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fizkes/shutterstock

In early April, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy awarded $2.3 million in grants to 16 news organizations serving audiences historically underserved by mainstream media: black, Native, and Latinx people, immigrants, refugees, rural communities, and poor and low-income people.

Borealis launched the fund in September of 2019 to address the longstanding gap in capital and resources between established news outlets and entrepreneurs of color. Seven months later, the fund seems tragically prescient.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic and the sometimes overwhelming stream of information makes clear the need for trusted news sources that prioritize the needs of underserved communities, who will be among the most impacted,” said Craig Newmark, whose Craig Newmark Philanthropies supports the fund. “During times of crisis, critical resources, supplies and attention are mostly aimed at the advantaged. The Racial Equity in Journalism Fund will bolster a strong, diverse, and independent media sector serving the public interest at a time when communities of color need these outlets the most.”

Perhaps no person has shaped the fund’s philosophy and mission as much as its program officer, Tracie Powell. She is the founder of AllDigitocracy.org, which focuses on the media and its impact on diverse communities. Prior to assuming her role at Borealis, she was a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund.

Powell told me that her “North Star” has been looking for organizations that “put the community at the center of their work. How are they serving them? What are their needs?” The coronavirus has further amplified these needs. Communities of color and other underserved people have been the most impacted by the pandemic. These groups need to access vital health information about COVID-19 and will require further guidance as the coming financial crisis unfolds.

Nor does the fund seek to impose an increasingly outdated conception of “journalism” on publishers of color. “This over-generalized concept of ‘meeting people where they are’ isn’t enough,” Powell said. “It’s about looking at how they define journalism rather than us defining it for them. We don’t need to tell them how to do their jobs.”

“The First of Its Kind”

Prior to launching the fund, Powell and a handful of people of color working for funders like the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the Knight Foundation met for dinner to brainstorm ways to address a persistent problem—insufficient funder support for hyper-local publishers serving underserved communities.

“There’s been a lot of money sloshing around the journalism ecosystem,” Powell said, “but that money doesn’t find its way to these communities and to people on the front lines serving those communities.”

A 2018 Democracy Fund study found that between 2009 and 2015, 6% of the $1.2 billion in grants invested in journalism, news and information in the United States went toward efforts serving specific racial and ethnic groups, and 7% went toward efforts serving economically disadvantaged populations.

The findings echo those of a 2018 report by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and Northeastern University that found a disproportionate amount of funder support flows to a small number of prestigious outlets, a phenomenon the study’s authors called “elites supporting elites.”

After tossing around ideas over dinner, the group coalesced around the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. “This is the first of its kind,” Powell said in a January post on Borealis Philanthropy’s site. “This fund is specifically aimed at helping news organizations that target communities of color and underserved communities. There is nothing else like that out here.”

Making the Pitch

Powell and her colleague Jean Marie Brown commissioned a second study, interviewing and surveying 114 news media outlets, including nonprofits, for-profits, legacy and digital news entities. The pair presented their findings, “The Ecosystem of Media Outlets Led by and For People of Color,” to prospective donors.

The survey found that 45% of respondents cited “advertising” as a major source of revenue. Only 2% cited “grants.” Sixty-three percent of respondents cited “limited revenue sources” as the “greatest challenge to long-term sustainability.”

Driving home the points made by previous studies, the pair’s findings noted that 40% percent of the $469.5 million awarded to nonprofit outlets went to three organizations—ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting—between 2009 and 2015.

The paper made four recommendations in philanthropic investment: general operating support, database creation, capacity building, and peer-to-peer learning.

Additional donors to the fund include the American Journalism Project, Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Google News Initiative, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

The fund selected inaugural grantees based on the premise that “equipping people with useful information empowers them to make the best decisions on how they want to live their lives,” Powell said.

Reimagining “Journalism”

Funders, of course, understand that certain components of the journalism ecosystem—say, a daily print newspaper—weren’t long for this world before COVID-19. This explains why they have allocated tens of millions of dollars to help outlets adapt. Yet the ecosystem remains plagued by glaring funding inequities. Why?

“One of the biggest challenges I have in running this fund is helping folks expand their notion of what journalism is,” Powell said. “It’s not what we say it is, it’s what communities say it is.”

This can be a difficult pill for grantmakers to swallow. But hyper-local publishers’ rapid growth in recent years has altered this calculus. “Increasingly people of color are being laid off in media and now they’re launching their own products,” Powell said. Their products often don’t neatly fit within the conventional “print” or “digital journalism” paradigm.

