For Philadelphia-based journalist and communications pro John Mitchell, language has always been a defining force in his life. His father was a preacher who attended college with Thurgood Marshall and counted Langston Hughes amongst his closest friends. A fascination with the spoken and written word was inevitable.
Mitchell’s earliest memories include nights spent laughing, discussing world events, and playing word games at the dinner table. His mother’s love of the show “Jeopardy” is a holdover from those many evenings shared with her husband and three sons.
Known more recently for his unflinching commentary on social justice issues for the Philadelphia Tribune, John began his writing career covering the sports he played as a kid in Philly.
One day, legendary Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Phil Jasner visited Overbrook High School, his alma mater, to speak to Mitchell’s class. They two struck up a friendship, with Jasner eventually taking on the role of mentor prior to his passing in 2010.
“He covered my favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers when they won the championship my senior year, and I told him I wanted his job,” Mitchell laughs. “I always wanted to be a sports writer, it was never a question in my mind. I knew that I wasn’t going to play NFL football so I wanted to write about it.”
It proved to be a bit easier said than done, however, following his graduation from Howard University with a degree in communication and journalism, the student-turned-hopeful writer found himself without a job lined up. So he applied and was accepted into a now-defunct summer program for minority journalists at UC Berkeley, one that guaranteed employment at a newspaper following the conclusion of the program. The hitch? You had to take whatever job as offered and it could be anywhere in America.
Mitchell ended up covering high school sports at the Star-Gazette in Elmira, New York, population 33,000. Coming from a major city, it was a culture shock. Nevertheless, he enjoyed writing and earning money for it. As a fringe benefit, for the first time, he saw the stars in the sky at night.
After pit stops at the Times of Trenton and the Courier-Post in South Jersey, he got his chance to break into the world of pro sports journalism when he heard that the News Journal in Wilmington, Del. had no people of color in their sports department and wanted to change that fact. He began with the paper in 1997 but less than a year later the Washington Times called with an offer to cover the Washington Wizards. Mitchell moved to DC and soon found himself immersed in the fascinating and busy life of an NBA beat writer.
On game days at home, Mitchell attended shootarounds, grabbed early notes, conducted postgame interviews as needed, and filed his story. If the team had another game in a different city the next day, he hopped on a plane like most people hop into their cars.
“At first I didn’t mind the travel—I was single, young and it was cool flying around on someone’s dime,” he says. “It’s hard to say ‘I covered the NBA at the tail end of Michael Jordan’s career and call it work’ but it was a young man’s gig. You really are working all the time.”
Mitchell was living his dream, getting a behind-the-scenes look as the NBA became a global phenomenon, and making friends he remains close to even now.
Mitchell spent more than a decade with the Times, and then, following a detour selling insurance in Maryland, another four years covering the Sixers at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2017, he found himself signing on to be a columnist at the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest continuously published African-American newspaper in the country. His editors told him to write about whatever he wanted, and taking a good look around the city of his birth, the concerning journalist decided to write about everything he saw around him. Mitchell wrote about things that kept Philadelphia one of the poorest large metropolises in the country.
“You see the poverty but when you cover sports you’re in a fantasy world that allows you to disappear into a non-reality,” says Mitchell. “Working at the Tribune, I saw so many things up close and personal while writing about topics like gun violence and the opioid crisis. As a columnist, it was my job to be critical of certain institutions, but I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in those institutions and there are so many good people. And they can only do so much because the system is broken. They’ve got their fingers stuck in the dam.”
The father of two now works on the other side of the table, handling communications and research for Philadelphia Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, as she works to provide solutions for many of the issues Mitchell wrote about. Despite the news headlines, he has hope for the future of the country his sons are growing up in.
“There are more good people in America than there are bad people. I was bused to get kids from majority Black neighborhoods into white neighborhoods where the schools were better. I was chased by students throwing bottles and bricks. Sometimes it was even their parents doing the chasing. My kids have a much more multicultural upbringing than I did. They’re coming up in a better time.”
Marissa is a correspondent covering features of entrepreneurs, newsmakers, executives and creatives.