All of us have watched the bouncy-castle known as Ozy deflate and then collapse. But there’s one lesson I hope we don’t take away from this: that Black- and POC-led businesses are unworthy of investment. Ozy was a rogue unicorn in the worst of senses, and also highly funded in ways inconceivable to most diverse media startups.
Maybe Ozy-gate is a blessing. It gives us a chance to take a new look at how and why to invest in diverse media. We are in an era of media innovation focused on serving BIPOC communities. URL Media, for example, is a new for-profit venture from Mitra Kalita, formerly of CNN, and Sara Lomax-Reese, the CEO of WURD radio. Its mission, among other things, is to attract advertising and revenue to local BIPOC-serving media. Their work dovetails with market-driven initiatives to deliver advertising dollars to Black-led media. There are also new, scaleable nonprofit efforts, including Capital B, which is starting its own Black-led and -serving local news network.
Lauren Williams, co-founder of Capital B wrote about the Ozy mess in a timely and brilliant op-ed for the New York Times. She focused on the advertising model for news, and how deep flaws in it made a nonprofit model more sustainable for a Black hard-news publication. Williams states, “Vice Media Group [via SVP Marsha Cooke] found last June that its content about the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter was monetized at a 57 percent lower rate than other news content because of keyword blocking—when advertisers block their ads from appearing on articles that have certain words or phrases” including “black people.” As Williams says, “Try monetizing that as a Black publication.”
I’ve looked at the media industry from four perspectives: 1) as a working journalist trying to get the best reporting done, but with little control over institutions and finances; 2) as an independent journalist who produced public radio docs that were not financially sustainable in a system focused on super-serving white Baby Boomers; 3) as a nonprofit media funder and researcher who conceived of and helped launch the Racial Equity in Journalism pooled fund, which philanthropist MacKenzie Scott recently joined in supporting; and 4) as an independent media entrepreneur with a product which is not only sustainable but scaleable.
A year ago I started Our Body Politic with an explicit focus on the information needs of Black women and all women of color in a fraught democracy and a pandemic. I wanted to help save lives with good public health information on public radio, which deeply underserves Black audiences in particular. We’ve been on the air for a little more than a year of weekly episodes, and plan to continue to expand public radio syndication and podcast audience as well as do live events and original data. I now plan to use this show as a foundation for a larger for-profit data and news business. I see an opportunity to use a range of techniques including deep listening to local communities and AI intake and analytics of broad-based surveys to improve on data that routinely mis-quantifies not only of women of color but other demographic groups, including rural whites. This will also help journalism with contextual narrative analysis, based on reporting, data and historical research, which meets this critical moment. One common example of mis-quantification is flawed political polling. Another likely example is the prospect of a Census under-count of Black Americans. We plan to use tools of field reporting, community deep-listening, and sociology/anthropology to micro-segment American demographics and psychographics; plus use AI intake and analytics to scale volume.
When the Ozy implosion hit the news, it brought me back to my conversations with potential funders. Sometimes they’ve been intense. In one case, I pointed out that the person seemed to echo presumptions that Black journalists do opinion while white journalists produce canonical news. In another conversation with a potential funder and advisor, I challenged the idea that if we optimized for a broad audience to ensure a hit, and specifically added more humor, that was the best strategy. Although we have laughs on the show, a lot of what we talk about is appropriately heavy. And, it should now be obvious that a show that optimizes for women of color can still go big. The main point is: I don’t treat potential funders as people to flatter, but as people on a shared learning journey who I can both gain wisdom from and teach.
I’m 52 years old, hardly another young media startup maven. But I’m better equipped to do the work now than ever in my life. In some ways I’m an unusual founder, but in others I am just another Black girl on my grind. According to research by the Harvard Business Review and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 17 percent of Black women are involved in running a new business or planning one, compared to 10 percent of white women. But as the article in the HBR explains, “despite this early lead, only 3 percent of Black women are running mature businesses.”
I supported myself the first year of the show by working a full-time job in philanthropy, with deep firewalls between that role and my journalism. I’ve now raised a million dollars and counting, mainly from contacts I wouldn’t have had without going to an elite university and working a series of elite jobs, much like Carlos Watson. But in my case, when I started Our Body Politic, I paid others when I couldn’t pay myself and even lent the show personal funds when it needed it. That allowed me to experiment in a relatively safe way with the viability of the enterprise. When I told a potential funder who later came on board that I was lucky to have this freedom, she reminded me: “You aren’t lucky. You’re working two jobs.”
And so it goes. Most BIPOC creators are forced to self-finance, or fold. This model is not sustainable, and has to change. I’ve long been working to change it. I worked with strategist Jessica Clark of Dot Connector studio to examine journalism from an analytical perspective with a focus on equity, resulting in the report Reconstructing American News. As part of that work, we commissioned a more specific report, Investing in Equitable News and Media Projects by Dr. Wilneida Negrón and Andrea Armeni.
Among Negrón and Armeni’s findings:
- “Investors in the early-stage media sector overall appears to be shrinking, after a brief spike when media companies were seen as “technology” investments (e.g. BuzzFeed, UpWorthy, etc) in the 2010s.” (This is echoed by newer data.)
- For diverse media investment, “the relevant community was seen as a market to be dominated, not as a population to be adequately served.”
- “Revenue-modeling remains an uncertain proposition in all media, let alone equitable and/or diverse-market media, making for shy investors in the sector.”
And while that last part is 100 percent true, it’s also true that investors are happy enough to entertain “an uncertain proposition” for the right people. Like Watson, who apparently raised $83 million on handshakes, smiles, and flattery.
But that’s not how I see the best-led BIPOC for-profit and nonprofits news outlets winning. One little secret is that diverse-led nonprofit media organizations often were much more financially stable in the pandemic/reckoning era than other longstanding nonprofits, including NPR and many juggernaut public radio stations. I don’t have and can’t have the same sense of investment and viability in Black- and POC-led for-profits, since most of the numbers are never made public. But I’d urge shy investors to take a second look at diverse media. We’re in a multi-layered crisis—of disinformation, public health, climate, and voting rights. Under-serving people of color not only leaves money on the table but lives on the line. Many of Ozy’s investors framed their commitment as social benefit-driven as well as financial. I’d like to think that capital flows on more than flattery when our democracy depends on it.
This post has been updated to correct Sara Lomax-Reese’s position
TOP IMAGE: Carlos Watson, right, speaks onstage with guests during Ozy Fest 2018. Photo by Joe Russo/Sipa USA via AP Images