Black Iowa News reaches its audience via Substack platform

In Des Moines, veteran reporter Dana James follows up with Sekou Mtayari, co-founder of Shop Black DSM, a website database of the Black-owned businesses across Des Moines. (Isabelle Stroobandt/MEDILL)

By Melody Guernsey and Isabelle Stroobandt
Medill Reports

DES MOINES, Iowa — Dana James is no stranger to the way Black people in Des Moines, Iowa, are covered by the traditional news media. Having grown up in the area, she’s seen the impact local news can and has had on her community. James worked at the Des Moines Register until 2006 when local newsrooms began downsizing. She transitioned to working in other corporate positions for over a decade, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she saw the way Black individuals were being disproportionately impacted and with that a new opportunity to inform her community. Having previously attempted making what she called a “mini-CNN,” James turned to Substack when starting Black Iowa News as a way to avoid the technical, back-end issues that accompany formatting and running a website.

James is currently working on a story that showcases the Black activists of Des Moines’ past and present. Throughout the week, she met with a number of activists — like Jalesha Johnson, Jaylen Cavil and Maté Muhammad, leaders from the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. She also spoke with Sekou Mtayari, a local college student who created Shop Black DSM, a website that compiles all of the Black-owned companies in Des Moines. Mtayari, who was previously interviewed by James for an individual feature story showcasing his organization around its conception, said he’s appreciative of James’ work to showcase more than just the violent statistics or mug shots often replayed by the mainstream media.

Through Black Iowa News, James shares vital news during a time when, for many, access to accurate information is the difference between life or death. She is able to showcase her community fairly, while also reminding her audience that today’s Black narratives and experiences are deeply rooted in the past. For her story on past and present-day activism, James visited handfuls of historic Black sites across the Des Moines area — like the Tuskegee Airmen World War II red-tail plane and the Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School Museum.

Melody Guernsey is a graduate student at Medill focusing on community storytelling. You can follow her on Twitter @melodythinks. Izzy Stroobandt is an investigative reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @izzystroobandt.