Skip to main content

News with a Capital B: CEO Lauren Williams on why we need news for and by Black people

How a Black news startup was born from a racial justice reckoning

Share this story

Photo Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

Lauren Williams is the co-founder and CEO of Capital B, a new nonprofit media company dedicated to news for Black audiences. Capital B launched on January 31st, with both a national news site and a local newsroom dedicated to Atlanta — and the company plans to expand to more cities over time.

This interview is a little looser and chattier than usual since Lauren used to be the editor-in-chief and senior vice president of The Verge’s sister site, Vox.com. We were co-workers for a long time, and we’re still friends. So while I did my best to ask all the Decoder questions, we might have made each other laugh a little more than usual.

I wanted to know why Lauren decided to go and found a startup, what the last year of building that startup ahead of launch has been like, and how she thinks about standing out in a media business where the pressures of social media and search traffic kind of make everything look the same. And, of course, I wanted to know how she plans to grow. Now that she’s the CEO, how is she making decisions about Capital B’s path forward?

Lauren was just on the podcast Recode Media with Peter Kafka, where she talked in more detail about the editorial vision for Capital B. That conversation is great, and you should listen to it, but it’s not what we talked about. I wanted to spend more time on, well, Decoder stuff: being a founder, raising money, and making decisions. Lauren is a really sharp leader, and I think you’re going to like this one.

Okay. Lauren Williams, co-founder and CEO of Capital B. Here we go. 

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lauren Williams, you are the co-founder and CEO of Capital B, which is a news startup that launched January 31st. Welcome to Decoder.

Thanks. I’m thrilled to be here.

I’m just going to admit that Lauren and I know each other very well. You used to be the editor-in-chief of Vox.com, which was just down the hall, when the hall was a physical concept. We have spent a lot of time talking to each other about running media organizations. That’s the disclosure. I’m going to try to ask really hard questions though, so let’s start with the hardest question of all: What is Capital B?

Capital B is a non-profit local and national news organization for Black people.

You had a big job in this media ecosystem at Vox. You left in February 2021 to start working at Capital B. What made you take that leap?

My co-founder Akoto Ofori-Atta and I have known each other for 11 years. We met when we started working together at The Root as editors a very long time ago. In June of 2020, as newsroom leaders — she was a managing editor at The Trace at the time — we were having a lot of feelings about the state of the industry, of Black coverage, of Black issues in the industry, of Black journalists in the industry, and it was also a moment where things felt kind of apocalyptic. It was a thing that we could have talked about forever and ever at a different moment in time, but I think because of where we were in COVID, because of all of the uncertainty about the future, instead of making us hunker down and not do anything, I think it had the opposite effect. 

“If the world’s going to end, let’s do this thing.”

It made us say, if the world’s going to end, let’s do this thing. Let’s actually make this happen. Let’s put our experience and our skills towards something that we think could make a real difference for our industry, and could make a difference for — not to sound too lofty — democracy.

We just talked to Ruben Harris who’s the CEO of Career Karma, about the great resignation. I want to remind people that that moment in 2020 was the beginning of a pretty intense convulsion in the entire job market. That’s when people started quitting. In media in particular, that’s when I would say the Substack discourse really picked up. Lots of people started leaving institutional newsrooms to build new kinds of things. Do you put yourself in that wave? Does that feel like the same moment in time, or do you feel like you’re doing something substantively different?

I really don’t feel like it. I feel like the great resignation, in its purest sense, is people just leaving the workforce. For a lot of the Substack people, that’s like moving to a new job. They got paid. It’s an alternative type of work, of course, but it wasn’t without security. I kind of feel the same way about what we were doing. I didn’t make the call to leave Vox until we secured enough funding to know that we were going to be able to get paid, that this was something that had resonance in the philanthropy world where I knew we were going to get real funding. It was a gamble for sure, but it wasn’t a Jerry Maguire “Who’s coming with me?” kind of thing. I am much too cautious for that. I have a mortgage and a kid in daycare. I don’t feel like I “great resigned.”

