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So What Do You Do, Datwon Thomas, Editor and COO of Global Grind, Inc.?
From Vibe intern to industry innovator, this hip-hop die-hard breaks down the new rules of entertainment journalism- February 17, 2010
When Datwon Thomas first interned at Vibe in the mid-'90s, the term "hip-hop journalist" was more of a notion than an actual career goal. Yet, as the music (and a slew of magazines covering it) blew up commercially, the Brooklyn native found himself at the forefront of the culture he loved in various top-level editorial positions at Harris Publications. Then, as quickly as you can say AutoTune, everything changed. Rappers started battling over YouTube instead of tracks, and Thomas saw several of his beloved imprints struggle with dwindling audiences (XXL) or fold altogether (King and Scratch).
So rather than fight the impending Web tidal wave, Thomas chose to embrace it. He joined Russell Simmons' online aggregator GlobalGrind.com in 2008 and hasn't looked back. "You have to be willing to challenge yourself and not be afraid of what may or may not happen," he says. "I was able to face my fear and move on to other opportunities because of my hunger from wanting to see an idea that I thought of come to life on a larger scale." Here, Thomas speaks about his new dual role, whether cult favorite King could have survived, and what happens when magazines act like rappers.
Name: Datwon Thomas
Position: Editor-in-chief and chief operating officer of Global Grind, Inc.
Resume: Started as an intern with Vibe's online division in 1996. In 1997, began writing for XXL, eventually becoming the magazine's associate music editor. After a tenure with Sean "Diddy" Combs' Web site, he launched King, the industry's first luxury lifestyle magazine geared toward African American men, with Harris Publications, Inc. in 2001. That success lead to the automobile-centric Rides in 2002, its spin-off Donk, Box and Bubble in 2004, and Hip-Hop Soul in 2005. He returned to XXL as editor-in-chief in 2008 before leaving for Global Grind, Inc. in March 2009.
Birthday: May 14
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Education: Attended Baruch College before leaving during his junior year to focus on writing full-time.
Marital status: Married with three daughters.
First section of the Sunday Times: Arts and Entertainment
Favorite TV show: Sanford and Son
Guilty pleasure: Nestle Crunch
Last book read: Honor Amongst Thieves by A.C. Clayton.
Was writing about hip-hop always something you wanted to do or did you originally set out on a more traditional news path?
I started as an intern at Vibe magazine in 1996. And this was for their Web site, so there was very little respect at that time. In fact, I started out at one of their e-zines. I don't know if you can get any lower than that. But I did it for a year. My school, Baruch College, was right up the block, so I used to walk the 10 blocks every day and some mornings.
I always knew I wanted to do this because I am a hip-hop baby. I feed off of it. Some of the most inspirational moments in my life were sparked by hip-hop.
XXL and The Source had a long and open feud in the early 2000's. Does covering hip-hop culture naturally lend itself to this type of competition?
It is a hip-hop culture thing because hip-hop is based on battles. Like, "I come from nothing, but even my nothing is hotter than your something." Looking back on those days, it was fun to watch. But did it help the culture? I would have to say yes, because it pushed us to work harder and reach higher for our stories. If there is a "battle" it is because you deem the other person to be worthy competition. So yes, you'd say to yourself "I can't wait until next month because I am going to smash them creatively." Artistically, battling bred healthy competition.
|"There are some people who take pleasure in watching their competitors' demise, but you have to look at the big picture and how the closure of a Vibe or a King has a negative impact on the industry."|
You also deal with a lot of egos when covering celebrities and entertainment. Rappers especially get upset with coverage they think is negative. How has this impacted your work in the newsroom?
Hip-hop journalism has had to deal with big egos since it started. But I think it got a little more intense as the artists got bigger. Early on, you had Jay-Z, Eminem, Outkast, Dr. Dre -- so many huge stars. They come with handlers and publicists who may expect you to bury stories for their clients. And there have been instances where rappers have approached journalists and assaulted them because of things that were written about them. So I think at a certain point, it has affected the business of reporting hip-hop. But I am sure this happens at other publications too, not just in hip-hop. In this business, there are lots of stories that get pulled because of certain relationships behind the scenes.
King had a real cult following and a strong brand. Do you think there's anything that could've been done to save it from folding?
