One of our key missions at the Houston Landing is to write about the incredibly diverse communities of the Houston region — and make a real effort to listen to them.
Monique Welch, our first diverse communities reporter, is doing the hard work of making that vision a reality.
Monique was part of our founding team of journalists who joined the Houston Landing last year. A native of Baltimore, Monique graduated from Goucher College in 2016 and worked in digital journalism at the Tampa Bay Times and the Houston Chronicle. Her job at the Landing is to write about “anyone who’s ever had to check ‘other’ on a standardized test,” Monique says. “That’s how I see this beat.”
Journalists are often under constant pressure to churn out stories for websites as quickly as possible. Monique made a name for herself by bringing depth and context to her articles. Her debut Houston Landing story about the historic community of Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward has already generated more comments on the Landing’s Facebook page than any other story.
I interviewed Monique to talk about her new beat, how she’s tackling it and why it’s so important. This Q&A has been lightly edited.
Q: So your job is to write about communities that are usually ignored by the media. How do you plan to get people to trust you?
A: It’s going to sound kind of cliché, but it’s really simple. It’s just a matter of showing up. Not just when something happens. But sometimes just to get acquainted with the community. I avoid that transactional relationship where it’s very much, ‘I do a story. I’m out.’
Q: So you show up when you don’t actually need a story.
A: Yeah. Exactly. Maybe a story will materialize. But initially that’s not my intention.
And of course, our mission helps, you know? Just explaining why we’re here and the types of stories that we want to do.
Q: A big part of this is just listening to people.
Q: How are you going to find ways to listen to people in the community and solicit their ideas?
A: So one of the ways is having a suggestion box (in community centers). Having a presence doesn’t always mean physically showing up. It can take shape in a small, 5-by-5 box and they can literally drop anonymous tips.
A lot of times I join neighborhood community groups on Facebook and say, ‘I am a reporter. I don’t see a lot of coverage in this community. I would love to learn.’ Joining a lot of Facebook groups is key for me. Social media is huge. But really just making myself accessible.
I know a lot of reporters don’t really like to do this, but I’m pretty open and public on social media. I purposely leave my Instagram pages and stuff public, just so people can feel like ‘OK, you can text me. You can DM me.’ That eases some of the comfortability level because they can see me as a real person, not just a byline. It kind of breaks that wall down.
Q: OK, so I did some research on you.
Q: You told your college magazine that you ‘worked hard to become a jack of all trades, a multi-skilled journalist recording and editing audio news briefings, recording live videos, reporting and writing about community news, and managing social media.’ Why is it important to you to tell stories in so many different ways?
A: Because everyone gets their stories in so many different ways. I mean I say this all the time: If I can get my younger sister to read my stories or care about them, then I’ve succeeded, you know? There’s this generational gap, right? Maybe it’s weird. I think of people in my life that I know would never read the news. Sometimes their only way of keeping up is if they see it on TikTok or if they see an Instagram reel. It’s important because we’re in a different digital age now.
Q: Yeah, I remember when I was first taught how to shoot video. I was like, ‘Oh, this is opening some new ways to tell a story.’ You’re not just limited to a print article. You can show the visuals and share the audio. So I thought that was a really good skill to have.
A: I think it also helps make the stories come alive for people. We live in this era of distrust. If they can see, ‘Oh, the reporter was actually there,’ then it increases the trust in the story or the reporter. They took the time to do the research to go there to talk to people. Yes, you have an article format, which is great. But I don’t know, I just feel like there’s a barrier there of people actually understanding what we do and believing that we’ve actually talked to these people. We’ve actually walked the streets. We’ve taken a tour of Freemen’s Town, you know, whatever it may be, when we’re describing certain communities. We actually show up, we spend the time and this is the result.
Q: You mentioned Freedmen’s Town. You wrote about the past broken promises there and how there’s a new promise to revive the neighborhood. How long did it take you to do that story, what got you interested in it and what are the key takeaways you want people to know about it?
A: Yeah, that came about via just a traditional press release that I got. And I was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ The title alone was called, ‘Rebirth in Action.’ All these questions start popping up in your brain, like, why are we rebirthing this community? Then I started to just look at the map see where it’s located. I’m like, oh, I didn’t realize that. So I started connecting all these dots. So I’ve been in Freedmen’s Town not knowing it. I had no idea. There’s an element of, there has to be other people who don’t know about this either. Then you start digging into all the failed promises and how Freedmen’s Town started to fall by the wayside and why they were neglected and why they are trying to revive and rebuild this community and it’s just so fascinating.
So there’s that but then it’s also just, Black history excites me as well. And any effort in today’s time, you know, when it’s not the best time to be a Black person in America, is to know that people care about preserving that history when a lot of times it seems like people are trying to erase it.”
Q: Trying to erase it.
A: Yeah, literally. So you can’t help but gravitate to a project like that. This is Houston’s oldest Black community. But just like one of my sources said, when you think of Houston’s Black history, everyone just shouts out Third Ward or they shout out Fifth Ward as I did because who do you think of? Oh, Beyoncé. You think of all these, like, national pop stars who have called Houston home. Megan Thee Stallion. A lot of people know Houston because of these people who have kind of made it. But when you live here and you spend some time in the neighborhoods, in the community, you realize there’s so many boots-on-the-ground people that are important and help build the city and its fabric. So it’s worth preserving. But if we don’t, then are we contributing to the demise of this history being neglected or unknown?
Q: Sounds like you got really curious about (Freedmen’s Town) and you thought other people would be curious about it, too.
A: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: How long did it take you to work on it?
That was mid-February. So I went to learn more, and you start to peel back the layers and see there’s a lot more to this than what I originally thought from the press release. I’m like, you know, I really need to see it for myself. So I requested to take a tour and learn about it from Charonda Johnson, who is a fifth generation resident, and then you start to really see what they’re talking about. You can tell that she has this passion and connection to the community. Then you start literally seeing gentrification. You see the high-rise buildings. You see this old, shattered abandoned home, you know, and they’re telling you who used to live there. You see an empty lot and they’re telling you, ‘Yeah, this used to be this, and the city was supposed to do this with it.’ You see it. It’s still nothing. So you get these visual representations that really make the story come alive.
Q: So you’re just hanging out, observing, talking, listening.
A: Yeah, I’m just observing, going to every possible event that is tied to this or seemingly related to it. So in total, I would say I worked on it from that mid-February mark up until the end of March.
Q: I mean, that’s an investment of time. One thing I like about your past stories at other publications is that you were under pressure to quickly produce stories as a digital reporter.
Q: But you always seem to take those stories to the next level by talking to a lot of people and doing lots of interviews and adding more depth. Why did you go to those extra lengths?
A: Anytime you get to talk to real people — I say real people meaning, you know, not your professional executive of this, executive of that. Don’t get me wrong. Those people are nice and they add a lot of weight to stories, but I like getting down and dirty and getting the real story on the street. That’s where the true stories are to me.
I don’t know, I’ve always craved and loved those types of cultural stories, history stories. The stories that are not in the daily churn. You’re not gonna hear about it, you know, unless you come across someone just while you’re out and about. It’s like, OK, no one’s doing something on this? Boom. I kind of thrived on attacking the gaps and I think that’s what I’m trying to do now in this role, too.
Q: Attacking the gaps?
A: That’s kind of a bad basketball analogy that my coaches told me all the time.
Q: Attacking things that aren’t being covered.
Q: I like it. Well, good luck attacking the gaps.