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Sept. 25, 2023, 11 a.m.
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“These dollars are not reaching BIPOC newsrooms”: Tracie Powell and Meredith Clark on funding inequities and local news

“You say you’re giving more dollars to BIPOC newsrooms? Well, you’re actually giving to intermediaries who are filtering down those dollars to BIPOC newsrooms. But they’re not filtering down enough.”

Earlier this month, the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and 20 other funders announced Press Forward, a pledge to invest $500 million into U.S. local news over the next five years.

One of the initiative’s stated priorities is to “close longstanding inequities in journalism coverage and practice,” and last week, a coalition of journalism groups called on Press Forward to fairly distribute funds to underrepresented communities in local news.

The open letter (signed by the Asian American Journalists Association, the Indigenous Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Maynard Institute, the Online News Association, and OpenNews) cited a recent Lenfest study of more than 100 community media outlets that found more than half said they’d go out of business in less than five years based on their current finances. “If philanthropy is not intentional about addressing historical funding inequities and the processes by which they persist, it is complicit in the harm they inflict,” the letter’s authors wrote.

This is an argument that Dr. Meredith Clark and Tracie Powell have been making for a long time. Clark is the director of Northeastern University’s Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change, and Powell is CEO and founder of The Pivot Fund, which raises money for BIPOC-led news outlets.

In the spring, Clark and Powell published a paper, “Architects of Necessity: Learning from BIPOC publishers how to make journalism philanthropy more effective.” They surveyed 100 BIPOC-led news outlets and examined how racial bias affects their philanthropic funding. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said their current funders weren’t meeting their primary needs.

“The digital news era has enabled more journalists to become publishers, either individually or as part of collectives and/or startups,” Clark and Powell wrote in their peer-reviewed paper, which they presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin. But they see a failure to consider how the social construction of race influences everything from funding acquisition to the positioning of ‘desirable audiences’ who are willing and able to pay for/sponsor news products.”

They put it more bluntly to me in a recent conversation. “Really well-meaning people with access to social structures and access to capital are jumping in and wanting to get involved, but they’re not addressing some of the root causes that got us here in the first place,” Clark said. “Instead, they’re building out infrastructures that allow the money to move from one place to another — but as it goes through that movement, it gets siphoned off.”

Funders “are supporting intermediaries that are sucking up dollars and building up their business models on the backs of publishers, particularly publishers of color,” Powell added. “They [say] they’ve started these fellowship programs and boot camps for publishers of color. Well, they’re taking all the money and only giving the publishers five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars! That introduces more harm in the system than help.”

Clark, Powell, and I discussed funders and publishers, the challenges of studying funding to BIPOC news outlets, and how they’d distribute $500 million to local news. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Hanaa’ Tameez: Why did you decide to study this issue?

Tracie Powell: The Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which I launched back in 2019, was the first time dollars started going out specifically to BIPOC-led news outlets for BIPOC communities. I wanted to understand the impact and effectiveness of those dollars. It was also right in the midst of the pandemic, and following George Floyd’s murder, that other organizations had decided to finally engage and provide funding to BIPOC-led and -serving organizations. I wanted to understand how those dollars were being spent.

I took a fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and worked with Tom Patterson, Jean Marie Brown, and a couple of other people to design a survey of founders of color to hear directly from them — really for the very first time — about how their needs were being met, what opportunities were being presented, and what challenges they were experiencing with the dollars that they now had some access to.

Meredith Clark: I was coming right out of leading the Newsroom Diversity Census for the News Leaders Association. In that project, I came up with something called the Transformative Transparency Project. It was supposed to be an initiative that would use demographic data to draw more attention to the systemic issues that were keeping folks from underrepresented backgrounds out of journalism and from advancing through the ranks.

One of the problems I noted had less to do with numbers and more with the systemic barriers that [people] were facing — problems with culture in the newsroom and newsroom management. A number of folks who’d left [mainstream newsrooms] did so either to work for [existing] BIPOC-founded news organizations or to start them.

I was curious about tracing this pattern of movement. What did people find once they were on the outside on their own? How they were navigating the landscape. Where was money was coming from for them? What obstacles did they face in accessing funds?

Tracie and I had known each other for a hot minute at this point. When she reached out and she said she had this data, I jumped at the chance to work with her.

Tameez: Why is this important for each of you to study now?

