Pride and Joy: As She Prepares for a New Era, Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton Reflects on Life at The Root

Illustration for article titled Pride and Joy: As She Prepares for a New Era, Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton Reflects on Life at The Root
Photo: D. Finney Photography

Six years to the day that she became a full-time staffer and associate editor at The Root, Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton sat her staff down via virtual meetup to make a difficult announcement: She’d be departing to lead the team at HuffPost.

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As is typical of our staff, the news wasn’t met with stoicism; there were exclamations, mouths agape, tears, applause—and a few reggae air horns, just for good measure. But mostly, as each of us spontaneously took turns to thank Danielle for the individual ways she’s supported and promoted us during her tenure, there was pride: Our much-beloved boss had secured the proverbial bag at a world-renowned publication.

As Danielle tells us, the pride is mutual. The Root may be difficult to leave, but like any strong guardian, she feels confident in the family-like culture she’s built over the past six years.

“I’m most proud of my team,” she says. “Everyone is a beast. Everyone is so talented. So many of them have book deals now, yet they’ve all stuck by my side—for years, in some cases. I have an eye for talent and I think that’s reflected in the overall success of my team and what they’ve been able to do for themselves as well as at The Root.”

What’s her management style? As a staff, we’d say Danielle’s unique talent is to guide without micromanaging—and she’s inclined to agree. “My strategy is largely ‘let the writers write,’ she says. “I have a vision and I know the style I want things to be in, but largely, I want to give writers the freedom to find their voices, be creative and flex their talents. I always saw myself as a ‘writer’s editor,’ in that I’m willing to give talented people autonomy to create and innovate. I provide some guidance here and there—and it was my idea for us to change how we report things and what we report on at The Root—but that’s been my mantra from day one: To trust my team, let them shoot for the stars and if we go too far, it’s my job to rein things in and keep us grounded.”

Admittedly, we do sometimes need reining in. We’re a strong bunch of personalities with even stronger opinions, and like any big family, we both love and debate fiercely amongst ourselves (but be prepared to battle with all of us if you come for one of us). For Danielle, that’s simply the mark of amassing a dynamic crew.

“When you have such talented, passionate people on your team, sometimes it can be some work making sure folks don’t step on each other’s toes,” she laughs. “The Root has always operated in a family-like atmosphere under me, and we are a family that occasionally fights because we feel so strongly about our beliefs. So there’s this magic there, but there’s also this healthy competition and strive for excellence that can lead to the bumping of heads—but we get through it together. I’m proud of everyone.”

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We can never say enough that we are equally proud of her—though we’re still processing what our days will look like without Danielle’s steady hand and temperament at the helm. That said, The Root’s success under her leadership is evidence alone that beneath that calm exterior is tremendous professional drive.

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“It’s bittersweet,” she admits. “I love my team here at The Root. They’re amazing but I’d also gotten really comfortable here and I’m a fairly ambitious person who loves a good challenge, so I knew it was probably time for me to move on. Plus, HuffPost is an amazing publication with a pioneering legacy and an award-winning staff; it was too good of an opportunity to let pass by, this chance to take what I’ve learned at The Root and other publications and apply it to a mainstream newsroom,” she continues, noting: “There’s only been two other editors at HuffPost, Lydia Polgreen and Arianna Huffington, for whom the publication is named, and that’s some pretty awesome company I really wanted to be in!”

As reported elsewhere, one of Danielle’s goals at HuffPost is to create and maintain a diverse newsroom. Coming from the all-Black-everything environment of The Root, what does that mean to her now?

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“Diversity means so many things—it’s about Black and brown people, it’s about people from different communities, members of the LGBTQ community, differently-abled people, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she responds. “I want HuffPost’s newsroom to look like what America is right now and what it will become in the future. That is my goal. To have a place where people speak multiple languages, and understand different cultures, and can report on the stories that will shape the next century.

“I want HuffPost to be a model of diversity that others try to emulate,” she adds.

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At the risk of humble-bragging, Danielle’s direction indisputably made The Root a site to emulate. Will she encourage the same irreverent yet fact-based reporting at HuffPost?

“I want HuffPost to be the center of fact-based, truth-telling, telling-it-like-it-is journalism, but is it going to be The Root? Only The Root can be The Root,” she says. “I want HuffPost to be its own thing and to continually stand out proudly as an innovator and a pioneer.”

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For those of us Danielle leaves behind—at least, professionally—as she embarks on the next phase of her career, she will also be remembered as an innovator and pioneer, as well as a leader who continually empowered her staff to innovate and thrive. Danielle, in turn, humbly shouts out the previous editor-in-chief of The Root Lyne Pitts and former publisher Donna Byrd, “for believing in me at a time I wasn’t sure of myself.” (For the record, this writer would shout out Danielle for the same.)

All the above are Black women who have helped to diversify the world of journalism through their work at The Root. As a Black woman now poised to do the same at a mainstream publication, what would Danielle say to those hoping to one day follow in her stead?

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“I hope my journey teaches people that you can get anywhere if you’re willing to do the work,” she says simply. “You don’t have to go to an Ivy League school. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have connections right away—I didn’t initially—you can make them. You can blaze that trail for yourself. So stick with it, if you have the talent and the ambition, you can make things happen.”

Onward and upward, Danielle. You deserve.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

DISCUSSION

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Thotline Bling: black girl supremacy

CONGRATULATIONS to the woman I originally knew as The Black Snob!

Oh yes! I am taking it alll the way back to the days of lusting after the “Prince of West Memphis.” (if you know, you know! and WHEW! he still fine, too!)

I gotta write a little tribute b/c you my girl and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I could not believe it when one of my favorite bloggers became the editor of The Root, but I have been a loyal reader ever since.

Thank you so much for bringing everything that you are to this work, Danielle. Your transparency, your wit, your intellect, your dedication to your people—all have been woven into the tapestry of what make The Root, “The Root” it is today.

I mean, ain’t too many people would have let Michael Harriot run amok like you did, sis. And the world is better for it! AND you introduced me to my beloved Maiysha?! I can’t even.

I could say so much more, but in short, this publication has been amazing under your leadership.

I am so happy and I feel so lucky to have witnessed your career trajectory for so many years. You inspire me as a writer and as a black woman.

I have watched you kick open so many doors for those who have come behind and alongside you.

In my eyes, you have embodied what Toni Morrison meant when she said:

When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

And I believe you will continue to do so. Knock ‘em dead.