 

It’s hard to remember what that moment felt like, particularly in media. Almost two years ago now — it was around the time of the George Floyd protest — we were in the middle of the pandemic, there was an election coming up. It did feel like the media was failing. It had failed to tell some important story, and a lot of people were just opting out of the traditional media ecosystem. Do you think that Capital B sits as a part of that traditional ecosystem? Does it sit next to it? Are you aiming to build something else entirely?

I think it sits next to it, but it is, in that sense, a part of that movement of [thinking], “something here is not working.” Something here in traditional media is too constrained or too set in its ways — either from a business perspective or from an editorial perspective — to respond to the needs of the moment. That is, I think, really, really seen in local news, which is failing across the country and desperately needs refreshing. That is a business issue for local news. It’s a cultural issue as well. There’s an enormous trust problem, and those business issues and those trust issues really do go hand in hand. They’re aligned, and the effects of those issues are one and the same. Misinformation and disinformation are rising, lack of local news contributes to polarization, and we need new ideas to respond to those issues.

You left Vox in February 2021. It’s now February 2022. You’ve been building for a year. What has that process been like?

It’s been a lot of really intense fundraising for most of it. We needed to raise a lot of money to do what we wanted to do. Our idea is ambitious: to have a national newsroom and also launch a local newsroom. We want to have a centralized business function that’s going to be able to support not just our first local newsroom, which is in Atlanta, but also our subsequent local newsrooms. That’s not cheap. And we want to be able to do the kind of journalism that we want to do for our audience and that we feel like our audience deserves — that’s also not cheap. We have to raise a lot of money, and it’s hard to raise a lot of money, and it took a while before we could start hiring and making the plans we needed to make to actually launch.

I feel like a very underappreciated part of a founder’s life is just the amount of time spent on raising money. What did that look like for you? What were those meetings like? Were you going after people you thought you could win? Were you going after everybody? How did you make that strategy?

Listen to Decoder, a show hosted by The Verge’s Nilay Patel about big ideas — and other problems. Subscribe here!

Well, you asked earlier why we decided to do this now, and I gave a true answer, but one of the things that I left off was that in 2020, there was an enormous new will to address racial equity issues in our country. Every industry, every corner of business had their own reckoning, and philanthropy was no different. We also know that those things are fleeting, and it really did seem like we needed to jump on that moment before it went away so that we could raise money for Capital B. While we were raising money last year, all these foundations had their racial equity funds that they had created and were really, really, really interested in two Black women founders who were starting a news organization like ours.

That created a lot of opportunities for us and doors that were open to us that would not have been opened otherwise. It was still really hard raising money. Foundations are really interesting. On their homepage, they’ll have this big, splashy “we care about racial equity” kind of thing. Then once you get down to finding the contact to get a meeting, they’ll say, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you. No unsolicited grants. We don’t take meetings. We identify for ourselves the people we want to give grants to.”

How does this work if you don’t know anyone? That’s something that we ran into a lot. Particularly for me. I was at Vox for almost seven years. I’m not from the philanthropy world. I did not have any contacts in this space at all. You hit a lot of brick walls because you do have to know someone to get into these rooms.

There’s not just one party where all the billionaires are?

There is not one party where the billionaires are. And at the big foundations, you have to get an introduction somehow. If you’re not in, you’re not in.

Do you think that process was made easier or harder with the amount of remote work that everyone has been doing? I feel like it could go either way.

I think it was actually easier. I think that three years ago, you had to fly places for these meetings, and now they’re all on Zoom. I think that will continue. I think everyone involved is happier about that.

It’s fascinating to me that all these organizations are making these commitments, but there might not be a lot of places to spend the money. That seems like something that you identified. Or, you could create new places for them to spend the money. But then, because of remote life, it was actually easier to make those connections than it might have been in a normal circumstance. That seems like a very unique set of things lining up. Did you tailor your approach to that situation? Did you find yourself changing midstream as you raised money?

Not really. I think the really interesting thing that we found overall is... I don’t know. You know me. I’m interested to know if you would imagine that I’d be good at fundraising or not.

I told you this was going to be a weird one.

