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Feb. 1, 2021, 9:46 a.m.
Business Models

URL Media launches to help sustain “high-performing Black and brown media organizations”

“Instead of [a mission centered in diversifying white spaces], let’s create something that will actually help to build and grow our voices on our own terms.”

The racial reckoning in the news industry that gained strength in 2020 is ongoing. While some news outlets have investigated and apologized for their racist and dangerous coverage, others continue to fumble the ball and make good on the promises they made last summer.

But a global pandemic, a falsely contested election, and an insurrection have made it clear that the public can’t afford to wait for the news industry to get its act together. At the same time, the vibrant landscape of community media, which is equipped to address this moment, has taken a hit during the economic downturn.

S. Mitra Kalita, the former head of digital programming for CNN and a 2021 Nieman Visiting Fellow, and Sara Lomax-Reese, the president and CEO of WURD Radio, the only Black-owned talk radio station in Pennsylvania, knew the problems in the news industry won’t be solved through a few haphazard diversity initiatives.

Kalita and Lomax-Reese met a few years ago at the Newsgeist conference and became friends. In 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, they knew they wanted to work together on a project.

“A lot of mainstream, white-led media organizations were really blowing it in that moment,” Lomax-Reese said. “There was this cascade of mainstream media organizations being called out for their racist practices by their own reporters and communities. It was just snowballing. We started talking and thought there must be something that we collectively and collaboratively could do, to speak to this moment in a different way.”

They decided to found URL Media, a “a decentralized, multi-platform network of high-performing Black and Brown media organizations.” (URL stands for “uplift, respect, love.” Instead of starting a news outlet from scratch, Kalita and Lomax-Reese wanted to provide more support to existing news outlets that are often overlooked. They want to help community news outlets scale their work, reach more audiences, and grow their revenue streams.

URL Media launched last week with eight inaugural partners, including Lomax-Reese’s WURD and Epicenter-NYC, a weekly newsletter Kalita started to inform residents in her neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. The other members are Documented, which covers immigration in New York City; Scalawag, which covers movement, dissent, and community in the South; The Haitian Times, which covers Haiti and Haitian news across the diaspora; TBN 24, a Bengali-language TV channel for Bangladeshi communities in North America; ScrollStack, an online publishing platform that supports multiple languages and currencies; and Palabra, a site run by freelance members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

While the details are still being ironed out, the overall goal for URL Media is to distribute the content from these outlets through social media, newsletters, and the partners’ own platforms and help them grow their audiences. URL Media will also help secure advertising, sponsors, and syndication and partnership deals. The profits from those initiatives will be shared with the network members.

These outlets serve highly engaged populations that don’t get sufficient coverage in mainstream news. Audience engagement has become a major goal for mainstream media organizations in the last few years, Kalita said, but URL Media’s network members have relied on community input and needs to guide their mission since their inception.

“In creating this network, it’s been a privilege to understand what these outlets represent within their communities and how they work,” Kalita said. “In some ways, that journalism isn’t what mainstream media wants. But it’s the definition of excellence when it comes to news engagement.”

The convening of community media outlets isn’t a new idea. Kalita and Lomax-Reese emphasized that they’re “stepping into a river that’s flowing” and includes BlackPressUSA, a Black press newswire produced by the National Newspapers Publishers Association and Howard University, the Jewish News Syndicate; and the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

What makes URL Media different, Kalita and Lomax-Reese said, is how it will leverage technology to enhance distribution, amplify stories, and provide revenue to participating outlets. In the first few months they’ll focus on understanding each network member’s individual needs, and will refine distribution and content sharing. They’ll also develop syndications and partnerships. Ultimately, mainstream news outlets will be able to pay to republish stories from the network and work with them on reporting projects.

“In a capitalistic society like America, you’ve got to have money. Money has to be a part of the equation for there to be a way to begin to level the playing field,” Lomax-Reese said. “A significant part of our model is that we want to be able to be additive from a revenue standpoint, to the partners in the network. We’re not saying that we’re going to become their primary revenue stream. All of these organizations are high-performing. They already have great content, they have an audience, they have revenue. We want to be a part of cycling back revenue to the partners as a result of this network.”

That’s why it was important for them to launch as a for-profit organization. Kalita and Lomax-Reese are cognizant of the racial wealth gap, and the way to help close it is by generating profit off the work.

“I don’t want coverage that we span from our partner organizations, who are a mix of nonprofits and for-profits, to have to be in the realm of charity,” Kalita said. “Because that keeps us down. This is a part of the issue with coverage and mainstream media. Stories about certain communities are always from the lens of that community being subservient.”

They do have plans, however, to launch a nonprofit arm that will capture dollars through fundraising and grants. Plenty of news outlets operate that way, Kalita said, but being defined only as a nonprofit would limit URL Media’s overall mission.

“It’s long overdue to take a radical, radically different approach to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Lomax-Reese said. “Instead of [a mission] centered in diversifying white spaces, let’s create something that will actually help to build and grow our voices on our own terms. And instead of us always being starved and barely getting by — instead of getting scraps and being the partner in name only — we become centers for experimentation and leaders.”

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2021, 9:46 a.m.
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