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Nov. 21, 2019, 1:16 p.m.
Audience & Social

Five years in, Scalawag is reframing who gets included in “the South” (and how to build a business off it)

“What does it mean for a diverse group of young Southerners to be producing content that is read by mostly white folks — and white folks that are older than them?”

One of the biggest frustrations in local media is how national outlets cover issues in their own communities — often, overzealously, stereotypically, or just plain wrongly.

Scalawag is a nonprofit magazine focused on telling the American South’s stories to other Southerners. It launched with a 2015 Kickstarter, set up by a group of “young Southerners from Virginia down to the Mississippi Delta — with a carpetbagger thrown in for good measure. Among us we’ve got important experience: teaching writing and journalism, leading statewide field operations for the Obama campaign, consulting for the United Nations and top CEOs — even winning a Rhodes Scholarship.”

The Kickstarter got impressive support, raising $31,548 from 374 donors, before reader donations and newsrooms-via-crowdfunding really took off. But a few years in, after the original executive director and cofounder wanted to step back, the magazine realized it wasn’t reaching the people it had sought in the first place — and its content wasn’t wholly reflecting them. And though Scalawag had originally intended to become sustainable in three years, it was mostly volunteer-run with no set vision for how to realistically make that change happen.

The answer they’ve found is a shift in both editorial and business emphasis: focusing on membership, events, and fostering a sense of belonging, and further centering the magazine’s work on the experiences of people of color.

At the LION conference in Nashville this year, Manolia Charlotin, co-director of the Southern media collective Press On, brought Scalawag’s new executive director Cierra Hinton in for a panel about growing a news business with audiences of color. I spoke with Hinton about how Scalawag realigned its focus, started making money, and what its next five years will focus on.

Christine Schmidt: What was your path to Scalawag?

Cierra Hinton: I got involved with Scalawag the same way that a lot of us got involved with Scalawag at the time. I met one of the cofounders, Evan Walker-Wells, at a law-school graduation party of one of my good friends who had also been working with Scalawag. He offhandedly mentioned that he was the executive director and they were looking for a new executive director as he was transitioning out.

It was at a time in my life where I had been working in Nashville, with a charter network there that had a big focus on improving education in the South. I have an undying love and passion for the region, especially being from here and my family being from here. That organization was the first one where I got to lead with that identity as a Southerner. Of course I had heard about Scalawag, because I knew people who were working on it or had donated to the Kickstarter. When I heard the opportunity was open and available, I decided to apply for it.

I went through the process, and they landed on me not being a good fit, and a lot of that I think had to do with me being a younger person. Even though it was started by younger people, I think they had a feeling that the leader needed to be someone older and more established who they were sure could raise the revenue. That has always been the challenge, and it’s not unique for Scalawag — just making sure we have enough money to keep the lights on.

I don’t resent them for that decision by any means. It was born of a desire for that to last and become sustainable. They ended up hiring someone who definitely was older, had an MBA, brought that business experience, but had been working in a for-profit environment, was not from the South by any means — was from New York and had been living abroad for a number of years. I think that the business acumen that they were looking for, he definitely brought to the table, but the other things that some of us found more essential to the work, he didn’t. It did not work out, and he ended up transitioning off of the team. We found ourselves in a point of real crisis.

Hey reader, Christine again: I talked to Walker-Wells, the cofounder and first executive director who led the search for his replacement and is still on the board, about this situation separately.

Evan Walker-Wells: There basically was a set of miscommunications [with the new executive director]…It had been very clear to me and much of the team that we had a six-month runway, and that was where we were at — and we had not before had a six-month runway at any point. That looked pretty different to the executive director coming from a different business context. He found it difficult to transition the skills he had elsewhere, as well as the key questions about building the team and moving it with him to get to where it needed to get strategically.

It was a moment where it was clear that he and most of the team were on different pages in terms of what needed to happen with moving Scalawag forward. What became clear to me and most members of the board was that Cierra was playing a really important role in kind of keeping the team together. I think that ultimately was clear in a moment of crisis: who’s showing up and doing the work, and who’s earned the trust of other folks here. Cierra was really clearly the candidate.

I also want to say Scalawag has always been a community project — not just that people have backed us in the Kickstarter. The team in 2017 and 2018 was 20 people. It has been a project of a lot of different people, and there’s no way it would’ve gotten anywhere without that broad, consistent, and caring involvement from the team as a whole.

Okay, back to me and Cierra.

Schmidt: When you say “we,” were you part of Scalawag at that point?

Hinton: Yes — after I didn’t get hired as executive director, I decided to still join on, when everybody was working as a volunteer who wasn’t executive director. The two managing editors at the time were the first folks to get paid, and eventually the rest of us started getting paid. But yeah, when I first came on, it was in a volunteer capacity.