I wasn't running King from day-to-day when it closed. At the time, I was editorial director after stepping down as editor-in-chief in 2006. It was always my vision that the magazine would have a life beyond me, as I wanted to graduate into other fields. I brought the magazine up to a point that helped me career-wise, but I always wanted it to be a vehicle for others to experience what I did.
King was a cultural bomb in itself. It's been mentioned in countless videos and songs. It was the type of magazine that artists and models aspired to be in. It will always be my baby because that is the one I put together. I had the vision for it. I saw where it went and the niche market it would serve. It's what people associate me with most.
Could it have been saved? I think there are some things that could have been done differently business-wise to extend the life of it.
|"You have to curate your magazine and your print like it's going to be consumed not for just that month but years down the line, like a coffee table book."|
You were once an intern at Vibe. What are your thoughts on its demise and now sudden resurgence?
I think it's a very good thing. Now there are some people who take pleasure in watching their competitors' demise, but you have to look at the big picture and how the closure of a Vibe or a King has a negative impact on the industry. These magazines employ a lot of writers, stylists, models, and editors. But when a magazine closes, it makes corporate America think that "your" market is dying or is not viable. You don't want the industry to have the impression that your audience and target market matter have a voice. I'm happy that Vibe is back.
The economy hit music magazines especially hard over the past few years, but the genre has flourished online. What do you think the future is for music and entertainment journalism in print?
I think the future of music will be about big "events." It's not enough to just put Lil Wayne on the cover. Because if you are a fan of Lil Wayne, you can get all the information you need by jumping online. And you'd be more up-to-date than any magazine.
So you have to make events around a "Lil Wayne" that are unique to your brand and speak to what you are adding to the event. For example, you could do a review of every mixtape he's ever done and have them reviewed by his fan and peers.
You have to curate your magazine and your print like it's going to be consumed not for just that month but years down the line, like a coffee table book.
GlobalGrind.com is an aggregator of content, much of it user-generated. As editor-in-chief and COO, are you still able to have a creative influence?
As COO, I work with getting content deals so we can position the site as a stronghold on the business side. It also includes finding new revenue streams for the site. As the EIC, I oversee content for the site. The site itself is a monster because it's aggregated. But I think what it does is makes you look at content and how you may package it differently. I have to decide what works as original content and what works as aggregated [content].
I still have a creative influence in that it's my duty to find creative ways of packaging the content. Global Grind is known for its original celebrity bloggers like Alicia Keys and Russell Simmons and allowing celebrities to speak in their own voice. Speaking in first person, you learn things you may not glean from an interview. I have to package this accordingly to drive traffic to the site. Also, I know the importance of pictures and headlines, because the reader will go to the place with the better headline first. Also, it is about branding. Making sure the site is known to have the best voice, reputation and headlines.
For my day-to-day, I take my little girls to school, then I get on the train and I check my Blackberry. I do budgets, I look at the competition, and I look for new ideas. I may also be writing and preparing for a slew of meetings. There is so much to fit into an eight hour day that it always rolls over. I mention the family aspect because so much of my work spills over into my family life. I factor all of that into my life because it provides inspiration. My nine-year-old helps me out a lot, especially with some of the younger celebs in Hollywood. Someone sent me an email with the name of a Disney actor I didn't recognize and my 9-year-old got on the Internet and went to the actor's Web site for me.
What are your thoughts on the influx of hip-hop bloggers in particular? Do you think the Internet has hurt or helped the dissemination of news in the culture?
The thing about the Internet is that it is reckless. Whereas we had to do a large amount of leg work, nowadays, a blogger can just as easily grab someone else's work and present it as their own. Back in the day, we had to invest a lot of time in digging up information. It was a different process. So sometimes I get upset that the process that I went through was long and tedious, but it gave me a different perspective on how to look up information. But then I just ask myself... is this just the "new" process?
Now it's truly about whomever's insight is the most accurate, the most colorful or the most intriguing. So now I am really matching my skills up against the world. And I think I am still coming to terms with that. Some of my colleagues have accepted that this is the new process. And of course I am in the game, but it is hard to accept that this is how people get information now. And for the youth market, this is the only way they are consuming information. We can talk about how it used to be all day, but the youth of today don't care to experience it that way. But I truly feel the most innovative people are truly going to win in this race today. Because now it doesn't matter how much money you have. If you have a really great insight and unique way of looking at things, your reporting will rise to the top.
Terry Wynn II is a freelance writer and TV personality in New York. He blogs at TexasTigerOfNewYork.blogspot.com.
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