A free and independent media is a prerequisite for an informed citizenry that is empowered to participate meaningfully in public debate and hold power accountable. Yet in the United States, whose voices are featured and which audiences are catered to is very much a representation of power, not a representation of the people.
There is a growing push for more equitable media—both in the news that’s shared and the people who tell the stories—that seeks to counter this dynamic and accurately represent modern America. What do we mean by equitable media? A truly representative industry that includes media organizations, enterprises, and projects—both new and old, for-profit and nonprofit—by and for people of color.
The challenges facing America today—from COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts on minority communities, to the growing economic crisis and the role of essential workers, to the country’s reckoning with structural racism—demonstrate the urgency to center the voices, stories, and perspectives of Black and Brown communities as part of a just recovery. If anyone doubted the importance of local news led by, representative of, and responsive to all communities, 2020 has been a final wake-up call.
Though an essential fabric of American democracy, an equitable media receives scant support from philanthropic and mission-aligned investors. For those who have been systematically overlooked, and for the Black and Brown journalists and media entrepreneurs whose experience and leadership continues to be excluded, philanthropic and private capital is key for progress. Philanthropy can manage the investment risk—whether real or perceived—that comes with investments in media, while private capital can be catalytic as long as investors understand the mission must be preserved. We outline four ways to deploy capital toward an equitable media ecosystem.
1. Support experimental ideas to bring in revenue
In the media, old business models reliant on subscriptions and advertising are mostly obsolete. Experimentation with new revenue streams is critical for equitable media. The field is currently experimenting with different revenue models and strategies, such as moving toward a mix of sources, including events, branded content, software as a service, like Arc Publishing by the Washington Post, and the licensing of IP, as Axios has done, for other mediums like TV and movies.
Investors don’t like to gamble in a complex industry that changes rapidly and has uncertain revenue models unless they can reap extraordinary profits. The current wave of experimentation needs philanthropic support that is thoughtful about balancing the desire to crowd in private investors without fully turning over a public good to private hands. The support from philanthropy can go beyond grants and extend to concessionary capital in the form of program- related investments, which explicitly aim to advance the programmatic purpose of a foundation. By nature, these investments seek to advance the charitable purpose of a foundation and can take on more risk or seek lower returns on a longer timeline—all especially appropriate where entrepreneurs need time and support to figure out a fitting revenue model.
2. Support experimentation around ownership structures
Investors traditionally take big ownership stakes in enterprises and exert significant pressure on them. Venture capital investments, in particular, can push enterprises toward indiscriminate growth or a sale that may be inconsistent with the underlying mission of an enterprise. Alternative financing models that leave more control in the hands of founders and don’t require a big exit can lessen this pressure. Revenue-based financing—loans that are repaid as a percentage of actual revenue—can be a good option for financing early-stage equitable media.
There is a lot of experimentation taking place around alternative financing and ownership. The Zebra movement and the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder are leaders for models that don’t aim for acquisition by a more established company. One idea is the ”exit to community” model, where media startups aim to mature into ownership by their community of stakeholders. Other alternatives include ownership by a trust or a stewarding entity that enshrines the mission and can represent the voices of multiple stakeholders, cooperative ownership by readers or writers, and direct public offerings where residents can invest small amounts into local outlets. Some current efforts that can provide replicable models for the industry: The Devil Strip, an alt-weekly in Akron, Ohio, recently converted to a cooperative model with the support of the Membership Puzzle Project; in California, the Berkeleyside raised $1 million from local supporters through a direct public offering.
3. Build up the business skills of equitable media entrepreneurs
Writers, editors, and other creators entering the fray as equitable media founders come from a strong journalistic or media background. Their editorial talents are not matched by the business skills needed to succeed as a young media organization. Even the most mission-aligned investors stress that early-stage media entities would be vastly more attractive if they complemented or matched their editorial talent with operational/management teams. Philanthropic funders should help journalists and media entrepreneurs acquire that business know-how or pair up with partners that can help provide it.
4. Develop best practices to invest with an impact lens
As the country confronts COVID-19 and its legacy of systemic racism, the increased reliance on local and equitable media is attracting attention from more investors, both traditional and mission-aligned. Because additional capital, in and of itself, can do as much harm as good, there is an urgent need to establish a set of best practices for investors seeking to support equitable media, so they can keep impact at the forefront. The questions of media impact have been tackled by practitioners and can form the basis for a solid framework for investors, building on the example, among others, of the Media Development Investment Fund’s framework.
Setting these best practices will require increased coordination and common language led and guided by equitable media practitioners. On the financial side, best practices can borrow from the investment models that blend philanthropic and private capital with an eye to maximizing the achievement of the overall mission via the provision of aligned capital.
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By having been overlooked for so long, equitable media can benefit from the lessons of other industries that have sought to solve social issues through a market-based approach. While the need for investment capital in media is well established, it is important that the excitement does not detract from the necessary continuation of philanthropic and public support. Amplifying the voices of the unheard and providing communities with vital information, as the pandemic has highlighted, should not be subsumed to the logic of investment practice. Society has too much to gain with a vibrant, inclusive media to be reduced to investment returns. To let those with power and capital decide which stories are featured and who gets to tell them determined would miss the very opportunity to fundamentally redefine media toward equity.
Photo by #WOCinTech