Powell: First and foremost, as a funder, I see clear discrepancies in the amount and type of funding that goes to white-led organizations [compared to] the amount and type of funding that reaches or is accessed by newsrooms of color… [Funders] say they’re supporting more BIPOC newsrooms, but the data is actually saying that these dollars are not reaching BIPOC newsrooms.

The latest study from Media Funders and NORC underscores that, yes, there is a discrepancy. You say you’re giving more dollars to BIPOC newsrooms? Well, you’re actually giving dollars to intermediaries who are filtering down those dollars to BIPOC newsrooms. But they’re not filtering enough of those dollars; [instead], they’re building their own business models, hiring people, all that sort of thing. But the newsrooms they serve are not able to hire and grow.

That was one reason. The other reason is, quite frankly, there is an emerging majority in this country. They look like we do on this call, Black and brown folks. If we as journalists and philanthropists say we need to shore up democracy, and we want to ensure that we are actually reaching and serving communities of color across the country, then we darn well better start looking like you…

We have to do a better job resourcing communities of color. That includes news outlets that serve communities of color.

Clark: For my part, one of the reasons it’s so important to do this research at all, but especially right now, is that there’s always a demand to make really clear what systemic racism looks like. Doing so in a way that is quantifiable and definable, according to the systems that we’re working in, is one of the strategies that people have for making the public, journalism stakeholders, and the communities themselves aware of what said racism looks like.

It’s a Catch-22 in itself. Like, in order to prove racism exists, you have to come up with this data, but the data aren’t there because racism exists!

But it’s absolutely necessary. The most interesting part of this for me was looking at the historical context that ties directly into what we’re seeing right now. In the post-Civil War era, when enslaved Africans were “freed,” so to speak, the philanthropic efforts at the time focused on helping Black folks to be self-sufficient, with little respect for where they were coming from. These are people whose families have been destroyed, whose bodies have been harmed, who do not have access to the commercial infrastructures of the time in order to profit, maintain profit, build wealth, and pass on that wealth. Yet there was this philanthropic impulse to do something.

That’s the same moment that we’re seeing right now. There’s a philanthropic impulse to do something during this major shift both in the country’s demographics and in the way we relate to one another. Really well-meaning people with access to the social structures and access to capital are jumping in and wanting to get involved, but they’re not addressing some of the root causes that got us here in the first place. Instead, as Tracie mentioned, they’re building out infrastructures that allow the money to move from one place to another — but as it goes through that movement, it gets siphoned off.

We’re talking about trickle-down approaches from philanthropic leaders to the people on the ground doing the journalism. We know from a history of studies of trickle-down economics that the trickle never really gets to the ground. The mediating layer catches the wealth and everyone else is left to fight for resources. That’s what makes this so important right now.

Tameez: What should philanthropic organizations, intermediaries, and BIPOC founders take away from your study?

Clark: [We need to look at] what the requirements are for the folks who need the funding and the support to get it, why and how [those requirements] came about, and what that has to do with historical ways of seeing folks who don’t have access to capital as unqualified, less than, or in need of this sort of benevolent oversight.

We need to find and develop — and experiment [with], I would emphasize — different ways of moving capital from one place to another.

And then, for the people who are attempting to capitalize, for lack of a better word, on this new approach to funding BIPOC organizations that are news startups — it is honestly to demand more, to make very plain for funders how and when their reporting requirements are overly burdensome and not proportional to the funding that’s being allotted.

Powell: For me, there’s one singular takeaway that everybody needs to understand: We are replicating a system that’s already in place and already failing us. Look around at the number of news outlets that are failing. The Clayton Crescent here in Georgia closed two weeks ago. It was serving a community that was 76% Black and 15% Hispanic, yet [had] no people on staff who looked like the community that [it was] trying to serve. [Ed. note: The Clayton Crescent was operated and solely staffed by founder Robin Kemp.]

That’s an example of what’s happening in the rest of the ecosystem. [The Clayton Crescent] was a good [outlet] that offered government accountability and great election coverage that went national, but still, it wasn’t reflective of the community that it was located in. It was not embedded in the community. I have to believe that was one of the reasons it failed. Now, the founder might want to blame the fact that, “Oh, the community didn’t support us.” Well, you’re not really seen as part of that larger community!

We cannot replicate the system we already have that’s not working. Underneath that is the fact that [funders] are supporting intermediaries that are sucking up dollars and building up their business models on the backs of publishers, particularly publishers of color. They [say] they’ve started these fellowship programs and boot camps for publishers of color. Well, they’re taking all the money and only giving the publishers five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars! That introduces more harm in the system than help.

