Interview: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a contributing editor and blogger for the 150-year-old, The Atlantic and author of the book The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. He spoke with PRWeek about his various interests, the recent redesign (in print and online) of the venerable news outlet, and coverage of the black community.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a contributing editor and blogger for the 150-year-old, The Atlantic and author of the book The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. He spoke with PRWeek about his various interests, the recent redesign (in print and online) of the venerable news outlet, and coverage of the black community.

PRWeek: You write about a variety of topics, among them sports, music, and politics. Do you have a favorite?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No actually. For me, it's hard to not blog about what comes from deep inside, things that I talk about in my daily life.

PRWeek: Earlier this year at The New Yorker festival, you mentioned that the coverage of the black community's excitement about then-Sen. Barack Obama was lacking in the media. Now that he's president-elect, do you foresee more of a focus on the issues facing the black community, or minorities in general?
Coates: I really can't tell. One of the points I tried to make throughout the campaign was Barack Obama caught a lot of flack for "not addressing African American issues," whatever that means.

My whole point was I always thought that one of the things about the times we're living in, a lot of the problems that African-Americans are grappling with are problems the country is grappling with. If you came to my neighborhood here in Harlem and asked folks what they were voting on, I think they would have said jobs, I think they would've talked about healthcare, I think they would have talked about the war in Iraq.

PRWeek: I also had a question about diversity, not just in the coverage, but in the media itself. Do you see any changes in the office or have any thoughts about how we can improve diversity and coverage in the newsrooms?
Coates: I've always shied away from head-counting in terms of race and gender. What is most paramount is a sense of curiosity. Some of the best coverage that I read about [Hurricane] Katrina and its affect on African-Americans was written by white reporters who were just tenacious and extremely curious. We have to fight laziness…That's just a basic sort of laziness that afflicts our profession. It has a particularly negative effect upon African-Americans because there are already these negative narratives about African-Americans and what little light African-Americans tend to see is a bad light. So I think the main thing we have to do is if we resolve to be a little more curious, then the journalism about African-Americans will get better. As journalism gets better, the journalism about black people will get better.

PRWeek: The Atlantic has undergone a transformation. What's been the feedback? What's been the impact?
Coates: Well, I don't know because I'm in New York and they're in [Washington] DC. But I did have a chance to go down there and look just before they launched. We're dealing with what all companies are dealing with that are in media: How do we bring more eyeballs to the page? How do we bring more eyeballs to the Internet? One of the things that I've always loved and admired about The Atlantic, even before I got here, in addition to the long form features of the magazine that are increasingly less and less done - there are only about three, four, or five places that are still doing it - The Atlantic has a kick-ass Internet strategy. They branded politics and they were very specific about branding politics. If you talk about a group of bloggers who really owned this election, I just thought they were king. They had done a great job if recruiting individual voices, and that's so important when you're talking about blogging. All writers should put a premium on voice. You just can't do it unless you've got something particular to say. Once you've got that, you're moving towards the future. We're going to be pretty well-positioned for the next couple of years.

PRWeek: A lot of our readers are working on consumer projects, and hip-hop is everywhere. You cover hip-hop. What's going on in hip-hop these days?
Coates: Well it's two different worlds: there's the world of the kids and the world of us adults who grew up on hip-hop. Those of us who grew up with it and don't quite want to let go, there's an interesting dispute going on right now. Obviously, we're not going to be the ones selling all the records. Hip-hop is a music for kids. I don't say that in a demeaning way. You're listening to the thoughts of 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-year-old boys. Sometimes people tend to shrink back when they hear hip-hop. If you poke the mind of a 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-year-old boy, that's what you're going to get.

Where the problems come in is when you get grown men who come in and can't elevate. We were talking before the podcast about Ice T going after somebody. Ice T is 50 years old. Now I don't want to hear a 50-year-old man talking like he's 17. One of the things that would help, because there's always this dispute about the content, is if people acknowledge that you're listening to the creative id of barely post-pubescent kids. Sometimes it quite gorgeously done. But that's really what it is at its roots.

PRWeek: You have people like Jay-Z who are wildly popular who are much older. We do tend to think of hip-hop in some ways as the old guard and then the younger folks who are doing their thing.
Coates: And I certainly don't mean to be dismissive. But it's one of these things where the people who are buying records are not going to be over 30. And no one's buying records anymore. I should re-phrase that. People who are downloading are not going to be people over 30. The vast majority are going to be younger people.

PRWeek: There are tons of people out there that want to reach you and other bloggers. What are some of your tips for blogger relations?
Coates: The first thing is be mindful of who you're contacting. Read the person's blog just like you would read a reporter's articles. You're not going to get a response, or a good quality response, is the sort of thing if you send out these broad blasts to everybody on your list. You have to show a basic respect for the person you're trying to reach. Second, you just have to be completely honest.

Name: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Title: Contributing editor, blogger

Outlet: The Atlantic, TheAtlantic.com

Preferred e-mail address: tcoates@theatlantic.com

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