After 2020, Black-led newsrooms ask: Where is the long-term support?

Many Black-led outlets — digital and legacy media alike — are still trying to figure out how to sustain their work.

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This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S.

The 2020 uprisings spurred philanthropic support on issues disproportionately impacting Black people, like climate disaster, maternal mortality, policing — and the news outlets that cover them. 

Nonprofit news organization Capital B is spearheading the growth of a network of local newsrooms producing in-depth journalism on those topics, and launched in January 2022 after fundraising $9 million for the nonprofit newsroom. 

“I think the [protests and support] was not just a moment,” said Gillian White, the senior vice president of programming and revenue at Capital B. “It was the build-up of years and years and years of people trying to say and show all the ways that Black people are still treated unfairly in this country.”

But three years after an unprecedented wave of financial support for racial equity initiatives, Black journalism entrepreneurs like Dana Amihere say they’re struggling to sustain their newsrooms despite corporations’ commitment to a cumulative $35 billion investment in racial equity efforts.

“It is frustrating as a Black woman trying to seek funding for something that I believe in so fiercely and I’ve put so much into,” said Amihere, who is a founder and the executive director of AfroLA, a new, solutions-focused, data-driven and community-centered news organization for Los Angeles, told through the lens of the Black community (Elegon is a board member of AfroLA). 

Although she has over ten years of experience as a designer, developer, data journalist, and journalism educator, she hasn’t received substantial philanthropic support for AfroLA, which she launched this year.

“I’ve been met with apathy, nonchalance, and in some cases, suspicion,” said Amihere.

Amihere’s struggles mirror a national trend: Many Black-led media outlets — digital and legacy — are struggling to sustain their work. And several feel as if major funders are watching from the sidelines.

53% of community media outlets

The fact that Black and BIPOC news outlets are struggling to keep their doors open is backed by research. A report by the National Trust for Local News and Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Center for Community Media found that 53% of community media outlets “serving racial, ethnic, or linguistic communities” surveyed said they expected to go out of business within five years if current revenue trends continue. 

And it’s echoed in the Center for Community Media’s mission statement: “Communities of color and immigrants often rely on their own news outlets as the only trusted sources of information. Yet these news outlets remain largely invisible to mainstream media, public officials, the nonprofit sector, advertisers and philanthropic organizations.”

While the 2020 uprisings and subsequent “reckoning” in media may have reduced some invisibility for Black-led newsrooms, White is cautious about over-assuming future support despite Capital B’s funding success. 

“This is not the time to look around and think that because we’ve been having a conversation for roughly three years as a nation around racial equity, that somehow that conversation has solved the problems,” said White.

It’s not just new nonprofit publications that are bootstrapped for funding: Black legacy media organizations have their own problems as well. According to Andrew Ramsammy, chief operating officer at the Local Media Association (LMA), Black legacy media organizations have their own hurdles, which differ from those at startups.

“The landscape for any organization that is looking to start up today — to build an audience from scratch — is a long road,” said Ramsammy. “On the other end, you have legacy media organizations that are being completely disrupted by the change in audience behavior, in how platforms use news content, and how that content shows up on the platform.”

The Local Media Association facilitates programming that impacts over 3,000 newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, directories, digital news sites, and research and development partners.

From the financial support for racial equity in newsrooms stemming from George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests, LMA created Word in Black and the Knight X Bloom Lab, two initiatives that support ten legacy Black publishers with story amplification and digital transformation efforts.

“If we were to look at specifically the programs that LMA offers back to any member of LMA … each one of those private programs delivers back a multiple return on not only the investment, but to the participants of the program.”

Still, the success of Capital B and Word in Black is relatively unique. 

A recent report published by Professor Meredith D. Clark and Tracie M. Powell found twenty-three of the 42 respondents (54.76%) who answered questions about the health of their BIPOC-founded news organizations indicated that they had cash on hand to sustain operations for three months or fewer.

Clark and Powell put it plainly: “Journalism philanthropy — and with it, journalism entrepreneurship — has a race problem.” 

Ensuring sustainable funding for Black-led Journalism

In addition to her research, Powell founded The Pivot Fund in 2021 to increase the amount of money funneled to BIPOC-led news organizations and combat inequities in the sector.

Three years after the murder of George Floyd, she said most funders have defaulted to their “traditional behaviors,” relying on prohibitive requirements for funding support

“You shouldn’t have to be a member of an association or participate in an accelerator program to receive funding,” said Powell. “Not only are [funders] concentrating dollars in the hands of a relatively few, white-led organizations … when they do target BIPOC organizations, that money is often filtered through a white-led association.”

For its first round of grants, The Pivot Fund selected seven Georgia news organizations that reach Black, Hispanic, and Asian American audiences to receive a combined $2 million. Those organizations varied in size, from nontraditional one- or two-person operations in rural areas to the state’s largest Black-owned radio network.

Organizations in The Pivot Fund’s first grantee cohort are often overlooked by philanthropic funders because they don’t look like traditional news organizations. In addition to racially minoritized folks leading the newsroom, some grantees only publish on social media.

Powell is one of a few Black media entrepreneurs who have left newsrooms to shape the philanthropy sector through intermediary organizations, which primarily raise money to redistribute to other newsrooms. 

Although intermediaries and associations have helped Black-led media organizations keep their doors open, Alicia Bell believes more people need to get involved. Bell is the director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, an intermediary fund that increases the capacity and sustainability of news organizations and journalism ecosystem partners led by people of color.

“Across the scope of journalism funding, there aren’t that many journalism funding foundations or journalism portfolios at foundations, period,” said Bell. 

They say local funders need to get involved. 

“Community foundations don’t always know how to categorize journalism, and don’t know whether it’s an economic development issue, a social capital issue, an arts and culture issue,” Bell said.

According to them, a more equitable playing field for BIPOC-led media organizations begins locally, and funding disparities won’t be resolved until local funders understand the far-reaching impacts of supporting journalism. 

The biggest challenge for Black-led media entrepreneurs is finding ways to survive while confronting norms of who gets to survive in the industry. 

“It goes back to the thing that everyone in mission-driven work says, which is that you have to trust the people who are doing the work,” said White at Capital B. “You have to trust that they are in conversation with their community, that they are of their community, and that they understand what they need, and what they need to provide to their community. 

Amihere, who is still raising funds for AfroLA, said the problem is simple: Philanthropy and support can’t be about only funding the flashiest projects. Funders need to take a chance on the wider ecosystem of Black media and treat it seriously.

“[Funders] need to stop looking for racial and ethnic media projects that are ‘sexy,’” said Amihere, “That fit their agenda of respectability politics, in terms of what ethnic media should look like: the right type of Latine, the right type of person writing from X community.” 

Uyiosa Elegon is a Democracy Correspondent at The Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider and copyedited by Marlee Baldridge. 

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