I joined the growth team and started working with the executive director and Lizzy Hazeltine. When we were having these challenges, when we no longer had an executive director — given how our leadership organization was set up, there was no “leader” for the organization. Our per-month spending had doubled — a lot of that had to do with deciding to pay folks — and we weren’t getting money in the door. It was a challenge. So we found ourselves in a place of real crisis, and there was a group of us where the conversation was: Do we go ahead and sunset the organization? Do we allow it to continue to exist? What does it take for it to exist?

There was a core group of us: Evan the cofounder, our board chair, a few other board members, and then a few folks who were still on the team. We decided to come up with a plan and called it our “cocoon phase” — to bloom into a beautiful butterfly. We greatly restricted our spending and focused heavily on fundraising and generating revenue, mostly through fundraising and institutional grants. We focused on getting the print magazine out the door and getting people paid for their time. In all of this, we decided we needed somebody to be in the interim position as executive director, and because I guess I made the mistake of saying that I would write the plan, that became me. But I’m really glad that it did.

We started working this plan, and it worked — we were able to raise over $100,000 in a matter of months. Our operating budget has been just under $300,000, so that’s quite a bit for us.

As part of that we continued to have conversations about how we wanted to Scalawag to grow and what we wanted it to look like. We all believed in creating an outlet that was a just voice for the South, but we had differing opinions on what that sounded or looked or felt like. We picked that conversation back up, and around that time, the Membership Puzzle Project came onto our radar. Membership had been something we had been talking about as a potential new revenue stream, but we didn’t know exactly what membership would mean or entail for Scalawag. We’ve been building the ship as we go along.

Our big focus was on doing events, which was something we had done in the past. We saw it become successful when we were out in the community connecting with folks. That became the crux of our membership program. We’ve been doing that for the majority of this year — it has really taken off. We are in the process of our first membership drive right now, but we already saw a good bit of success in acquiring members through event attendance. In the first week of the membership drive this month, we brought in about 60 new members. We have a goal of getting about 100 members by the end of the drive and 250 by the end of the year.

I think what we’ve been able to see, beyond revenue generation and monetary support from the community, has been how many more connections we’ve been building. With other folks in media, but especially folks in the areas that we have launched in. The South is a really big region, so instead of launching members across the South we decided to focus on three cities:

  1. Durham is where we’re based and our home.
  2. Birmingham has a lot of our top reporting pieces and one of our strongest contributing editors Katherine Webb-Hehnis based there. We knew people there were in tune with what we were doing and thought it would be a really great place to be part of the launch.
  3. And then Atlanta. A lot of our major donors are based there — I say a lot like we have tons, but some of our major donors are based there — and of course, it’s the art and culture center of the South.

[Ahem. —this article’s Louisiana-proud editor.]

We will continue to grow in those areas, and as we get our feet under ourselves, we will look to launch in other places.

Schmidt: When you raised that $100,000 in a couple of months, who were you able to raise that from?

Hinton: We had a couple of our major donors really step up and support us and give beyond what they had given previously. One person did that pretty immediately when he heard we needed that support.

We held fundraisers in areas where we had had support before, and we invited people to come spend some time with us and followed up with them after and asked for a gift. It was quite a bit of support from individuals. We ran our end-of-year campaign like we always do; we especially do a big push on Giving Tuesday so we’re able to secure funds from that, and in Q1, we received our match from NewsMatch.

We were able to get the foundation support, and then at the beginning of the year the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation gave us $30,000 in support, which was super helpful. One major donor said if we were able to get to $100,000, then he would give $35,000, and that’s what he did. It was a confluence of factors: major donor support, institutional support, our smaller gift campaign.

Schmidt: Tell me more about the plan that ended up putting you in the executive director role. What were some of the priorities?

Hinton: All of this was happening in summer of 2018, and early fall of 2018 was when we really wrote the plan and I transitioned to the interim role. We really worked that plan through the end of Q1 2019.

We actually broke the plan into two phases. We weren’t allowed to go to Phase 2 until we reached the $100,000 mark. Phase 1 was really about getting the print issue out the door. Print is expensive, which is why it was such a milestone for us — because we had to have the capital in place to actually do that. We had subscribers waiting for the magazine — that was another thing, to figure out how to do that and keep our promise to people. Phase 1 also included this fundraising plan — we ended up making a fundraising war-room and we were checking in all the time, problem solving, pivoting, making sure we were going to reach this goal.

It included a pared-down team. We lost several people naturally, but we really contracted in size because Scalawag was volunteer-based for so long that we had a pretty sizable team. Now we have a team of five folks with an additional four to five people who are supporting our work in real ways [but aren’t on staff]. Those were the main parts, getting control of the spending and making sure we were spending in the right ways.

