Q&A: Study Hall’s Chika Ekemezie on the difference between writers and journalists

Large barriers still exist to entering the media industry. There has been a concerted effort to try to change this, as evidenced by the amount of upstart newsletters, new union membership, nonprofit newsrooms, media collectives, and worker-owned co-ops that have emerged in the past few years.

These entities are trying to put the power back into the hands of media workers, rather than the few people who run media conglomerates, and empower people to work together while navigating the journalism industry. 

Study Hall is one such entity; it has been expanding ever since its inception in 2015, and now offers a Slack, email listserv, and webinars. The team also recently hired freelancer Chika Ekemezie as a part-time operations manager to help the team manage all its moving parts.

The Objective sat down with Ekemezie to talk about professionalism, the difference between being a “writer” and a “journalist,” and how Study Hall helps remove barriers to entering the media. 

Could you introduce yourself and explain how you feel you fit into journalism?

My name is Chika Ekemezie. I use she/her/hers pronouns and I’m 23 years old. I have been writing in some capacity basically my whole life but with purpose this year. 

In terms of my place in journalism, I think of it as one part storytelling … and building conversations, and I don’t think that anything is too small, too trite to have a conversation about it or explore the implications of it. Whether it is something more standard, like straight-up politics and policy, or whether it’s the implications behind a certain relationship in a television show, I’m interested in having those conversations with two particular audiences, which are women and non-binary people around 18 to 34, 35. But outside of those things, I’m always interested in having conversations with people about why things are the way they are, do they have to be the way they are, particularly when it comes to how we have relationships and how we treat each other and how we live our lives. 

What does objectivity mean to you?

For a while, I was focused on policy and law and I thought I was gonna go to law school, so objectivity is something that I always struggled with, even then. It doesn’t mean anything, It means an objective person would think this, would think that. Objectivity is what we consider normal, which is whiteness, which is maleness, which is a tendency towards logic and rational decisions and taking emotion out of it. Being objective means you’re not emotional, but I just don’t think that’s right or that’s necessarily important when we make decisions or we think about how to write things. 

For example, one of the most important things for me to know about people is if they grew up rich, because it might seem like that doesn’t matter or they are able to be objective. But those things are always going to frame or shift how you think about things and how you write about things. 

I don’t think that you can be objective and so I want to have all that information out, so that I can consider that and how I read things or how I perceive what people are saying. In terms of objectivity, I just think it’s a sham. I say that a lot about things, I’m just like, “Why do we do things like this?” I think it’s a way to gatekeep certain industries to make sure that certain voices aren’t heard or certain voices have to completely change how they express themselves in order to be heard or have validity. 

It’s not the first time an interview subject spoke about class. The co-hosts of the Diversity Hire podcast (Kevin Lozano and Arjun Ram Srivatsa) were very specific about the fact that media wants to diversify but doesn’t want to approach the topic of class, which is sort of looming.

When we think about diversifying, like you said, it’s diversity and class, but even if you’re coming from different strata and you’re taught to conform or code switch to look a certain way, that’s not necessarily diversifying. Diversifying also looks like bringing on people that think about work and professionalism and presentation in different ways. 

I worked in philanthropy previously and I felt a tension there because I don’t like trying to change who I am or code switch to feel comfortable or safe at where I’m working. I want to be able to be myself. I think that diversifying any kind of workplace or industry involves people talking a certain way and you being, “Ugh, that’s not what I’m used to, but that’s okay,” and it doesn’t make their experience or expertise any different. 

How do you see your role at Study Hall dovetailing all of these other conversations about professionalism, community, and journalism?

I haven’t started formally at Study Hall yet, but I am really excited to be working there, because I do see the desire to have these conversations and structurally think about the different barriers that are in place that make it hard to diversify journalism. I think I have a good perspective to contribute, coming from philanthropy. It’s tough to say, coming from this place, that I have a good grasp on what diversity looks like, but I do see a lot of commonalities between the two industries and it’s something that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about. It’s been one of the barriers to my desire to be in the industry, in both industries, and I realized that philanthropy wasn’t right for me, for a multitude of reasons, but what philanthropy looks like visually is one of them. 

I think about writing almost separately than journalism, because I feel like the concept of writing and creating art is diverse and that it has always been diverse and the practice is centuries long. Journalism and the structure and the professionalism, the billions of dollars around journalism — that looks very different than writing does to me. 

I often do think of myself as a writer or someone who creates content because that feels safer to me, and it also feels like I belong there, while journalism feels a lot less so. I hope that working at Study Hall I’m able to bridge the two, but I’m also building out that conversation to those that feel similarly to me and understand why is that and how we can correct that. 

I wanted to ask if you think that plays into how people are perceived and compensated, the difference [between journalism and writing] and if you think it has anything to do with objectivity.

If I were to tell people, which I haven’t done because it’s new to me now, ”I’m a journalist,” that looks very different than saying “I’m a writer” in terms of perception. Being a writer seems very loosey-goosey, bohemian. Journalism seems like you have backing, you have structure. I see journalists on cable news, I see talking heads — as opposed to writing, which seems a lot more amorphous. 

It’s not that what writers produce isn’t necessary, it is just not as valued. I don’t know why that is, honestly, because I do think it is important and I see the value in it. I do think it’s the backing of money and the type of people that can claim journalism and have the accolades as journalists and go to journalism school. There’s money and connections involved to be a journalist and then it ends up that it’s a little club. If you want something a little more non-traditional it’s looked down upon. 

What will your role at Study Hall be? What are the tasks that you will be engaging in and what approaches do you think you’ll take? 

My actual role will be operations, to kind of smooth out the internal operations within Study Hall to give them the capacity to expand more of their outward content — doing a lot of administrative stuff on one end and a lot of reports. If there is a webinar, I’ll be synthesizing and taking notes on what happened there and provide that to other people on staff to make decisions based off of that. It looks like one part administrative and the other part kind of a synthesizer, a consumer of the information that we’re getting, packaging it and bringing that to the team so we have something to make decisions from. I think that the bulk of it will be bringing opinions to staff and understanding where we are and what members of Study Hall are thinking. 

Do you think we’ll start to see more or less of collectives like Study Hall? How do you see Study Hall and like minded organizations? 

I know that if it wasn’t for Study Hall, I wouldn’t have quit my job. If it wasn’t for Study Hall, I don’t think I would have gotten a lot of the success I’ve seen in freelancing so far, because it eliminates some of the barriers to entry — particularly being able to have tiny questions about freelancing or writing in general and being able to have a network of thousands of people to bounce those questions off of. 

Writing — in particular freelance writing — is very isolating and having a community is mandatory. If you’re gonna have success in it, you have to have a community and if you didn’t major in journalism, go to journalism school, do internships at different media organizations, you don’t have that network [especially] if you’re jumping in from random. But Study Hall gives us that for a lot less money than the tuition at a university. In terms of more Study Halls, I’m not sure. But I do know that places like Study Hall are just so, so important. It has eliminated what I thought as barriers to entry when it comes to writing.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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