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March 31, 2021, 12:49 p.m.
Business Models

“Black America is vast in its diversity,” and Capital B will be “singularly focused” on Black communities

“We know as well as anyone that Black communities across the country are not monolithic. Black people within communities are not monolithic.”

Last November, Vox’s editor-in-chief, Lauren Williams, and its founding editor, Ezra Klein, both announced they were leaving. Klein was off to The New York Times to be a podcast host and opinion columnist. Williams, though, was going another direction.

She would build something brand new: a nonprofit newsroom called Capital B. The digital news site would “provide high-quality civic journalism tailored to Black communities across the country, aimed at serving audiences the essential information needed to live their lives,” Williams wrote. And she’d be doing it with a friend: Akoto Ofori-Atta.

Williams and Ofori-Atta met working at The Root more than a decade ago and, in the years that followed, have become seasoned newsroom leaders. Williams oversaw all editorial and business operations at Vox and Ofori-Atta was previously the managing editor at The Trace, the nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence, creating local and national partnerships across the country.

Williams and Ofori-Atta plan to launch Capital B as a national news organization with local bureaus this fall. They’re still deciding on the exact number of local bureaus they’ll launch with — and are keeping the specific cities under consideration to themselves for now. But the mission is crystal clear: a Black-led newsroom creating journalism that centers Black Americans.

In our conversation below, there’s an open acknowledgement that this type of civic-oriented journalism might not be compatible with advertising-based models or investors looking to reap large profits. (Elizabeth Green, founder of Chalkbeat and Votebeat, has been saying something similar: “Local news is a nonprofit public good. It is not going to be supported by markets. Period. If you care about it, you have to accept the fact that this is not going to be something that market incentives are going to enable the existence of.”)

Instead, the founders plan to rely on individual donors and institutional support. It’s easy to see nonprofit journalism funders supporting Capital B — the newsroom, which is finalizing its 501(c)(3) status, already won a grant from American Journalism Project — but organizations and donors who care about democracy, racial justice, and combating misinformation should be taking note, too. This goes double given the promises to support Black voices and founders amid the racial reckoning in 2020.

With just two tweet threads and a single email to people who had signed up at their currently bare-bones website, Capital B collected 360 founding donors. (Suggested contributions are $10, $15, or $25 a month or donors can opt for a one-time contribution.)

It’s early days for Capital B but we couldn’t wait to hear more about their mission, striking out on their own, and what they’re taking — and leaving behind — from their previous positions. My conversation with the cofounders, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Sarah Scire: What is Capital B? What will it look like?

Lauren Williams: Capital B is a first-of-its kind, local-national hybrid nonprofit news organization for Black Americans. We’ll open local bureaus across the country in Black communities that are focused on serving the local and basic information needs of those communities. Those local bureaus will be connected to a national team that does investigative and accountability journalism about and for Black Americans.

Scire: Tell me about the name Capital B. What’s the story — and how did you decide on it?

Williams: Akoto and I had a really hard time coming up with a name. Nothing was right. Nothing captured the essence of what we were trying to do. This was at the same time that newsrooms were debating whether to update their style guides to capitalize the B when referring to Black Americans, which was not AP style at the time. Honestly, we were agnostic about the idea, mostly because it was a cosmetic change newsrooms could make and pat themselves on the back for while changing nothing about either their reporting or their workplace practices.

But the intent behind the push for change — the recognition of Black Americans as a unique, important cultural force in our country — underscored our mission. At Capital B, we are doing the work of centering Black audiences, stories, and journalists, and that work will be about much more than a style guide update.

Scire: In terms of the local bureaus, where are you looking? Is there anywhere that’s first on your list?

Akoto Ofori-Atta: I can share how we’re thinking about where we’re going to pick. We were looking at the areas that we felt needed this the most, right? Our criteria for that was large Black cities that have especially bad local news access. We took particular interest in Rust Belt cities and regions, because often the journalism that comes out of that area centers white folks and there are plenty of Black folks in the Rust Belt whose challenges need some attention.

We’ve also been thinking very strategically about states where demographics are shifting. We’ve seen the reporting that has come out about how Black Americans in those areas are most susceptible to targeted misinformation campaigns, particularly around close elections. Those are our criteria and then from there, we have a shortlist that we’re going to hold close for now.

Scire: Why strike out on your own — and why do it now?