There is also a fundamental lack of understanding, on the path of philanthropy, about the ecosystem. We continuously put the cart before the horse, especially when it comes to BIPOC organizations.

We’ll fund digital transformation, for example. We’ll fund organizations that focus on developing revenue strategies and what have you. But before you do any of that stuff, there needs to be some basic infrastructure in place. There needs to be some culture change.

BIPOC news organizations don’t need DEI training. They are DEI. What they need is capacity and resources so that they can access tools and talent to do more of what they’re already doing. And so when you come to me and say, “Oh, we’re going to be providing legal training around public records” — well, publishers of color don’t have time for that because they just trying to keep the plane up in the sky.

They need staff, right? They need tech tools. So just give them the money. We can help them find where to get the talent and the tools from, but that’s what they need.

In the recent Press Forward announcement, one BIPOC-led organization was announced in the initial funding strategy. That was URL Media. I’m thrilled for URL, but URL is going to hit a wall, if they haven’t already, because they’re trying to get a number of Black and brown organizations in their group so that they can access advertising dollars. There are only so many Black and brown organizations that have websites or news products that can handle advertising. They need the capacity to buy the technology so that they can accept ads. In addition to ad tech, they need to be able to tell advertisers who their audiences are, where they’re located, all the demographic info advertisers want. [Ed. note: URL Media cofounders S. Mitra Kalita and Sara Lomax-Reese said in a statement, “URL is indeed growing amid a challenging climate. We currently stand at 22 partners and represent a collective audience of 24 million. We have hardly hit a wall. We’ve distributed close to $1M in ad revenues and have opened the door for partners to receive new revenue. We can and do tell advertisers who we reach; we have written extensively about innovative ways BIPOC media rewrite sponsorship playbooks and the myriad audiences we represent here, here, and here. As the co-founders of URL, we are excellent journalists and also damn fine businesswomen, who, in addition to URL, are running newsroom operations that serve communities of color. We are unique in that we are not an aggregator or an intermediary and operate with our partners under South African wisdom Ubuntu — ‘We are because you are.’ It would be foolish to underestimate and undermine us, and our deep commitment to community and the sustainability of fellow media organizations serving people of color.”]

We’re not giving newsrooms the dollars they need to be able to demonstrate that. Yet they gave money to URL. Again, it’s putting the cart before the horse. It leads me to believe the funders have this fundamental misunderstanding about business. People say, oh, they [must] know. But a lot of funders now are journalists…[and] journalists don’t make the best businesspeople, I’ve found.

Finally, philanthropists and a lot of journalists don’t understand what “community-centered” or “community-focused” means.

Tameez: Say more about what you mean by that. What’s being misunderstood or misrepresented?

Powell: Before Press Forward launched, they thought they were on this whistle-stop tour to learn from communities about what’s needed. But really, they were talking to other funders and elite journalism associations and elite journalists to find out what was needed.

I brought up, multiple times, that we really need to be talking to the community to find out what their information needs are, how they access information, what they do with it.

The response I got was, “We’re not going to go on a bus and talk to 20 people.” Well, why the hell not?! These are the people we’re trying to impact with our dollars. These are the people who we want to be more informed and engaged civically. Yet you don’t want to go on a bus and talk to 20 people? That lets me know that when we’re talking about community, we’re talking about two different things.

I’ve talked to funders who say, “Oh, I went to this other funder who said that this organization reaches the Hispanic community.” Well, why not just go to that Hispanic community, in your state or your town, and ask them yourself, directly, instead of going to another funder? [Otherwise] you’re replicating the mistakes and bad practices that undergird the system we currently have. And, again, that system is failing.

Tameez: Why do you think philanthropic organizations might be more likely to fund intermediaries than individual projects and news outlets?

Powell: They don’t know these BIPOC community organizations. They don’t know BIPOC communities. So they give money to people they already know and trust. That’s the short answer.

I think, also, they perceive us as more “risky,” though even that term is subjective and loaded with the trust issue. They perceive us as more “risky” because they don’t know us. And that’s a problem. I tell publishers all the time, “Oh, you have to network, you have to talk to funders, you have to build relationships.” But you know what? That’s a two-way street.

We’ve got to trust that these publishers know their communities best and how to serve them best. For a lot of funders, that’s a hurdle to get over.

