Epicenter's publisher S. Mitra Kalita (second from right) during a panel about empowering local journalism at the Knight Media Forum.

It’s been an awful, relentless year for the news business. And we’re only in February.

I just returned from the Knight Media Forum, a gathering in Miami of nearly 700 funders, news outlets, and community builders. I’m the CEO of two media companies, the Queens-based Epicenter NYC and URL Media, an advertising, talent and content-sharing network that boasts 28 media partners. I was honored to join the opening panel about empowering local journalism alongside John Palfrey of MacArthur Foundation and Alicia Bell of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, moderated by CUNY journalism school’s Graciela Mochkofsky. You can see the whole thing here, and I highlight some elements and themes below. (Aside: I also spoke to Gabe Lerner for his Democracy Notes podcast.)

The fragility of now

We kicked off the discussion situating this moment in journalism and democracy. I didn’t sugarcoat: times are tough, our economics feel fragile, and the job losses in newsrooms have been heartbreaking. Throw in an election (actually dozens of them, around the world) and technological change, and it’s all quite uncertain and unsettling. 

That being said, I offered a bit of a mea culpa on stage. Before launching my startups, I spent the last few years of my career pushing for change in mainstream newsrooms, big places like CNN and the LA Times, in big jobs like SVP and managing editor. I wonder now if it’s time to accept that neither speed nor embrace of digital media will be enough. Execution is not our problem; it’s the absolute reinvention of what news actually is and what it means in people’s lives. Only then might we be valued in the same manner as a Hulu or Netflix subscription. Thankfully, we have some good examples in community media of what is working, trusted, relevant, even profitable or sustainable, and occasionally joyful and beautiful. (One attendee came up to me and said, “Every time you speak, you always invoke Frederick Douglass.” This repetition is intentional so I do so here again and explain why: Douglass’ newspapers helped readers escape slavery, access healthcare and browse ads to reconnect with loved ones. This idea of the press operating in service to our communities is nothing new, my co-founder Sara Lomax, who has innovated for four decades in Black media, has taught me.)

I mentioned on the panel that decades of diversity gains have been undone in a matter of days. We are hearing from journalists of color, whose phones were ringing off the hook in 2020, that they now feel abandoned by our industry. I acknowledge those who do not see diversity as a fad but central to committing good journalism and our business model: among them, the Journalists of Color Slack, Maynard Institute, the Diversity Pledge Institute, Institute for Independent Journalists, and on the URL Media team, Leonor Ayala and Sonali Kohli. 

Why news needs philanthropy, and philanthropy needs news

I was asked about the role of philanthropy in journalism, specifically for for-profit outlets like mine. Philanthropy, simply, can take risks that other capital cannot. I shared an anecdote of meeting with venture capitalists whose seemingly only role (and goal) was to poke holes into our idea for URL Media before we’d even gotten started. Consider the opposite stance and transformative role of the International Women’s Media Foundation, which met with us and said “Let’s try. We believe in you” and followed up quickly with a check for $20k. That allowed us to get started – and not look back. I encouraged the room to take more chances on more people. 

Why do philanthropists (and advertisers and government agencies and other relevant institutions, for that matter) need news? As trust in mainstream media declines, one exception remains local news, and capital allocators of all kinds must rely on these trusted messengers like never before. 

The model is many models

Notably, new Knight president Maribel Pérez Wadsworth opened up the conference with resolve: “Nonprofit is not a business model.” I often get asked why we are for-profit, and Knight Media Forum was no different. I could write reams on this (and we’ve spoken about it before.) Some context I offered over cocktails: 

  • Money is power, and we seek community media to be more powerful and resourced than it currently is. 
  • We focus on the creation of value for our partners, advertisers, sponsors, and communities themselves. 
  • BIPOC media operates in service to communities, uplifting small businesses along the way; advertising and paid content such as job ads and event listings can be as important to users as our journalism. 
  • We do not envision support and coverage of Black and Brown communities as “charitable” endeavors, rather we center our joy, uplift each other and embrace our nuances. 
  • There can be restrictions on nonprofits and political activities (campaign endorsements, for example). 
  • Social justice and wealth creation not only can go hand in hand. They must. Black and brown communities continue to suffer from a yawning racial wealth gap. (I just ordered my copy of “Fifteen Cents on the Dollar: How Americans Made the Black-White Wealth Gap” by journalists Ebony Reed and Louise Story. I suggest you do too. From a Black bookstore, if you please…)

Notably, both Epicenter and URL Media have launched nonprofit arms, and we believe philanthropy is ONE stream in a diversified revenue model. You might also rely on government contracts (as do Epicenter and El Timpano) or advertising (Sahan Journal is an excellent example) or a recruitment arm (URL Media) or a coffee shop (Big Bend Sentinel) or events (WURD Radio and Texas Tribune).

Other aspects of the Knight Media Forum focused on creating more Press Forward chapters, the role of AI in newsrooms and how to increase policy support at all levels of government for local news. I came home and promptly asked Sonny Messiah Jiles of the Defender Network to remind me of the AI tools boosting Houston’s leading Black news source. (One, Tansa, copy edits and optimizes for SEO.)

During the audience q-and-a, Tracy Baim, owner and cofounder of the Windy City Times serving LGBTQ Chicago, asked about how to serve niche communities that might not scale but still warrant support. I offered examples from the Haitian Times and Native News, members of the URL Media network, redefining local journalism to be more inclusive and cognizant of the many overlapping identities media consumers actually embody. They can teach us all how to be the glue of far-flung communities. 

On the last day of the forum, at a gathering sponsored by the REJ Fund, I was reminded of this power as I spoke to Liz Alarcón, founder of Pulso. She’s launching a Tik Tok/Instagram channel cheekily called “What the Florida?” and we discussed the role of her home base this election year. “A lot of people have given up on Florida,” she said. “All the focus is on swing states.”

“But our people still live here,” I said. “Are we safe voting, getting to school, learning history, even just existing? I don’t think we can only cover these issues if it changes the electoral math.”

“That’s why we need media like ours,” she said. “That’s why we are here.”

Indeed. Adelante. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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