Going Beyond Inclusion in Independent Media

Going Beyond Inclusion in Independent Media

Going Beyond Inclusion in Independent Media

A conversation with journalists Laura Flanders, Sara Lomax-Reese, and S. Mitra Kalita about the future of Black and brown media organizations.

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The Nation’s editor in chief D.D. Guttenplan and senior editor Lizzy Ratner sat with journalists Laura Flanders, Sara Lomax-Reese, and S. Mitra Kalita as part of the magazine’s Conversations series to speak about the critical importance, and challenges, of independent media. The cofounders of URL media, Lomax-Reese is the CEO of WURD Radio, one of the few remaining Black-owned talk radio stations in the nation, and Kalita is a veteran journalist and author, most recently senior vice president at CNN Digital.

The journalists discussed lifting up new voices and reporting underreported stories, but the focus was on URL Media, a decentralized, multi-platform network of Black and brown media organizations. Founded by Lomax-Reese and Mitra Kalita in 2001, URL Media helps members share content, distribution, resources, and revenue to extend reach and build long-term sustainability.

Lizzy Ratner: Can you talk about how “Meet the BIPOC Press’ started on your show? How does the collaboration fit into your show’s mission to be “the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it”?

Laura Flanders: Meet the Press is the longest-running show on television, dating back to the 1940s. The model was one white guy interviewing a power broker. All of the presidents have appeared on Meet the Press. The “important interview of the week” was exactly the model that we wanted to blow up on this program—the idea that there is one version of truth, one epitome of power, one show that everybody should watch to get their talking points for the week.

The Laura Flanders Show secured a spot on public-television stations that just happened to be after Meet the Press, and I thought, “Here’s a great opportunity to paint a different picture of our media.” Specifically, after last year, it seemed critically important to me to paint a picture of the vibrancy of Black and brown media.

We’ve been bringing people programming about messages of possibility, and people making change where they live, and once a month, we look at how the BIPOC media has been covering that that same month. It’s been illuminating for me. It’s truly an honor to work with Sara and Mitra. I’m always learning things, and I think our audience is getting a message that there’s more than one kind of press.

D.D. Guttenplan: What interested me about the old Meet the Press is that it used to be wide-open ideologically. Then, after the Cold War, it shut down into a very narrow vision of possible discussion, which was also part of what forced out Martha Rountree. I’m curious about whether you feel that there are boundaries about what you can talk about. I was also talking to a friend who was at BuzzFeed in the early years when money was pouring in through the windows. I’m guessing that’s not an experience either of you have had.

Sara Lomax-Reese: There’s nothing really off limits in terms of what we cover. We are a network right now of 11 independent media organizations that are owned by Black and brown people. WURD, my radio station, and Epicenter are two of those 11. URL does not mandate any kind of ideological framework from any of our partners. They are in the network, because they represent authentic engagement and trusted interaction with their audiences. They represent quality content.

From an ideological standpoint, it’s all about our audience. How can we be of service to our audience? What does our audience need? We are about speaking truth to power. In a city like Philadelphia that is almost 45 percent Black, we have a responsibility to be a place where the Black community can speak and be heard. We can wrestle with the hard issues, and we can talk about the complicated ones, but there’s really nothing that’s off limits.

What does that mean from an economic standpoint? It’s hard. It’s hard as hell to make authentic community-based media profitable or sustainable, and that is where everything that you have—creativity, tenacity, relationships—comes into play. We really believe that Black and brown media, if we come together, have the potential to become leaders and not always be starved for resources and talent. If we can create this bigger platform, we can become the organizations of choice.

It’s very difficult to get to the top levels in mainstream media organizations for BIPOC folks. All of the momentum for BIPOC organizations and institutions that was articulated after the 2020 protests seems to be dwindling. But it doesn’t matter. We’re here to do the work no matter what, because the audiences need our voices and our work.

S. Mitra Kalita: Those 2020 commitments were questionable to begin with. Where have the advertisers, funders, and investors really put their money? We intentionally launched in January of 2021, days after President Biden was inaugurated. We didn’t want the next four years to look like the last four—or the last 400. As the country was hitting a reset, we felt like there should be a reset on the media.

But before that, we shopped the idea around to investors. I didn’t say it in the moment, but I vowed last night when I saw the news about Bitch Media that we really need to get a lot more honest about just how hard this is. When Sara and I went out there, we met with investors, and in the typical kind of Silicon Valley positioning, they started poking holes into our idea. We’re coming on the heels of a movement that is vowing to change everything, and yet you’re going to evaluate me by the same standards as how you’ve evaluated every business idea or media model? I think that’s really unfair. At the time, I didn’t shout about that, but now I’m angry enough.

LF: I think it’s important for people to realize that public television hasn’t really been investing since the 1960s. Its appropriations have been cut back and made more political. As a network of stations, it’s as dependent on corporate underwriting almost as the commercial networks. There are still pledge drives, but the money that you pledge to your local station does not support the majority of programming.

The majority of the material that you see is produced by independent producers like me. We raise the money from foundations and our audience, and that is really hard. In the independent media world, many of us have been to workshops that say, “You must invest in your back office as much as you invest in journalism,” and we just can’t do it. I can’t do it. I invest in the journalism, and I am constantly trying to catch up with not having enough infrastructure to get us to the next level financially.