I did not think that I was going to be particularly good at fundraising. The place that I have generally held in work is that I’m competent and I’m good at the job I do, but I am a “behind the scenes” kind of person. When you’re co-founding an organization, that doesn’t really work anymore. In these meetings, I had to just be the voice of Capital B. I found that when it’s your mission and your idea and it’s just truly authentic, you don’t even have to use your deck. You don’t have to have a bunch of flash. You just have to talk and it really resonates with people.

That ended up being what worked the best for us, just being very natural. Akoto and I are actual friends, actual people who know each other. We have actual chemistry and that just worked. We’re just real. To the extent that we can keep that going, and can continue with the new people that we hire to just be honest about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, I think that will continue to work.

In my experience at Vox Media, I was definitely the all-singing, all-dancing salesperson when we were in meetings together. The actual process of taking a meeting and asking for something is not normal for editorial people. We’re not in the business of making transactions in that way.

Not at all.

It sounds like you are spending an awful lot of your time fundraising. What’s the split? What’s the percentage?

Well, since we launched last week, this has been the first week I haven’t really done that much. But prior, it’s probably like 75%.

Has it gotten easier over time?

Yeah, definitely. I used to be really nervous about it. I like it now, actually.

What is that meeting like? You have a pitch deck?

Yes. Which we never use.

You never use it?

We never, ever use it in a meeting.

You just open it to the first slide and then you’re just off to the races.

We never even open it.

Really?

Yeah. I think we’ve used our pitch deck maybe twice in a meeting.

Is that how you know it’s not going to go well?

Actually, I think it went well in those meetings. We don’t ask people if they want to see it and we don’t use it, but we usually send it afterward.

I generally just launch into our origin story and I explain our model and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I generally tell an incredibly personal story about my state of mind when we came up with Capital B — a story so personal that I’m not going to even say it here. That’s where the conversation starts. 

People respond really well to the level of detail that I give and the honesty of my story. If the person is a mom, they respond really well to me talking about how hard it was for me in June of 2020. I try to be just really relatable. I’m not a super-formal person and I don’t take these meetings in a super-formal way. I think that if I went into them feeling like I had to do that, I don’t think I would be quite as successful.

How do you think about the next step? You’ve done all this fundraising, you’ve launched, you now have a week under your belt. What do you think that next step is?

Before last week all this fundraising was about saying to potential donors, “Help us launch. Help us make this thing a reality.” Now this thing is a reality, and the next step is to really recalibrate and figure out the pitch for donors to help us take this thing into the next stratosphere and refine all of the details of what that means.

At Vox.com you had a very editorial role. You were also a senior vice president, so you did have some business line responsibilities, but it’s very different from what you are doing now. You’re co-founding. You can pick any structure you want. Why choose the CEO role? Why pick the more business-oriented role?

I think it was because of the SVP/editor-in-chief hybrid experience at Vox. When I left Vox, I was overseeing both the business and the editorial functions, and it’s really two jobs. At Capital B, I wanted to make sure that job was split. I did feel like at this point in my career, if I was being honest with myself, I was leaning more towards that. Hiring an editorial lead just made more sense to me. 

Right now we’re in startup mode, I’m still involved in editorial.

Oh no.

Not in a bad way.

Someone’s writing the tweets.

Right now it’s all hands on deck. But, ultimately the plan is that I’m not. Simone Sebastian is our editorial director. She’s an amazing editor. I trust her implicitly, and I can just be proud of the work that we’re doing and do work that supports that work. That’s the ultimate plan, and I feel good about that.

How much money were you able to raise?

We raised $9.4 million before we launched.

And you’ve launched a national site and a local news site in Atlanta. How many people do you have?

Right now we have 16. We’re hiring many more people, hoping for 27 in the next month or so.

27 more people?

No, no, no. A total of 27.

That’s still huge, right?

Yeah.

Is your job to keep trying to raise money while they go off and do the news? Are you going to try to stay stable for a while? How’s that working?

I always keep trying to raise money, scope out new locations for newsrooms, new opportunities and partnerships.

What are the metrics you’re looking at for success? Now that you have launched — it’s only been a week — but what are the numbers you’re looking at to say, “Okay, this is working. We can keep investing here,” versus needing to change?