In a similar vein, some publishers lack extensive grantwriting experience or the budget to pay for it. Powell admitted that a majority of the applicants lacked a “shiny” proposal, but soon realized that the best way to grasp an applicant’s vision was to sit with across from them at a table. She walked away from these conversations feeling that the conventional and paperwork-intensive grant proposal process isn’t the best vehicle by which applicants can communicate their needs.

Echoing recommendations by other nonprofit leaders in the wake of COVID-19, Powell argued that funders also need to reconsider burdensome reporting requirements. “Providing applicants and grantees with reams of paperwork isn’t helpful,” she said. “Whereas most funders put the onus on grantees, it mostly now falls on me as a program officer. My job is to interview grantees, translate it into foundation-speak, and report it to our funders.”

Three Examples of Innovative Organizations

Powell cited three grantees whose work does not fit into the traditional “journalism” mold.

PushBlack is the largest nonprofit news and media platform for Black Americans. Its primary delivery platform is text messaging. Powell, who was a user of the service before she became a funder, explained how she received a push alert from PushBlack exploring voter purging campaigns across the country. When she clicked on “check your status” on the message, she was taken to her county voting page. She typed in her name and saw she was a registered voter. “That,” she said, “is public service journalism.”

The Charleston, SC-based El Informador primarily reaches its Latino consumers through YouTube. The organization has been particularly successful in raising money through video launch parties. Meanwhile, the Bay Area-based El Tecolote publishes a biweekly newsletter. It’s the longest-running Spanish/English bilingual newspaper in California. The organization, which has proven to be adept at raising money at bingo events, is also a good example of “intersectionality,” Powell said, as it also focuses on the Bay Area’s LGBTQ immigrants.

That said, journalism funders’ lack of flexibility doesn’t entirely explain why publishers of color continue to receive a paltry amount of funding.

“Part of the problem in journalism involves networks,” Powell said. “Who’s in and who isn’t. Journalism networks tend to be very closed. Funders call me up and say, ‘We’re trying to connect with a journalist of color, can you help?’ as if I know every journalist of color!” And so another underlying goal behind the fund is to expand the network of publishers and journalists of color and strengthen these relationships.

The Best-Laid Plans…

Before the coronavirus struck, the fund assessed applicants based on the strength of their business model. This involved everything from who they planned to hire and their podcasting strategy to planned revenue-generating activities. Grantees received general operating support earmarked for activities like hiring development staff, conducting advertising experiments, and implementing membership models.

What COVID has done Powell said, is force organizations to recalibrate their short-term strategy while accelerating what they needed before the crisis started.

For example, prior to the crisis, Amsterdam News, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the United States, hired a sales consultant and embark on a digital transformation plan. Now, however, their advertising dollars have dried up overnight. Donations have decreased. Fortunately, since most of the fund’s grants come in the form of general operating support, recipients used them to keep the lights on and pay reporters. Powell told me that grantees received their checks just before any had to lay off staff.

Borealis also set aside an additional $100,000 earmarked for technical assistance, skills building, and business planning strategy. Borealis has since repurposed this funding for COVID-related relief.

Powell is clear-eyed about the road ahead. “Someone once told me, ‘You’re not in the business of saving news organizations,’ and as hard as it is to admit it, it’s accurate. You can’t save everyone—outlets of color or otherwise. The virus sped up what was going to happen anyway in some cases.”

“What Happens Next?”

The pre-coronavirus challenges facing outlets like the Amsterdam News will take on an even greater urgency once the crisis subsides. Powell recently sent out a survey to the fund’s grantees and spoke with representatives on the phone. Respondents’ number one concern, without fail, was “What happens next?”

As a result, the fund’s primary post-COVID-19 goal is helping outlets strategically leverage general operating support in the most effective way. “We’ve got to step up and provide them coaching and guidance,” Powell said. Borealis also needs to raise more money for additional technical assistance, particularly for remote conferencing tools like Zoom.

For legacy grantees like the Amsterdam News, COVID-19 has forced them to accelerate their digital transformation efforts. “They’re not going back to brick and mortar,” Powell said. Meanwhile, digital outlets, many of which already prove free content, need to get creative in terms of cultivating sustainable revenue streams. Powell was quick to note that these concerns also apply to larger news organizations.

At the very least, the fund’s support for outlets like BlackPush, El Informador, and El Tecolote, suggests that conventional news organizations “may not be the best way to address the information needs of communities,” Powell said.

If you are interested in receiving updates about the fund, click here. To learn more about the fund and how to support its work, Ms. Powell can be reached at tpowell@borealisphilanthropy.org.

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