Once we met that goal, we were able to go into Phase 2 and ask these questions: Like, now what? Honestly, we’re still in Phase 2. We are not in the butterfly phase yet, but I think we’re getting there. We’re still trying to figure out financially how we make this work sustainable, which is why membership has become so important to us. We are at this point very dependent on grant funding. We are blessed to secure that funding, but we do want to grow our individual support from major donors and other folks in the community. That is why we are investing so much of our capacity and money right now into launching membership.

That’s been one of my biggest lessons from this year. It’s not surprising — my background is in development so I know it costs money to raise money — but it also costs money to launch a new revenue stream and to do it well. We’ve been really fortunate to get support from the Membership Puzzle Project, and we got a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project to support membership. We will continue to go after funds to build membership out so that one day it can be self-sustaining — sooner rather than later. When membership is in a good place, we can shift our capacity and focus and capital to something else, like our major gifts. We have a pretty good start, especially for an organization that’s only five years old and has been primarily sort of led by folks who don’t have a traditional fundraising background. But I would really like to see us be able to identify folks in the South who want to make a real investment in the type of journalism we are producing. Those are the two biggest priorities, in addition to doing work internally to make our organization better.

Schmidt: When you said, “We all believed in creating an outlet that was a just voice for the South, but we had differing opinions on what that sounded or looked or felt like,” what were you thinking of? What do you want Scalawag to feel like?

Hinton: I think that this is a conversation that is happening in media more broadly, about what does it mean when people of color are leading an organization, and why is it important make sure there are more leaders of color in media spaces. We have always been a publication that has centered marginalized people. We have always put our money where our mouth is when we talk about paying people of color for their writing and their labor. We have really prioritized building a diverse team at all times.

That has not historically translated to our readership. Our readership is overwhelmingly white and skews a lot older than our team. What does it mean for a diverse group of young Southerners to be producing content that is read by mostly white folks — and white folks that are older than them? What do we need to do to make sure that our writing is not just reaching those folks? We definitely want them to read Scalawag — this is not about abandoning who we are to get a new audience. But is there a way for us to bring more people who look like me into our readership, who share our identities?

I think it helps that I’m the executive director now and that our team is predominantly people of color — black people, specifically. But what we see in media is if you produce content for or with people of color in mind, white people don’t not read it. White folks are still consuming the same news that we consume when that news centers us. I think at least the white audiences we’re trying to reach aren’t like: “Scalawag is centering people of color now? We’re not reading that anymore.”

How do we have a smart strategic plan to make sure the folks that we aren’t reaching right now find out about Scalawag? I think our content in many ways is already made with them in mind. What is that gap in the middle of the funnel that is keeping folks from getting to Scalawag and keeping us from getting to them?

That’s another reason we are really exciting about membership and these in-person events. We’ve seen much more diversity in our events than readership. On average, our attendees are 47 percent people of color, and our readership, based on the newsletter and an audience survey we did a couple years ago, is 86 percent white. That feels like a real opportunity, if we continue to have events in our community, to get folks of color to learn more about Scalawag.

As a person of color and someone who knows a lot about what it takes to build community with people of color, you have to show up over and over again. That’s another reason this is not an overnight strategy. But we are committed to doing that work, especially as long as people keep supporting us financially. We are excited to be able to turn event attendees into members immediately, or newsletter email subscribers, so we can continue to be in contact with them, so we can build those trusting relationships.

Schmidt: So what does the timeline look like for building those relationships?

Hinton: We are doing the groundwork now that, hopefully, we’ll see the results of. I hope if we talk a year from now, we will have different results. In a couple of weeks, we will be doing a facilitated conversation led by Fran Scarlett at INN to really make sure our priorities and plans especially for next 18 months get us to this vision that we’re working toward. I, my editors of color, even our white editors, because they believe in this work — we want to be in conversation with queer folks and black folks and brown folks and folks with other marginalized identities. But it makes business sense too, to build a sustainable organization. It’s not just about the feel-goods and our values, though it’s about those things too and they’re definitely front of mind for us.

Schmidt: Is there anything else I should’ve asked about or that you wanted to mentioned?

Hinton: Whenever folks are talking about a turnaround strategy or doing something different, it sounds like what was happening before was terrible or the wrong thing. And I could not feel more opposite. I am so grateful for how all of this got started and everything that we went through, because we’ve learned so many lessons. I think we definitely would not be at this point if things had happened any other way, and it has gifted us with a really incredible network of folks and some really strong supporters. And I think, especially, our cofounders that have allowed us to get this far. Even as I tell this story, I want to acknowledge all the work they did before that we were really able to build off. It’s only been five years!

Photo of Scalawag print editions at the Atlanta jubilee event in July by Erin Fender.

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2019, 1:16 p.m.
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