Clark: Structurally, as Tracie said, it’s easier to [fund intermediaries], and it does have to do with trust. Trust, in these cases, is operationalized as something that is measurable, that we can create reports out of, that we can do evaluations of — because those are the systems we already have.

And measurement is necessary. You need metrics to understand what’s happening. The problem is the lack willingness to invest in developing new metrics. That’s an issue, going back to what Tracie said, about philanthropic funders not being willing to, [for example], get on a bus and talk to 20 people in different communities across the country. It’s a matter of not being willing to spend enough time to do the work to develop those metrics from the ground up.

Tameez: In your paper, you asked respondents about “the support they received from 12 organizations that provide capital and/or material support (personnel, technology, etc.) to journalism nonprofits and startups, and whether they would recommend the funding agency to other BIPOC founders.”

The results really vary. Can you talk about why? Are there trends you found?

Clark: I think one thing that’s important to recognize is that these organizations are very different and have very different approaches and scopes, even if the mission of advancing journalism is the same. To that end, when people signal that they don’t trust or would not recommend them, that is a cohesive way of signaling that they’ve had a negative experience with that organization.

The qualitative data behind that are much more disparate. People haven’t had the sort of support that they actually need in terms of, not navigating cultures they find in different newsrooms, but actually having people advocate for the culture to change, for there to be widespread change in the industry writ large, whether it is a mainstream organization or one that’s being created today.

What you’re seeing is that people are signaling, for whatever reason — whether it’s because Google required, you know, too much in the way of reporting, or —

Powell: Participation in a boot camp…

Clark: Part of the problem is that we can’t speak in very clear and specific terms because people still have so much to lose. For the data that we did get, [there are probably] four to five times as many folks and organizations that could have participated and relayed the same sort of stories and reflected the same sort of attitudes, but they can’t because they might be risking their [organization’s] potential to survive.

Tameez: That’s actually my next question: What were the challenges in conducting this study and getting the data that you needed to get? I know your challenges, Meredith, tracking the diversity in the industry. I know it’s not easy.

Clark: It’s risky. It’s professionally risky to even talk about these things. People don’t want to be perceived as racist. They don’t want to be perceived as out of touch, and the same goes for the organizations…and so the work can’t get done. It’s disruptive, incredibly disruptive. I think about how much time was lost from Tracie leaving one place, us establishing being able to work together, and then all of the things that happened for us to be able to work together: You’re looking at probably, I would say, a year, if not longer, of lost time and effort that we could have put into this project. The project could have had more data than what we have now and could exist in different forms.

But the systems we’re working in create a sense of precarity not only for researchers but, especially, for the people who are trying to receive funding. That is the difficulty in and of itself. Precarity. Perpetual precarity.

Tameez: So, I want to switch gears a little bit. I would love to get your reads on the Press Forward initiative.

Clark: It will be interesting to see. We need good news in journalism right now, so it’s encouraging that these foundations are working together to inject this money into this problem.

But I’m instantly critical, I’ll say. I think that’s fair. One, even though $500 million is a lot of money, it’s not a lot of money when you think about the landscape and the scope of the problem that they are trying to address and how the money is ultimately going to be distributed. It decreases very, very quickly, I would say exponentially.

I’m also curious about who is involved in the decision-making — and not only involved, because plenty of people can be asked to come in and consult, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have power to change things or to demand that things be done a different way. So I’m critical about how is this going to work, who’s going to be involved, and, honestly, how the initiative will define success.

Powell: It’s interesting. And I am always hopeful. The Pivot Fund launched with the mission of raising $500 million just for BIPOC news outlets. So if Press Forward is going to launch with the mission of raising $500 million for the entire sector, that’s more questionable. Like Meredith said, that’s not enough money.

The other thing is, we have seen the initial grants1, and if that’s an indication of how this will be done — done with a lack of transparency in terms of decision-making and how the decisions were arrived at…Who made those decisions? It’s, like, three different funds…

I remain hopeful. But I also am steadfast in that it’s incumbent upon the Meredith Clarks, Tracie Powells, it’s incumbent on you as a writer and journalist, and on publishers, and publishers of color in particular, to continue to work and hold this sector accountable — with hope and encouragement, as Meredith said, but with the eye on the ball.

We cannot afford to get distracted by the shiny stuff. This problem is bigger than just how philanthropists behave. This is serious stuff right here. It’s about what kind of country we want to be, who we recognize, and whose voices are valued. We just are going to have to continue this bold, unforgiving work of accountability.