Williams: So many things. Akoto and I met almost 11 years ago working together at The Root. It was a very special place that taught us a lot. We often talked about it — “If we could, what kind of Black news organization would we create?” We were young and junior and could never create a news organization back then [laughs]. It was really just fun imagining at that point. And then, we both left, went our separate directions, and ended up being newsroom leaders, I at Vox and Akoto at The Trace. And then in June of last year, the George Floyd protests were sweeping the nation, the presidential election was going on, Covid was disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities, and racial reckonings were happening in our newsrooms.

It was a combination of events that felt explosive in our industry and in our country. Akoto and I decided that this sort of thing that used to be something we daydreamed about, it was time to actually do it. We had the experience. And it was the right moment in our industry and in our country for us to get buy-in to do it. It almost seemed like we had no other choice.

Ofori-Atta: Yeah.

Williams: Once we surfaced it, it was like, “Oh, we actually just have to do that.”

Ofori-Atta: Those first few months of Covid were just horrific. When you think about the disproportionate effect on Black folks and you think about George Floyd and you think about that as a moment … For us it was like, “What kind of journalism are Black people going to need coming out of this? And does that exist right now? And if not, how can we create space for that to happen?” That moment was important because we want to do the work that’s going to be so necessary coming out of those pivotal moments.

Scire: News organizations — obviously, with mixed results — are increasingly thinking about how to provide information and high-quality journalism to underserved communities, including Black ones. What holes do you see that Capital B will fill? Who else do you see doing similar work?

Ofori-Atta: There are tons of nonprofit newsrooms — Outlier Media, City Bureau, Flint Beat — all led by Black folks and people of color. In a lot of ways, particularly around the service journalism aspects of our mission, they were huge inspirations for us, and how to do this work. They have been really effective inChicago and Detroit and Flint doing this kind of work. We’re thinking about how we build on that and amplify that across the country.

Williams: And what was the first part of the question?

Scire: Well, for example, I think Vox or The New York Times or The Washington Post would like to think of themselves as able to speak to many different communities at once. Your mission is a bit more tailored, right? You’re saying, this is civic journalism specifically for Black Americans. Can you spell out the difference there?

Williams: It’s obviously — and will continue to be — the responsibility of mainstream organizations to work on and understand how to reach all communities that they’re purporting to serve. I think the reason why Akoto and I wanted to strike out independently to do this is because we want to just singularly focus on Black people. That’s never going to be — and shouldn’t be — the singular focus of a mainstream news organization.

We wanted the opportunity to center Black audiences across the country and do it in a way that complements how historic Black newspapers and other ethnic media out there are doing it.

Scire: Let’s talk about distribution. How will people read your journalism? How are you thinking about partnerships? Will there be a single site?

Williams: We’re going to have websites for each of our bureaus and for national, but we also want to think creatively about how to serve the specific communities that we choose for Capital B. [For example], if a city’s Black communities skew young, we’re going to focus on a social strategy, partnering with popular Instagram accounts or TikTok or what have you. If it is a community that skews older, we’re going to think about print partnerships or even maybe printing our own work.

Ofori-Atta: Or local TV.

Williams: Right. In some places where there are really low literacy rates or broadband access is an issue, we may have a radio strategy. The website will be a baseline, but we know as well as anyone that Black communities across the country are not monolithic. Black people within communities are not monolithic. We want to think about how to most efficiently and effectively reach the largest group of people we can within a community — and that can look very different [depending on where you are].

When we were thinking about the news organization of our dreams, local had not [originally] been a part of it. But as journalists, we are now so concerned about the decline in local news and the effect that that has on democracy that it seemed that it had to be part of this.

Scire: What does your day-to-day look like right now? I know it probably looks different during a pandemic than it would during more normal times, but I’m curious what you’re doing and thinking about in these early founder days.

Williams: Uh, money! [laughs] We’re trying to raise money.

Ofori-Atta: The fun, exciting, but tedious part is raising money. Part two is the not-so-fun, boring ops things that have got to get done, at this juncture. But yes, raising money is our top task.

Scire: Akoto, you were at a nonprofit newsroom. Why make Capital B a nonprofit?

Ofori-Atta: After being at The Trace for five years, I hadn’t even thought of doing this any other way. I’m sort of evangelized on nonprofit news and the kinds of work you can pursue in nonprofits that are more challenging at a for-profit.

