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Feb. 1, 2022, 2:59 p.m.
Business Models

Capital B, written for and by Black people, launches as a nonprofit newsroom

Co-founders Akoto Ofori-Atta and Lauren Williams raised $9 million, including $95,000 from 550 small donors, to found the news startup after leaving leadership positions at The Trace and Vox.

The new nonprofit newsroom Capital B launched on Monday with a national hub and one local newsroom in Atlanta.

The news startup plans to publish investigative journalism alongside practical information (including “how to find affordable housing, apply for benefits, and vote”) that’ll remain accessible (unpaywalled) to all. Capital B’s team in Atlanta — where roughly half of residents are Black — will be the first of a network of local newsrooms anchored by the national hub. They expect to add another local newsroom before the end of the year and another two local newsrooms before the end of 2023.

Co-founders Akoto Ofori-Atta and Lauren Williams published a “part welcome, part explainer” for new readers. It’s worth reading in full, and the part where Ofori-Atta and Williams explain their thinking behind the startup’s business model caught our eye. (It echoes some of what they told me soon after they left The Trace and Vox, respectively, to found Capital B: They knew relying on advertising alone wouldn’t cut it.)

News is important. What has been lost — and what’s left — hasn’t always been great for Black people. But having nothing is very bad for our future. What rises instead is low-quality or outright false information, sometimes that explicitly targets us. This has consequences for voting. And it has consequences for public health.

When we started a news organization, we wanted to make sure we were building something that was going to fill the holes in local news for Black people. And we also wanted to build something that was going to last. We knew that the future for the type of reporting we wanted to do was not one that primarily relied on ads for all of our revenue. So we are a 501c(3) nonprofit, and our revenue model is a diverse one that includes philanthropic funding from foundations, individuals, corporations, and members, as well as ads and sponsorships.

And we’ve organized in a way to minimize the cost of our local newsrooms, centralizing all of our business and operational functions. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we open a new local newsroom, and we can save our resources for the journalism.

When I talked to the cofounders last March, they were squarely focused on the “raising money” part of that equation. They’ve since come up with an impressive $9 million, including $95,000 from 550 small donors. The Ford Foundation, American Journalism Project, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Yellow Chair Foundation are among their largest donors.

The cash has allowed Capital B to grow from just the two cofounders to a team of 16 at launch. They hope to grow the newsroom(s) to 27 people in coming months, including adding more reporters.

Capital B launched with one nationally focused journalist (Margo Snipe, health reporter) and two dedicated to Atlanta (Sydney Sims, general assignment reporter, and Kenya Hunter, health reporter). The rest of the team includes roles like community engagement editor, audience director, live events producer, editorial director, director of sponsorships, senior director of development, social media manager, editor-at-large, and senior vice president of programming and revenue. Capital B is also publishing work on policing (“The False Promise of the Black Police Chief”) and housing (“Meet the Reluctant Politician Fighting to Save Black Families’ Homes”) written by freelance journalists.

Throughout their buildup, the cofounders have put an emphasis on paying Black journalists fairly. An open listing for an Atlanta beat reporter, as one data point, starts at $68,000.

Williams rattled off a list of disadvantages the news startup faced while hiring — “We didn’t exist yet. We don’t have an audience yet. People are nervous; we’re in the middle of a pandemic and people don’t want to make a big move” — but said that made the fact they were able to recruit as much talent as they were all the more encouraging.

“I feel like it’s proving out our mission, in a lot of ways, that there’s so many different amazing Black editors and leaders out there who are so aligned with what we had come up with and are trying to do,” Williams said. “Since they came on board in the fall, we’ve been racing towards launch, making plans, furiously trying to hire, and get ready for [launch].”

Hires include Gillian White, formerly a managing editor at The Atlantic; Simone Sebastian, who previously oversaw coverage of major breaking news at The Washington Post; and Gavin Godfrey, a freelance journalist who now serves as editor of Capital B Atlanta.

“I wanted to, instead of sitting on a perch at a white institution and trying to occasionally get that work done, really do that work every single day,” White told Elahe Izadi of The Washington Post.

Capital B has partnered with Atlanta Civic Circle (another newish nonprofit news org) and plans to partner with other local news outlets (including legacy Black press) to republish Capital B stories. Williams also expects that their audience engagement and community listening practices will help spread the word. Ultimately, Williams said, “we’re hoping that Black people who care about the news will come to our website and read it. And we’re hoping that, over time, we will earn the trust of Black people who did not care about the news.”

How Capital B will find that second audience — the ones who have distrusted or disengaged?

“I think there’s many layers to it, and I think that peeling back those layers is a long game,” Williams said. “We’re excited to reach the people who are really excited about getting a new news outlet that focuses on reporting for and by Black people. Over time, we are going to continue to be working on reaching people who have lost trust in media institutions. That could be because mainstream media has historically under covered or covered poorly or inaccurately covered Black people — or could be for many other reasons.”

“We think it’s crucial for the health of our democracy, for public health, for a variety of reasons, that we invest heavily in going beyond just the people who are naturally interested and finding the people who aren’t necessarily [already interested],” she added. “That’s why we felt like it was so important to do this.”

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2022, 2:59 p.m.
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