Sharif Durhams was the first African-American editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel in 1998-99. This fall, he became the first black president of The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Durhams works for CNN as senior editor for news and alerting (yes, that means he makes decisions about the CNN homepage and when to send out breaking news alerts). He spoke with DTH staff writer Harris Wheless about his new role with NLGJA, his job and how his time at the DTH prepared him for a future he couldn’t have imagined.
Harris Wheless: When did you decide that you wanted to be a journalist?
Sharif Durhams: I knew I wanted to try journalism when I came to UNC. I was a debater in high school, but thought I wanted to try reporting. Like so many, I fell in love as soon as I started at the DTH and proceeded to live in the offices for four years.
HW: How did your tenure at the DTH prepare you for your career as a journalist?
Durhams: Writing and reporting every day taught me the demands of the profession. I learned you get better at journalism by challenging yourself to do more. But we got to have so many of the regular experiences of the profession in that newsroom. You learn that the more you dig, the more you get to the heart of the story.
HW: What did you learn from your experience as editor-in-chief of the DTH?
Durhams: Leadership is simply about helping others to do their best work.
HW: Has your career turned out the way you thought it would?
Durhams: I remember when the DTH launched its first World Wide Web site and I finished school at the most profitable time in newspapering. I had no idea how much technology was going to transform the industry. I couldn’t have imagined the existence of the job I have back then.
HW: What has been the most significant accomplishment in your career so far?
Durhams: Playing a role in political coverage in this era may be what I remember someday, when my career is over. It makes me think of how journalists reflect on coverage of the volatility of the 1960s. Our country clearly is trying to determine what it is, and I get to play a role in recording and contextualizing that history.
HW: What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as president of the NLGJA?
Durhams: I hope to help our industry better reflect the texture of the LGBTQ communities we cover. People in our communities aren’t stereotypes. We’re people with a lot of nuance. Our stories have gotten better at showing that, but we have work to do.
HW: What steps do you plan to take to make NLGJA more inclusive?
Durhams: We’re trying to grow the organization. That means bringing more LGBTQ people and allies of all sorts in, but particularly making sure the voices of transgender, bisexual, lesbian and people of color are heard. One of our major efforts will be bringing training to newsrooms about covering the transgender community. We’re looking for partners to launch that program. Stay tuned.
HW: Why is the work that NLGJA does important?
Durhams: Diversity makes journalism better.
HW: How can newsrooms be more supportive of LGBTQ journalists and journalists of color?
Durhams: There are studies showing that when you add one woman to a company’s all-male board of directors, the company doesn’t change. Once you add at least three, the company performs better. Newsrooms need more diversity in their leadership and they need to be open to making major shifts in the culture of how things are “always” done. That will make audiences more likely to stick around.
HW: What advice would you give to students and early-career alumni?
Durhams: Get as much experience as you can out of the office and reporting in the real world. Cover stories that aren’t in your wheelhouse. Challenge yourself. Truly learn what people do in other areas of the newsroom. It will give you a bank of knowledge that can help you navigate your career.