Global Conversations: Ernest Owens

By Peak Johnson

Ernest Owens has been a journalist for ten years since he was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. He started off in student broadcast radio and started taking up professional freelance writing opportunities soon after. Owens’ first big break came in 2012 when he won a student writing contest from Arianna Huffington to get published in the Huffington Post. 

From there, Owens’ commentary on race, politics, and pop culture received national attention and he began to expand his brand. His decision to pursue a career in journalism was rooted in a passion to reveal intersectional truths that continue to be suppressed in society. 

Now an award-winning Philadelphia journalist, Owens continues to advance on paths toward success. He was recently announced as Philly Mag’s Editor-At-Large and the uncontested Presidential Candidate for the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. 

Peak Johnson: Was there someone that inspired you to pursue the career? 

Ernest Owens: My grandmother who always pushed me to tell the truth and have opinions. Growing up, I thought that meant being a lawyer, and then a politician. But within initially aspiring to pursue both of those careers, a love for writing and expressing compelling thoughts grew. My grandmother always made it a point to have children seen and heard around her. I remember spending hot summers with her with my young brothers in Marianna, Arkansas when she always had me be the official reader/writer of the tribe. Little did I know that such practice would ultimately lead to a career in journalism where I am the messenger to the public at large. 

PJ: Can you tell me about the first story that you wrote as a journalist?  How did it make you feel?

EO: The first reported story I did as a professional journalist was a feature on former Little League Baseball player Mo'ne Davis for Metro Philly. It was a front page story and was released while she was promoting an upcoming book on her baseball career. At first, I came to the interview with these very prolific questions on life and then realized how young she was and how fun it would be to just ask her about what sparks her interest off the field. She was very easy going and the interview went well. It taught me the importance of making a pivot when things don't make sense while reporting in real time. 

PJ: How did you find your passion to write about some of the topics that you write about currently? Some of them are topics that not many journalists will cover.

EO: I am intentional on not going where others often travel in my reporting and commentary. I am always looking for new subjects, topics, and angles to explore that challenges both myself and the audience. I do this personally to avoid boredom and to also improve the expansion of knowledge out there to the community. I love learning with readers and sharing with them my thought process and exploration at the same time. 

PJ: What has been the most challenging part of your career so far?

EO: Knowing that I can't tell every story and weigh in on every issue. I am bombarded daily with dozens of experiences from readers and followers that intrigue me to pursue them as potential stories. However, I am the only one person who also has a family, friends group, and support system to also consider. Prioritizing my self-care and time has been essential for me to continue to do this work. I only strive for the best in my work and that means also holding myself to that same standard physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  

PJ: As one of the most known journalists in the city, what do you think you bring to Philadelphia?

EO: Fearlessness, hands down. I am not afraid of anyone and I think that comes across in the work that I do. As a Black queer man who has grown up being marginalized, bullied, targeted, and challenged, I've seen and heard it all. The truth has always been my weapon and I yield it every day as an outspoken journalist who is keeping my community informed and conscious. Philadelphia can continue to use a little more of that beyond journalism alone. 

PJ: What would be your critique of Philadelphia’s journalism scene? What could make it better?

EO: Philadelphia's journalism scene struggles with diversity, equity, and inclusion -- but also with embracing an evolving media landscape. When I first entered the industry as a multimedia freelancer, many looked down upon me because they felt that not belonging solely to one publication meant I was lost or confused within my professional journey. The truth is, these companies are laying off too many people for me to ever put all of my faith in one sole brand. I have never worked full time for a single media company and I am a devout advocate of journalists pursuing multiple streams of income. In order to do this, we must embrace new technology and opportunities that break away from the often dated ideals of defining a journalist in the 21st century. 

PJ: Journalism is continuously changing and becoming more of a challenging field, it seems, for people of color. What keeps you motivated to keep working in the field?

EO: Knowing that "if not myself, then who" when it comes to working in journalism as a Black queer professional motivates me. I've been grateful to bear witness to the events and stories that impact our communities on a daily basis. This work is just as rewarding as it is hard. It's not for the meek or unsure, one must have a purpose and conviction. Journalism empowers me to speak up for the voiceless and stand up for the marginalized. It's a public service that strives to inform, and distributing such knowledge alone is power. 

PJ: Given how strained it is, why should the youth of today continue with journalism if they have an interest in it?

EO: As long as society exists, the exchange of news and information will as well. Journalists are the essential workers who distribute this important necessity to the public at large. You can change the medium, but you can't change its source. Journalists will always be the source to credible news and the youth of today will need to be encouraged to keep this going. Now, more than ever, journalism needs to be protected, funded, sustained, and modernized to appeal to the public and its future professionals. 

PJ: What would your advice be for young journalists who are trying to carve out a path in journalism for themselves today?

EO: Establish your own voice, period. One of the things I did early in my career is explore my personal brand and image. What makes me different? How do I lean into that? How does this shape how I tell stories? Embracing your unique qualities and life experiences can allow you to carve out your expertise in the field. As a Black queer journalist who grew up in the South and went to college in the Ivy League, my perspectives on poltiics, class, race, sexuality, and the country overall is different from the average Philadelphia native. No matter what sector you plan to enter within journalism, please make sure you do the work on exploring what makes you stand out.  

PJ: You were recently named Editor at large for Philly Mag, where do you see your new role taking you as you progress in your career?

EO: I continue to be humbled and grateful for the opportunity and making history as the publication's first Black Editor at Large in their 112-year history. Within this role, I plan to continue to be an ambassador for diverse and intersectional storytelling as I have more capacity to help shape the tone and tenor of what Philadelphia should look like to the public at large. It's about making room, evolving, holding nuance, and being intentional -- those are the values that I'm entering this new role with and what I hope will evolve my journalism as I progress in my career. 

PJ: What is your one hope for journalism in general? Presently, it’s a profession that is often attacked and vilified.

EO: I hope that more people begin to respect the profession as a sacred duty to the public. We often talk about lawyers, doctors, public officials, teachers, and firefighters -- but we often forget that journalists are often in the line of fire to provide a service that informs all of the aforementioned positions. Being a journalist is a public service because its resources are essential to the daily functioning of nearly every aspect of society. Journalism informs public policy, research, activism, and social change -- without it, we're all in the dark. I love this field because of its relevance and impact. I want more people to recognize how important and essential it is as well.