Shawn Cotton no longer drives his $55,000, bright pink Corvette to work because he’s afraid it could get him killed like his friend. But there are two things he won’t leave home without: his bulletproof vest and the 9 mm pistol he slips into his pocket.
Cotton, 28, quit his $7-an-hour job cleaning refrigerators at a big-box store six years ago to enter a new and uniquely dangerous field of newsgathering in which video journalists interview street gangs and rappers in high-crime areas, then post the videos on YouTube channels.
Dozens of gangland videographers like him nationwide risk their lives to provide a voice for communities routinely ignored by mainstream media, creating an alternative news genre that Cotton’s friend Zack Stoner liked to call “hood CNN” before he was killed in a drive-by shooting last year in Chicago.
Stoner, known by his nickname ZackTV, was a trailblazer in the genre and considered a mentor by gangland reporters around the country. His still-unsolved slaying exposed an ominous side to their line of reporting, where gun violence is a recurring theme, and showed how vulnerable these newsgatherers are.
Says Cotton about the impact of Stoner’s death: “Now, I think every day about getting shot.”
Only after Stoner was killed did he begin arming himself and seeking to keep a lower profile when gathering content for his Say Cheese channel. That means not driving the car in the conspicuous color into gang territories, lest he make it easier for gangs angered by his reporting to track him.
Other top channels in the genre include Chicago World News, HoodVlogs in Los Angeles and Detroit’s CharlieBo313. When it comes to his channel, Cotton said, his subscribers often dictate where he travels, encouraging him to cover specific gangs or rappers locked in escalating disputes. Reports often show members waving guns and cash, or flashing rival gang signs upside down — a recognized indication of disdain.
Critics say the channels glorify gang life and provide a platform — alongside other social media — for gangs to taunt each other, thus stoking violence.
“If you are making gangs look cool, you’re recruiting more people to join gangs,” says Mike Knox, a former Houston gang-unit police officer.
Defenders say the channels fill a neglected news niche, telling important human-interest stories that aren’t a priority for traditional media and telling them from places where those outlets are often afraid to go.
“What Zack provided was a platform where (those on the streets thought), ‘I can be myself, I can cuss, I can tell you how I feel … and it ain’t gonna be censored,’” says Rodney Phillips, an ex-gang member who works for Chicago anti-violence groups. “He was showing the unadulterated truth.”
Stoner had just left a rap concert around 1:30 a.m. May 30 at Chicago’s Refuge club when a car pulled alongside his. A dozen shots rang out. Stoner’s bullet-riddled SUV veered into a lamppost. He had been shot in the head and neck and was pronounced dead three hours later.
Stoner once described how he would always conduct interviews with a camera in one hand and a gun within reach of the other.
“I’ve been taking this chance with my life,” he said on video, pulling a handgun from his coat pocket. “You just gotta be prepared.”
Cotton, who travels around the country but considers Texas home, spoke with Stoner about the risks of their work: You could invite the wrath of gangs that believe a report favored hated rivals, or draw the attention of young gang members who might shoot merely out of hopes of gaining higher status in the gang by killing a notable member of the community.
Cotton said he receives multiple death threats a week via social media. One threat came after he reported that a gang member ran from a fight. One message read: “We’re going to do you like we did Zack.”
Why take such risks? Providing a voice for the community is one motivator. Money is also a big incentive.
YouTube pays a fraction of a penny per video view for ads on YouTube-based sites. Channels like Cotton’s, which has over 400,000 subscribers and a million monthly views, can generate over $15,000 a month. Stoner had over 200,000 subscribers.
Stoner rarely ventured outside Chicago, which tallied over 560 mostly gang-related killings last year. The day of Stoner’s funeral, his friend, Davis “T Streetz” Thomas, was killed, one of many fatal shootings of aspiring rappers in 2018.
Stoner understood, as does Cotton, that some degree of danger makes more compelling videos, boosting viewership. With its homicide numbers and depth of hip-hop talent, Chicago is fertile ground for stories.
Far from lauding gangs, Stoner would berate them for perpetuating violence.
“We kill one another for some stupid (things). We gotta be smarter than that, y’all,” he said in one video.
But Stoner was also empathetic.
He told the Chicago Defender newspaper in early 2018 that the young black men he interviewed were “stuck in this box” they wanted desperately to escape, despite tough exteriors that are obligatory in their worlds.
“A lot of people may look at these individuals like they’re thugs … nobodies,” he said. “Never judge a book by its cover.”
Stoner wasn’t in a gang, but was raised in gang territory and knew the culture well.
“He dressed like them. He looked like them,” Phillips said. “They saw a lot of Zack in themselves.”
Stoner was adept at negotiating the patchwork of 60 Chicago gangs. But while gangs would welcome him, his friends feared his growing influence and wealth were fueling grudges against him. Some urged him to leave Illinois.
“But he would never leave Chicago. He loved Chicago,” his cousin, Albert Curtis, said.
Stoner had close calls. He dove for cover during a 2016 interview when someone leaned out a car window and opened fire, injuring half a dozen people.
He inadvertently landed some gang members in legal straits. Suburban Chicago police arrested purported gang members in 2017 after observing them waving guns on ZackTV1. They hadn’t heeded Stoner’s advice: If you’re a felon and insist on waving guns on camera, make sure they’re not real.
Who killed Stoner and why are still discussed regularly on social media. Cellphone video taken from a nearby apartment after the gunfire shows several young men running to Stoner’s vehicle. They speed away after someone screams. It’s unclear if they were gunmen, or friends of Stoner who feared they could also get shot.
After what happened to Stoner, Cotton mulled leaving the field of gangland news. But he still likes the work and the money.
“I’m not going to switch careers,” Cotton says, “just because I’m scared.”