That may be more than you will want to hear, and it is a constant struggle, but I believe that if we don’t provide the US public a message about how society can move forward collaboratively in a positive direction, then the only message they’re going to be getting is a message of “Fight for your own. Keep your piece of the pie. Keep anybody else from getting it.” That zero-sum game mentality is what you see on every other network, whether it’s Democratic-leaning or Republican.

SLR: The thing that’s so interesting to me is that we represent so many different platforms. We’ve got Documented that’s working on WhatsApp. We’ve got Sahan Journal that’s digital and newsletters. But all of them are rooted in their community with a trusted, ongoing, authentic relationship with their audiences. The reporting is done specifically for a localized audience, but there are also through lines that we’re able to create within the network.

LR: What are the differences and similarities between what The Nation would call “the progressive media” and “independent media” and “BIPOC media”?

SMK: I would feel way more comfortable having a conversation about the race of a suspect, or increased crime on the subway, or how Asian women in New York City are feeling right now in a setting where it’s community. When that conversation happens anywhere else, it starts to feel like we’re divided.

I don’t want that history among different communities to be defined by whiteness. There are a lot of intra-racial relationships that I feel are more honest in certain settings. When I think about things from a progressive lens, I still think about it from the traditional political spectrum. But when I try to cover politics from the URL perspective, I really try to ask, “What is it that we’re trying to help our community understand? How can we advocate for our community?” One thing we need to acknowledge is that the mainstream press does not capture the nuanced multitude of perspectives within our communities.

LF: I’m about as ensconced in the old-school progressive media world as you can imagine. I started writing for The Nation in my 20s, and I’ve never really had a spot in commercial media. And yet this collaboration with URL Media has been a real learning experience for me, and sometimes a quite difficult exercise. “How do we work this out in public? How do we think in public together?”

One of the things about having this space, without commercials, is that we can actually see a conversation develop. We are working it out. You can see it happen in real time. I think that’s the media at its best. This is not an article—it’s live interaction. We’re sort of modeling—not being perfect at it, but at least we’re agreeing to sit with each other and listen. We’re calling in the audience to believe that they, too, can engage in these kinds of conversations.

SLR: I really believe that context matters. There are things that we can say on WURD, which is a Black-owned, Black-focused, Black audience media outlet, that if it was said on CNN or even The Laura Flanders Show, it might be received very differently.

Our URL Media organizations have this very direct relationship with their audiences. They are reporting from being embedded. There’s not this kind of swoop in. A lot of times, I’m asked, “Is what you do advocacy or journalism?” That’s not a real question to me, because what we’re about is being of service and of value to our audiences. Part of that value comes from being in the community and not having this “objective lens” where you’re just reporting this out from above. We’re seeing a lot of partnerships in the journalism space right now. I’ve been in a lot of partnerships with “mainstream media” in Philadelphia, and a lot of times they are very lopsided. You are the garnish on the side, and the big media organization is the steak.

What I really value about our partnership with The Laura Flanders Show is that it’s not like that. We’re coming to this partnership as equals that are experimenting and exploring. We’re bringing something that’s new and valued.

SMK: I’m the daughter of immigrants, and I was raised in Puerto Rico. My perspectives are different from the African American history that is centuries old here. In mainstream media, we kind of gloss over how complicated it is. When I would interview people, and they’d say, “Oh, I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.” I’d be like,“Oh, gosh! I’m not gonna write that part.” But watch some of the shows. It’s an exercise in leaning into the complicated parts of people and identity.

LR: Are there any legislative possibilities for helping support and sustain independent media? Which elected politicians understand the issue? And also what are you most excited about going forward with the collaboration?

SMK: There’s a few government possibilities before us. Tax credits for hiring journalists and local news organizations, for example. There’s a $25,000 tax credit that’s been proposed for organizations like mine, and would actually be pretty revolutionary, but for some of our BIPOC members that rely on freelance and contract work, not so much. You really need to make sure you’re not excluding some media models in these efforts.

New York State has enacted legislation where, if you’re a government agency in New York, you have to advertise with community media. That’s been a game changer for many of our members. I just had dinner with the editor of The Haitian Times last night, and it’s a significant part of their revenue. One challenge, having done business with the city, is whether they pay you on time or not. It’s something we never talk about as local organizations, but is very much an issue.

The third possibility is that there hasn’t been significant investment in public media in quite some time. I don’t think the political climate for it has been right for the last few years, but that just feels like the elephant in the room, as we’re skirting around that issue.

SLR: There’s also the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association, MMCA, that’s doing a lot of work in Washington, D.C., around new ways to fund BIPOC media organizations through legislation and tax credits. I’m also a big fan of Media 2070, which is about the media reparations that need to happen in order for mainstream media to make good on all of the ways that they were complicit in promoting and extending slavery and Jim Crow.

I’m just excited about everything coming down the pike. We’re growing our network. We’re in year two with The Laura Flanders Show. We’re figuring out how to make our URL Model exceed our expectations. The proof will be in the elevation of all of our partners on multiple levels. That’s what I’m really looking forward to over the next year.

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