Cable news radiates from the giant flat-screen television over the green-tile fireplace with a jutting wooden mantel. The rest of the apartment, in a regal town house on Strivers’ Row in central Harlem, is crammed with computers, office furniture, handheld video cameras and other electronic equipment.
Two young men sitting side by side edit video reports on large computer monitors. Their boss, Joseph Hayden, occasionally glances up at the television as Nellie Hester Bailey, the director of the Harlem Tenants Council, stands nearby, suggesting ways to promote Mr. Hayden’s one-man crusade — building a “CNN for Harlem.”
Mr. Hayden, 68, calls himself a news junkie, but adds that what he sees or, more to the point, does not see on the news can be infuriating.
“There’s not enough air time for low-income communities and our issues and ideas,” he said as he leaned back into his newsroom’s couch, a small jade Buddha and gold chain hanging from his neck. “All they talk about is the middle class. They never look down. No one talks to us. They never ask my opinion.” During last year’s presidential campaign, he said, he “stayed virtually in a state of rage because the mainstream media. They talked with such arrogance and such certitude about what the American people felt.”
Determined to change that, at least on a local level, he and two other men last year invested $40,000 to start a news organization, Still Here Harlem Productions, that would, in the words of its mission statement, “cover every aspect of the community life of the marginalized and voiceless in Harlem,” which stretches, as Mr. Hayden is fond of saying, “from West 110th Street to Washington Heights, and river to river.”
Still Here’s half-hour videos began appearing on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network cable channel in September, and in February Mr. Hayden started a Web site, All Things Harlem, which posts video news reports and recordings of Harlem political, social and cultural events.
Mr. Hayden was born in Harlem, and though his current life revolves around television and the Internet, his earlier decades read like chapters in a crime novel. The son of a housecleaner who raised the family by herself, he was first locked up at 16, for heroin possession. He landed in Attica on another conviction (which he said was later overturned), for the attempted murder of a police officer, and he left right before inmates seized the prison. By the time he was in his 30s, he was running nightclubs and had become an associate of Nicky Barnes, the leader of one of the city’s largest heroin rings.
“To me, crime is a response,” Mr. Hayden said. “You play the hand you’re dealt in life. And the hand I was dealt was very harsh.”
He was among those indicted with Mr. Barnes on federal charges in 1977, and he was convicted of money laundering. He plays down his connection to the Barnes ring, though Mr. Barnes himself once testified that Mr. Hayden was one of his top lieutenants.
After his release from federal prison, he was convicted of manslaughter — he insisted that he acted in self-defense — but in state prison he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and began teaching. Upon his release he became a community organizer. “As I educated myself and developed, I began to see opportunity in other areas,” Mr. Hayden said. “I started to work on changing the system — on trying to reform the system.” Community organizing, he added, “felt like the most natural thing in the world to me.”
Hitting the street with a video camera seems to come naturally to him as well. On a recent Wednesday, Mr. Hayden and Paolo Walker, one of his producers, were on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard asking passers-by to grade President Obama on his first 100 days in office. That evening they posted their report on their Web site and on CNN’s iReport.
A day earlier, Mr. Hayden had covered a rally on gun and gang violence at 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard that focused on the shooting of a 13-year-old boy at a party a couple of days before (he later died).
And while covering a symposium and book party at Riverside Church with Mr. Walker the previous weekend, Mr. Hayden saw several familiar faces, including one of the speakers, Jamal Joseph, the chairman of Columbia University’s graduate film program.
“It was good to see our news team on the ground,” said Mr. Joseph, a former Black Panther, who has known Mr. Hayden for decades. “People will care about the news when it relates to them.”
Back in his newsroom, the huge television was still on and Mr. Hayden’s hands swept the air as he discussed how his vision was unfolding. “Everybody in the world knows about Harlem,” he said. “So I figured if I could limit my coverage, if I could just cover this community effectively, then I could build a model here.”
Check out the work All Things Harlem has done with Harlem World.