Q&A With South Seattle Emerald Founder Marcus Harrison Green

The journalist and social entrepreneur dishes on his fledgling news blog’s first two years.

On Thursday, the South Seattle Emerald celebrates its second birthday. In its two years of existence, the non-profit news organization has grown into a celebrated platform for “Reportage, culture and commentary from the most eclectic place on Earth,” as its banner proclaims.

To commemorate the occassion, we called up Emerald founder (and sometimes-contributor to the Weekly) Marcus Harrison Green. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SW: How’d you and the Emerald get started?

MHG: I’d freelanced for a little while, wrote for different blogs and so forth. And then I became the managing editor of a publication that kind of covered the Rainier Valley area, and just really wanted to do something a little bit different than what that particular organization was doing, so we had a parting of ways, and I decided to go in with a couple of people who I’d known and always wanted to do something with—essentially what the Emerald ended up doing. So I spoke with them, and said, ‘Why don’t we get together, get a non-profit board together to kind of model it off of Democracy Now! or the Guardian, in terms of them being nonprofit media organizations.’ Obviously we were aiming high. [Laughs]

I’m not going to lie. There were some people who were like, ‘That’ll never work, people won’t want to read about anything except for crime, do you think you can really be a literary outfit in this area? All it’s going to be is a newsletter.’ Like anything, you have your little bits of adversity, but thankfully we were able to get people on board who believed in the vision…[of] really talk[ing] about the life [in South Seattle]. There’s so much life here.

[About a week before the Emerald launched] I remember reading about…Harlem and about how it was this mosaic of American culture. It had its issues just like anywhere else in terms of crime and stuff like that, obviously, but you…[also] hear about the music and the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance, the culture and arts that came from [that]…Not to get too high-highfalutin’, I suppose, but it was kind of like, ‘How come this area can’t be just like that? Why can’t we shine a light on that side of the area?’

What are you covering in South Seattle that other media outlets—including yours truly—miss?

[Laughs] I love you guys, as a contributor, but I think it’s more of a function of how our city is constructed, in the sense that Seattle is a segregated city. It’s in the top five in terms of whitest metropolitan cities, but it also has two of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. So that tells you that there’s a concentration of people of color, communities of color. What happens [when] you have an isolation of groups, as we do, is you also have an isolation of their thoughts, of their concerns, of their stories.

A perfect illustration of that was the [Seattle City Council] District 2 races, where barely anybody was willing to cover the race, because they’d just written it off. And it ended up being extremely close. The Weekly, to their credit, did do a mea culpa afterwards, essentially saying, ‘Gosh, we should have paid attention!’ And that is a by-product of the fact that people do not pay attention to the area because they feel that they don’t have to. They probably unconsciously—at least I hope it’s unconsciously—think that, ‘Well, nobody, in terms of readership, really [cares about] this, so why should we be concerned with this?’

I call it a voluntary media blackout of the area. I wanted to shed some light on the things that go on in terms of it being as unique as it is. I believe there’s over 55 languages spoken on any given day in the South End; if you add in dialects and so forth, it’s closer to 70. It’s the only place in Seattle that is actually what people claim that America is, in terms of I can go into a restaurant and I can hear somebody speaking Tagalog and see an American friend of mine hanging out with his Hispanic girlfriend, and the lady behind me at the cash register happens to be a white transplant from Idaho who’s fallen in love with the area and is sticking it out. That’s where, I guess, the idea of the ‘tossed salad’ of America really plays out.

The thing is, where you have uniqueness, really, in our country, I believe, is when you have an open-source model of society. And we have this open-source model of society in the South End, where you can pluck from these diverse cultures and ideas that so many people have, and put them on display. That’s really what I wanted to do with the Emerald. Or what we try to do, I should say.

What are some memorable stories the Emerald has covered?

The thing that put us on the map, at least locally, was our coverage over the King County [Children and] Family Justice Center, or No New Youth Jail movement. It definitely brought a lot of attention to us, and I think sort of positioned us as a place that does sort of social justice journalism—or ‘movement journalism,’ as that term is starting to become more pervasive.

I also just think that stories that hit close to home, that are hyper-local—like, I remember a story we did on the Skyway area recently. The writer, Anne Althauser…did a story about Skyway, which is an unincorporated area of King County, being essentially a medical services desert. You have 20,000 people there who don’t have any medical facility of their own, they don’t even have a dental [or] medical clinic or a mobile van. And because of that, it made the King County officials come and sit down at the table. It made them even more aware, and some would say shamed, that there isn’t more stuff that they’re providing for this area.

It’s things like that that, if nobody had been there to tell the story, then it doesn’t get told. It’s like the old saying, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to see it, does it fall?’ The answer is ‘No’ in the case of journalism.

I think those are the things that I’m most proud of—the fact that there’s a platform here that goes in and attacks those stories because it actually cares about the community that it writes for.

You mentioned ‘movement journalism.’ A lot of people think of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ as the hallmarks of good journalism. If someone asked you, ‘Isn’t movement journalism just a fancy way of saying you’re biased?,’ what would you say?

First, I would say that I don’t believe there’s any such thing as being ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased.’ [But] I think there’s such a thing as fairness. We’re all human beings, and we’re the sum of our experiences and our parts and everything else. I’ve seen situations [in which] certain media organizations that shall remain nameless but are local, under the guise of ‘objectivity,’ have done an inordinate amount of damage to families, in terms of presenting a story about their loved one who was murdered while highlighting that [the victim] had a gun charge seven or eight years ago. Which is irrelevant in terms of the story today, in terms of him being senselessly killed.

We try to be as fair and accurate as possible. We don’t come across as [comparable to] Fox News in attempting to tout how ‘fair’ we are. We do provide balance. If you take the media landscape as a whole, especially…locally, I would say that we do provide balance…for news.

Going back to the youth jail…there was a King County [Council] meeting where they were going to sign off on the contract for Howard S. Wright building the [King County Children and Family Justice] Center. I just happened to go that day. What I saw there, and what I reported on, was that police officers were bum-rushing, throwing people out of the way. You had the councilmember…who convened the meeting, because somebody went 20 seconds over their allotted public testimony time and had the nerve to raise their voice a couple octaves, [that councilmember] sent in 20 police officers and closed down 4th Avenue for a little while.

The very next day, I’m looking over the reports of it, and it’s like ‘Police Officers Show Restraint from Rowdy Protesters’ and so forth [from media organizations which didn’t appear to even have a reporter at the meeting].

I hate to, of all people, quote [conservative shock jock] Rush Limbaugh, but when people ask him if he’s balanced, he says he is balanced. He’s balanced against what he perceives as a liberal media…And while I wholeheartedly disagree with his assessment of the landscape in terms of it being too liberal…I certainly believe that when you take into account everything, what passes for media as a whole, certainly locally, I would say that we’re balancing more established [media].

Anything to add?

Just to come out to the party on Thursday. It should be a good shindig. We just hope to grow even more, and to come to a point where the Democracy Now!s and the Guardians of the world…that we actually become that, in terms of size. We definitely are aiming for that.

The South Seattle Emerald’s two year anniversary party will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 28 at the Royal Room in Columbia City. It’s free and open to all. Live music and performance, all ages until 10 p.m. Learn more and register at the event’s Facebook page.

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