Ethnic media outlets play a crucial role in informing communities that might not feel served through mainstream media. But most of them aren’t easily accessible online or are print-only.
A Black-owned design, web development, and storytelling studio aims to change that. Michael Grant, a visual journalist, designer, and teaching fellow for the Google News Lab, founded Get Current Studio with editorial design lead Gabe Hongsdusit and audience lead Daja Henry. It officially launched on Oct. 8 and aims to offer ethnic media publishers a baseline set of technologies they can adopt and adapt.
Grant spoke with The Objective about how being a designer impacts his story-telling, the relationship between journalism and technology, and building a less transactional, more inclusive media landscape.
This conversation is edited for length and clarity.
What does empowering journalists through technology look like to you?
I think technology can be quite elitist. As a result of that lack of inclusion, publishers have fallen by the wayside trying to survive.
Technology empowerment [to me] means being empathetic about the state of affairs, and then figuring out best practices for working with these groups. Other ethnic media outside of my bubble of Black media also have these challenges. Am I the perfect person for the job, as a Black man, to go into other communities and serve them?
I can be empathetic in that process, but it’s probably really good to include people from that community in how we address those challenges. Then it reflects the changes that are needed and meets them in ways that are accessible to them, whether it’s language barriers or just interesting things that a community operates on. The most important things about technology inclusion are reducing barriers of entry and being empathetic and intentional about what the communities of these users are. And that’s what we hope to have as a pillar in our work.
There are communities where maybe folks who are really tuned in to their ethnic media outlet might not have easy access to the Internet. How do you see the studio increasing the reach of publishers without compromising the way that they build community offline?
A lot of these thoughts are my mad imagination going into a bunch of wild different directions, but something that’s come up in some of my talks with publishers — they still have their establishment in the heart of a community and they are places where their community members will come. So if there’s a local celebrity in town, they might stop by the paper. These locations, I think, are super important.
What can you do on site as a publisher to still engage with community members in a journalistic way? So one of my clients is doing some really thoughtful research in their area, and is following some hunches about their established sense of place in the community. They’re looking at doing more events and engagement on the ground.
From a technological standpoint, there are some really important things that can be done alongside those kinds of efforts — maybe having some super powerful Wi-Fi near the paper might be a great way to do it. Maybe text messaging platforms are a better method for some of the readership. Another thing is to have sites that load really quickly so that bandwidth doesn’t get in the way of the information need. Maybe there’s a way for the newspaper to be a big driver behind those kinds of access ideas.
How long is the involvement with a publisher expected to last? Is it an indefinite commitment or a finite period of working together?
We’re not out to be transactional. We’re looking at sort of this partnership model where a publisher can bring us on to help them with their digital transformation, or migration into a baseline set of technology, which is typically NewsPack or WordPress. But the idea is that after you get through the digital transformation side, then it’s like the storytelling studio.
What we’d like to do is to make sure that their tech stays updated — that if there’s another agency that’s supposed to be servicing them with support and maintenance, we can kind of be a check on that support and make sure publishers are getting what they deserve, not a once-over.
But we can also address bugs, process tickets, and make sure everything’s up and running. What we’re gonna have a lot of fun with is helping publishers with the storytelling process — we might be proposing new tools or building some other visuals or being a partner in the storytelling and creation process — there will be a price point for that. But we also think that these kinds of partnerships and content will yield a high return and we’ll be tapped into audience metrics, making sure that the storytelling is really speaking to their values and that we deliver really engaging reporting visually and and journalistically throughout their relationship with us.
Your entire career in journalism, you’ve been more so working on the design side. How do you think that lens gives you a different approach to storytelling?
I love that question. I learned pretty early on that we journalists tend to default in our storytelling. What I mean is that our storytelling structures might not change as much. Sometimes we can be enamored by the scoop, or what interesting, sort of juicy details we were able to uncover through sophisticated research and reporting. Writers will write that story. And I don’t mean to just like jump on writers because they’re not the only ones — if you go to a video journalist, and you ask them what’s the best way to tell the story, they’re going to come up with an idea that’s based in video journalism or visuals in the video form.
I think it’s such a fun and exciting foray into what can be in our storytelling when we get all the people at the same table and we ask, “What is the best way that we tell a story?”
And I think there’s a lot of teams in journalism that are doing that. Coming from the design side, you know how to step into a lot of different types of mediums. I’m asking, “Okay, what is the best asset in this case?”. I think that might make me a little bit more flexible and my ability to perceive what form a story might be able to take.
I also like the idea of bringing groups of thinkers together who are flexible around what the possibilities might be to tell a story. During my time at Stanford, I learned about sparklines by Nancy Duarte, and it’s a format that’s used often in speech writing, and it talks about bouncing back and forth between today’s norms and the vision for the future. We can incorporate these kinds of things in our storytelling — what is and what could be — and I love unpacking lots of approaches to storytelling.
What kind of media landscape do you hope Get Current Studio can help build and contribute to?
I don’t think that you have to be at the biggest bastions of journalism in the country in order to have exemplary work. I would really love to see more talented journalists and technologists taking an interest in ethnic media as a place to really flex their muscles. I know that there are oftentimes challenges by committing [to that] — because maybe they don’t pay as much or as handsomely or for whatever reason, it might not be sustainable.
But what I think I can do as a studio is — at least on a contractual level — bring emerging and elite talent on at least a project by project basis, into the room at these ethnic media publishers and raise the bar for what they can do. I think that there’s so much value in going to the place that’s sort of underrepresented and under-resourced and bringing that intellectual capital there, and seeing what impact we can yield and so my goal is to attract more people who really want to make that contribution.
How do you define objectivity and what role do you see that playing in the journalism that ethnic media publishers produce?
The status quo has been defined and it’s been the driver of journalism for some time now. It’s no secret that white men have led newsrooms and leadership in newsrooms, so journalism has so much more room to grow because we haven’t seen all the ideas. There are tons of people who have been left out of producing journalism and being supported. One of the first things I learned out of J-school was that it’s hard to be a journalist because it’s hard to get paid. As a result of that, who have we missed out on?
There’s so much opportunity to give journalism the reach that it should have always had, and to build more equity into the model of journalism while being sure that it’s supporting folks who aren’t and haven’t been at the table. So I’m curious to see what happens in the future of journalism, if we can start to bring down the barriers of entry into journalism and change what we celebrate in journalism as legitimate and what people say is great journalism.