writing beyond just stating the basics of what happened?

You have to really nail the interview. You need to get the information and listen.  That’s really important. Listening to the answers always helps me ask more questions and get more in-depth. If I really listen, I’ll always get answers that really help drive the story forward.

How do you develop an angle for a news piece?

Sometimes it just comes to you, like in the middle of the night.  But sometimes I just get out all my notes and look at what’s the best way to approach the writing. Usually it depends on how passionate I feel about the subject matter. The more interesting a story is to me, the easier it is to come up with a more interesting angle.

Is short-form journalism easier to do than long-form journalism?

In some ways it is easier. You have to get right to the point, and you don’t have to worry about engaging the reader so much because they’re looking for the point, too.  In some ways it’s harder because you have to decide what you want to keep. I enjoy doing longer features because you can get more creative with the story and use more details. I do more re-writing for the shorter stories than the longer ones.

What are the advantages of being a young writer?

It might sound kind of sneaky, but people trust you. [Laughs.] They really trust you more, and they think they can get away with more. If you’re a young writer, people say to themselves. "Oh, okay, you’re doing this for a class." They don’t think of you as a "real" reporter. The disadvantages mostly come from people in the business who think that you’re still wet behind the ears; they don’t want to give you the chance you’re looking for.  But how do you get the experience if they don’t let you do things?

How do you get people to talk when they don’t want to?

I think it helps to try to relate to people as much as you can — not that you’re going to be their best friend. If you can find a way to relate to people, they feel like you understand their position without being opinionated. I think you have to have a certain attitude; you really have to be friendly.  Sometimes you find people that don’t want to talk to you, and persistence is the best thing to get them to talk. It sounds crazy, but if you show people that you’re not going to leave them alone, they eventually open up.

I interviewed a white supremacist. At first he would not talk to me. He felt that nothing good ever came out of the media.  I just kept telling him, "You should make your voice heard," and "People need to see your side of the story." I just wouldn’t let go, and eventually he said, “Because you’re so persistent, I will interview with you.” And he never interviewed with anybody!

That was a big deal for him as someone who calls black people "niggers" and that kind of thing.  But for him I was okay, and that was mainly because I wouldn’t let him go.

What is it like for you as a young black woman to deal with white supremacists in your reporting?  What’s the most surprising thing you get from people who have political beliefs so different from yours?

With people like that who are usually so closed-minded, the most surprising thing is that they read the Jackson Free Press, and they love it.  They think that we’re the best paper ever. One of the white supremacists I interviewed praised my professionalism on his Web site, noting that I was a "black girl." This was the same Web site where he used ugly racial epithets against other blacks.

We’re not coming from anyone’s viewpoint, and especially in that case we don’t represent white supremacists. But in any case, they love the paper, they read it, they talk about it, they comment on it.  It’s really weird: The people who love the paper the most might surprise you.  I guess if you do the work well you can relate to anybody on some level. 

Have you ever felt in danger doing that kind of reporting? 

I never really think about it.  Sometimes it’s an afterthought. With this particular man I read after I interviewed him that he had an altercation with a reporter. If I said the wrong thing, he could have flown off the handle, but at the time I was excited because he actually said yes to the interview.  I really hounded him, though. [Laughs.]  You just can’t be scared to be a reporter, you have to get out and do it, and you’ll be surprised who will open up to you, who will actually talk to you. 

Do most people like to talk?

I think some people like to get their views out, and they like to see their name in print. A lot of people are like that.  But some people, with all the lawsuits that go on, are more afraid to tell the whole story — sometimes even if they have information.  I’ve had a lot of people say they don’t want their picture taken, or they don’t want me to write some things in the article. 

How much of a presence are the white supremacists in Mississippi? 

In my opinion, they are a covert group. You don’t see them, but you know they’re there.  A lot of people want to pretend like it’s not there, but it’s here.  It’s not necessarily particular to the South.  The South has kind of a segregated system, even though segregation is not mandated by law. 

What is your goal in doing this kind of writing? Are you interested in exposing racism?

I don’t think that it’s my goal to expose racism, but I do think my goal is to expose the whole truth.  I think that that’s what the dailies miss, the whole picture, not just the thing that makes you look good. 

Would you ever write for a daily? 

I try to never say never, but I just can’t really get with their program. [Laughs.]  I feel like alternative journalism is real journalism.

Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.

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