Tameez: If you two were leading Press Forward, if you were holding the $500 million, how would you do it?

Powell: I would definitely be more community-oriented. What [foundations] call community-centric [usually means] just talking to other community foundations, and community foundations often look a lot like the folks in charge of these major national foundations: People who are well-off, well-connected, and are already well-served by news and information. They have money, education, and access. That’s not “community,” that’s one community, I would say.

I would spend the dollars on the kinds of organizations that the Pivot Fund supports. [For example], at BeeTV, here’s an HBCU-trained journalist who couldn’t get a job reporting the news in front of the camera. And so she left capital-J journalism and started posting the news and information on her own Facebook page. She covered a major news story that led to her filling in at a white, evangelical Christian cable station. Now she owns that white evangelical Christian cable station and is injecting news into that station. That’s the kind of person I would support.

In Savannah, Georgia with Pasa La Voz, Lisa Galarza — who was a child of migrant farmworkers who wound up in the foster care system, got pregnant before the age of 13 after she was assaulted and was forced to carry the baby, and has a GED — started a news organization because she wanted to understand why the system doesn’t work for everybody. The Pivot Fund invested $150,000 in her and she’s already made back most of that investment in new revenue. She’s acquired another newsroom up the road, another Spanish-language news outlet. They’ve grown their reach because Pivot invested a little bit of money in them.

There are opportunities across this country to invest in people and organizations that are embedded and steeped in communities that have been historically and currently ignored by corporate news media. The buying power in those Black and brown communities is off the chain. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the country…

I think that we have the power. We just need the dollars to have the kind of impact that foundations and funders say they want to see. Circling back to BeeTV, the fact that she was able to buy this white evangelical TV station, merge it with her mostly African American Facebook audience, and bring those two communities together on one platform: That’s amazing. She’s showing us the way forward; we only need to pay attention.

Clark: I want to start in the middle. We talk about the historically ignored and marginalized as though those people and organizations have gone away.

And they’re not. There is still a very rich Black press in this country, a number of outlets that have a legacy media presence that are struggling to make the transition — and have been for 20, 30 years — to digital and now to social and Web3 audiences. But the proof of concept for those organizations is there. The same is true for Spanish-language news outlets and for ethnic press outlets that speak directly to smaller groups of people, whether they’re Ukrainian immigrants here in Boston or Hmong people in Wisconsin. These are folks who have proof of concept by their very existence, and they have managed to survive — maybe not as long because they don’t have the same sort of history as legacy media, but surviving the same economic pressures that legacy media is succumbing to. I would say that it’s time to recognize that history, start the investments there, build from there.

[If I were in charge of Press Forward], I would have invested this money very quietly and had an announcement probably midway through the program funding, rather than from the very beginning…I would have wanted to see how the money could change things [on a smaller scale] before I tried to start changing things at a wide scale.

From there, after investing in extant organizations, I would ask the people who have been supporting these organizations — whether they’ve been in existence for over 100 years, like the New York Amsterdam News, or are more recent like BeeTV — I would ask them to be the career coaches and the business coaches and provide some of that infrastructure to the newer, emergent founders and publishers.

I wouldn’t try to take on journalism from the legacy media perspective. I think that field is too crowded with private investment money, and the profit motives are so different that it makes that sort of an effort of throwing good money after bad. I would invest in the outlets that were created and have been maintained by people of the global majority.

Powell: I noticed that neither one of us said intermediaries, Meredith.

Clark: No, I think intermediaries have their place. But I think that place historically has been, as you mentioned earlier, putting the cart before the horse. Bring the intermediaries in after you’ve tried the experiment. Ask them to come in and evaluate and apply those metrics after you’ve given it a try.

Risk a little bit. I’m not saying go out and risk $100 million. Risk $1 million and have a small cohort. That’s what we call defining an intervention. Then ask those intermediaries to come in and evaluate. And have an evaluation that’s community-based so that you can compare the two, because you’re going to find that there are big differences between what the community says is successful versus what the intermediaries are going to say is successful. Then adapt your strategy and move forward.

This story has been updated with statements from URL Media and Knight.

  1. Knight said in a statement: “On September 7, Knight Foundation announced nearly $15 million in grants from its regular budget for journalism in addition to a $150 million commitment in Press Forward, and will announce Press Forward grants at a later date.” ↩︎
Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Sept. 25, 2023, 11 a.m.
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