In short, I think that the kind of work that we want to do requires significant investment and it’s not the kind of stuff that is going to yield returns for advertisers or for-profit investors. Having mission-aligned and mission-driven supporters to fund us to do the work is critical to the way that we’ve set up the model of Capital B.

Scire: And are you thinking this will mostly be institutional support? Will you have the option for individual donors or a membership program?

Williams: We launched a membership program. It’s kind of the only thing that’s on our website right now: a link to join as a founding member. Just off of the strength of two Twitter threads — where Akoto and I announced that we were leaving our jobs to do this — and one email that Akoto sent to a list of people who had signed up, we have 360 donors.

Scire: Oh, wow.

Ofori-Atta: Yeah. We are excited about what that might mean for what could happen with more investment in our membership program.

Scire: When you talk to people about Capital B, what questions have people had?

Ofori-Atta: When we talk to folks — and Lauren, feel free to disagree — people really get the editorial side. It just clicks and makes total sense. It’s not something that we’ve had to sell or explain a lot. The challenge before us is that this is a big, ambitious idea. We are really focused on building out a business revenue side that matches the ambitiousness of the editorial idea. We’re working hard toward that and getting lots of interesting questions that are helping us think through that.

Williams: Yeah, the biggest question not just for Capital B but for our entire industry is sustainability, right? There’s a bunch of smart people and good ideas and excellent journalism, but everywhere, both for-profit and nonprofits, are trying to figure out the key to sustain it. There are opportunities in a startup to find a path that really works and so those are a lot of the conversations that people want to have.

Scire: Lauren, you were the editor-in-chief of Vox. After seeing what it takes to start and sustain a digital news outlet, is there anything you wanted to copy or, on the other side, make sure you didn’t do?

Williams: Early on at Vox, we were very open to trying new things that fit within the mission. [That meant] partnering with organizations and platforms where our mission could thrive and using that guiding star as a way to figure out how to diversify the business and revenue streams. It didn’t mean trying everything, but trying to be very intentional about our partnerships. Part of being able to be intentional about partnerships is, from an early stage, understanding who you are as an organization and what your mission is.

I think that is the most important thing at Vox and I think it needs to be the foundation of every successful news organization: just being clear about your identity and your mission, and everyone who works there buying into it so you know where you’re trying to go.

Scire: One of the reasons I loved the thread that you wrote was that there’s obviously a friendship story here, with you two tossing this idea back and forth and reworking as you have these different experiences and leadership roles at other organizations over the years. Can you talk to me about what that process has been like, and launching this not just on your own, but together, as a pair?

Ofori-Atta: Yes! Our favorite subject. Lauren and I are close and we lean on each other for all sorts of support, including professional support. Thinking through the journalism industry is just part of our friendship in a way that is really special. It’s great to do this with a friend. Because Lauren is on my team, I feel capable and ready to do this.

Williams: The background that we have together, both as friends and as coworkers … there is no one I’ve ever worked with like Akoto. The combination of extreme chill, which I don’t always have, and hyper-competence and creativity and vision that she brings to the table is unparalleled. She’s also just a wonderful person and I trust her and I know that she trusts me.

We had a lot of reservations — like, “Are we doing this?!” — but none of them were about our ability to do this thing together.

Scire: So another newsroom founder told me that the best advice she got was to build the newsroom that she would want to work in. Obviously, you guys get to start this from the ground up. Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to building the newsroom to include?

Ofori-Atta: I think the one thing that we are so excited about is building a radically diverse and inclusive newsroom. Black America is vast in its diversity. You don’t get the opportunity in a mainstream newsroom to think about how diverse your Black staff gets to be, right? We’re thinking about ethnic diversity, socio-economic diversity, gender and sexual orientation, regional diversity. All of those things are super important to us. We think — we know — that that’s how we’re going to execute the best work.

Scire: What else are you excited about? What haven’t we talked about?

Williams: Our audience focus is on Black people in Black communities, but we do think that there’s going to be a broader group of people who care about our work and benefit from it. Anyone who cares about local journalism and cares about racial equity and cares about exposing the systems that perpetuate so many disparities in our country would care about Capital B.

Photo of Akoto Ofori-Atta, left, and Lauren Williams from “the very last time we saw each other in person, January 2020.”

POSTED     March 31, 2021, 12:49 p.m.
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