By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF co-chair, Online Managing Editor-Business Aviation, Aviation Week Group
First, please allow me to acknowledge a milestone for the NABJDigital blog: this post marks our 100th since we started back in October. I’d like to thank all the contributors that have helped us reach 100 posts. Now, on to today’s post.
One of the things I like best about NABJ’s Digital Journalism Task Force Yahoo listserv is the variety of people who post comments. You just never know who will pop up and what they might contribute.
I am always looking for inspirational stories on journalists who are taking that leap of faith and taking their fate – and their career – into their own hands. This is how I found Leila Noelliste, creator of the Black Girl With Long Hair Web site. She had a good career as a journalist, writing for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender and the Associated Press. She started BGLH as a blog in April 2008. She went natural in late 2006, and started the blog after about a year and a half later after realizing that resources for her didn’t exist. Our chat is below.
NABJDigital: How did you come up with the idea for the blog?
Leila Noelliste: It was because there was a lack of representation for natural hair. I went natural in late 2006. I wanted to see pictures of what it looks like to have different styles, like Afros or exquisite styles and there wasn’t one location I could to go to for inspiration. I gave out my email and asked women to send in pictures of their natural hair. I wanted it to be real women, not models, and feature people who had stopped straightening their hair, and that’s how it began.
ND: Why did you think it was important to create the blog?
LN: I don’t know if it’s a slight sense of narcissism, but I wanted to be reflected in the media. I felt it wasn’t fair that go through entire day and see nothing but straight hair. I couldn’t do a TV show, but I can create this pocket where women can come and be inspired. I needed style ideas and I wanted to know what other women were doing. Natural hair has its own trends and I wanted to see what women were doing. Natural hair is not just twists with Cori shells, and I wanted to see that.
ND: Are you still freelancing?
LN: No. The blog is what I’m doing full-time. It was very scary to quit my job. I went to Wheaton College and decided to be a reporter and had a good run. I worked at WGN Radio News as an intern. I worked for StreetWise magazine, which was a newspaper combined with a non-profit organization for the homeless.
Then I went to the Chicago Defender, where I was full-time staff. I was 22 at the time, and they saw potential. A few of my stories were picked up by AP and I got to interview some cool people. But the paper fell on hard times and they had to let me go. I found a job doing courts and legal affairs reporting for the Daily Journal. I was doing well there, but I just thought blog was filling a void. It became popular so fast I knew it needed attention. It was a huge leap of faith, and I decided to quit in November 2009 because I had to see what happens with the blog.
My parents are supportive and I make money on sponsorships. All my advertisers are black females. A lot are women who also work on the blog. It’s been so exciting to help them get to a broader audience. When comes to beauty, we need things that are unique to black women, and it’s cool to be able to help support that.
ND: How do you attract the advertisers for your blog?
LN: I think it’s been really organic. I made an announcement on the blog to sell ad space and it snowballed. There is a large community of black women online. Because there are so few services and media directed at black women, we’ve created online communities for ourselves. There are blogs on fashion, art, hair, beauty and politics; there are huge assets out there. As the word spreads, I don’t have to seek advertisers. I have actually had to turn away ads.
It’s important for black journalists to know that when you’re doing a blog, there’s so much potential, because there’s so little established media for us. My blog has about 3,800 subscribers, but I’ve seen natural hair forums with 100,000+ members. It’s amazing that there are so many women who want to be part of a community. I feel very blessed.
ND: How did you develop the skills to create and format your Web site?
LN: I’m the content person. I’m blessed to have Shari Nicole Neal Design on my team. Shari did the Web design. I actually made the transition from blogger to my own domain. On the old blog, I couldn’t have tabs. When I transitioned, I went to my archives and found recurring themes and created the tabs. I have amazing pictures and I chose my favorites, and that is the most popular part of the site. My list of natural hair salons all came from my readers. There’s also a tab where people can buy products and that all comes from my readers. You get information that’s current and validated when it comes from readers. Everything has been tested and proven. I don’t endorse anything.
ND: What advice would you give to those who want to do what you’ve done?
LN: The first thing is to really think through it. Make sure you have a quality, unique product. Even though there’s a lack of representation in the black community, there’s still a lot of repetition. Blogs are a dime a dozen, so think about how yours is unique. And have a financial plan. My parents help me, I do freelance and I live with my finance. In hindsight, I might have stayed at my job a bit longer, but I’m now bringing in money. You do have to think about monetization. It doesn’t pay if you don’t think it though. Just go for it, because there’s such a low representation of black culture, and what’s out there is dated. You need to take time to bring it to light.