|A view of Chicago's downtown from the city's West Side where Fountain grew|
up and for which he named the publishing company he founded: WestSide Press.
Part of this week’s column appeared in a column by the author in the Chicago Sun-Times in March 2011.
By John W. Fountain
His name was Rodney McAllister Jr. I became aware of his story in March 2001 while a national correspondent for The New York Times. The 10-year-old St. Louis boy had not come home one evening. The following morning, someone saw a pack of stray dogs making a ruckus at a nearby park. He went to investigate. They were gnawing something. There, beneath a pine tree... a child. It turned out to be Rodney, who, according to officials, was mauled to death.
I quickly made telephone calls and found community leaders and others who questioned how something like this could happen, not in a Third World country, but in a sturdy metropolis, in one of the world's richest countries. That some reportedly heard a child’s screams the night before but never went to investigate made the story even more troubling.
It was clear from my preliminary reporting that there was a story here, about a man-child said to sometimes wear shoes several sizes too big, a boy beloved by his teachers and classmates who had fallen through the cracks. A story about how his death galvanized a community.
I called my editors. They gave me the green light to hop a flight from Chicago to St. Louis. My bags were packed and I was ready to go. Then my telephone rang. It was New York, my editor… “They don't want you to go to St. Louis,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
He explained that it was another editor's call. I pressed for an explanation. The response was simple, though relayed with some hesitance: “We already have a dog story.”
A dog story? A dog story?
As much as I argued and pitched, I could find no home for Rodney’s story.
It has been 14 years since Rodney's grisly death. And after having written more stories than I can count, I still cannot shake from my mind this one I did not.
The memory is, for me, a reminder of the need for a variety of perspectives in daily American journalism and also of the need for reporters—and columnists—to follow their own personal conscience and nose for news. In journalism, it’s about the story—always the story.
Telling a fairer story, reporting a clearer, fuller picture is dependent upon diversity in American newsrooms, particularly racial and ethnic diversity. That diversity is still much needed, as coverage of stories in recent months—from Ferguson to New York to Charleston—has demonstrated. Yet, American newsrooms remain largely devoid of color.
In fact, according to an America Society of Newspaper Editors survey released last July, racial and ethnic minorities in 2013 accounted for 13.34 percent of journalists in American newsrooms. While the percentage of minority journalists working in American newsrooms has increased significantly since an initial ASNE survey found in 1978 that minority journalists comprised just 3.95 percent of the total newsroom workforce, it still lags far behind the non-white U.S. population of nearly 38 percent.
Moreover, ASNE reports: “Over three decades, the annual survey has shown that while there has been progress, the racial diversity of newsrooms does not come close to the fast-growing diversity in the U.S. population as a whole.”
By 2044, the Census projects the U.S. population will become majority-minority with more than half of all Americans belonging to a minority group—56.4 by the year 2060. And yet, any projections of progress in newsroom diversity, and more importantly, for diversity in news content and coverage of minorities—of our issues and our communities—seem less assured.
I still cannot help but wonder if Rodney had not been African American, if he had been perhaps white instead, whether his story would have been deemed just a “dog story.”
This much is clear, even in a so-called post-racial America: The media still too often diminish black life when choosing how and which stories to cover, in part, because of the lack of black and brown faces—moreover perspectives—in American newsrooms.
And yet, I am as clear now as I was then that one need not be a journalist to understand that Rodney’s story was indeed a story. That the color of one's skin, or their socioeconomic status, never nullifies the value of their story. Or that inclusion of all our voices and stories—whether black, brown or white, Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, gay or straight—makes journalism better.
Growing up in poverty, I wanted to help make life on my side of the tracks, better for others. Eventually, I came to see writing and journalism as a vehicle through which I might help to make a difference.
After more than 25 years as a journalist, I still do, though it has become clear that my effort to make a difference by my writing must extend beyond newspapers.
The day my editors killed my story on Rodney, WestSide Press, my publishing company, was born. And though unbeknownst to me at the time, so was every book I will ever write.
|WestSide Press Publishing founded by Fountain|
With a mantra of “validity-voice-vision,” WestSide Press also was born to defy that someone should ever dictate what stories I get to tell. Born to give rise to voices like mine and other writers with important stories to tell, some of us journalists who have encountered barriers and roadblocks in American newsrooms. Born to reflect the hopes, struggles and tales of life of even the least of these. Born to ensure that I can say what I believe my Creator has purposed in my heart, mind and soul and has called me to say.
And it is always my hope that some reader—regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic class—who happens upon my writings, will find something that moves, informs or enlightens them in some way.
For in the words, of the Gospel hymn: “…then my living shall not be in vain.” And yet, the little boy’s story that I did not write still stings.
Follow me on Twitter at: @johnwfountain