“All of our local newsrooms are going to have community engagement editors.”

We obviously care about audience. We don’t have a very high publishing cadence, so we don’t have enormous expectations for audience. Obviously, we want to make sure that people are consuming our work. But we also want to make sure, particularly in our local newsrooms, that we are connecting with our audience in a meaningful way. This is an important metric for us. 

All of our local newsrooms are going to have community engagement editors whose job is to actually interface in person with Black people in our coverage area — going to community meetings, running community meetings, canvassing neighborhoods, returning to those neighborhoods to talk to the same people, asking our readers if an article helped them to take an action or better understand how to navigate their community. These are the things that we are hoping to use to tailor our content to the audience, to build trust with the audience, to create a news source that people actually want and need. So in addition to traffic, in addition to building an audience, we want to actually make content that’s useful. That’s going to be a really important metric for us moving forward as well, to prove out what we’re actually trying to do here, which is to have community-informed news.

How do you think that role plays with your reporters in those communities?

It’s kind of a dream for them in terms of sourcing, to have this front-row seat to potential stories, because what this brings back to the newsroom is potential sources, potential story ideas that they never would’ve found otherwise. And then, feedback; sometimes we rely only on comments or Twitter, but not everybody’s on Twitter, not everyone’s going to give feedback on Facebook. This is a great way to hear about the work.

One of the challenges with every media organization is Twitter. Reporters are hopelessly addicted to Twitter, it’s just a thing that we all have to deal with. Are you hoping to build a less-online newsroom? It sounds like you don’t want to focus as much on the pressures of social media on a newsroom and you want your reporters out in the world and somehow collecting feedback from people in the real world.

Is that something you can measure? Is that something you can mandate? Are you building a system that gets to that goal more directly? Because that seems like one of the hardest challenges of all, to stop paying attention to the media bubble on Twitter and start paying attention to real people.

Honestly it’s a combination of less online and more online because we do want to meet people where they are. There’s a lot of Black people on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In fact, Black people over-index on those things. You don’t want to be stuck in the media bubble on Twitter, but you might want to be on other segments of Twitter that might be where a chunk of your audience is. I think it’s about finding the balance. 

In Atlanta, there are these incredibly popular meme sites that give these local news headlines with pretty much zero context. They have millions of followers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an Instagram follower count in roughly the mid-100,000s. These meme sites with local Atlanta headlines will have 1 million-plus followers. So obviously we should be on Instagram, because that’s a real market, but it’s about finding the balance and figuring out how to manage being on social media with being in-person and making sure we’re not paying attention to the wrong side of social media. It’s an audience focus, not a media focus.

Are you interested in those kinds of format experiments? Do you think you should just be a meme site  because that’s the format that’s working on Instagram.

I mean…

That was a big sigh, Lauren.

Look, I think that we should take lessons from it. What we want to do is provide a lot more context to people than those meme sites, but I think that we should take lessons from why they’re so popular. Is it the way they look? Is it the way they market themselves? And improve upon the way that they’re delivering the news to people.

You talked a lot about trust. I feel like the meme sites are really voice-y. They lead to conclusions. When you want to be of service to a community in the way you’re talking about, you might want to offer people a conclusion or an advocacy step afterwards, like take an action. A lot of people say they don’t trust the media because of advocacy, because of opinion. All the data says that people say they want extremely straight-laced news reporting, and then all of the audience data says they do not want that. They will chase a filter bubble of their own devising. How are you balancing that when you’re inventing a new local news site?

I really think it depends on what you consider advocacy. I know that with how polarized our country is, encouraging people to vote can be considered advocacy. But that’s the sort of service I’m talking about. Figuring out how to get your voting rights restored if you’re an ex-felon, or get the child tax credit if you are a non-taxpayer. Things that are just part of being a citizen that are very hard for some people to access or to understand or to even trust because they seem maybe too good to be true and there’s a lot of government mistrust out there. These are just things that help people navigate the world around them or access the benefits of being part of a community, and are much less advocacy and more access. That’s how we’re thinking about it.

You said voting rights are a political issue. They absolutely are. Every day right now there’s another piece of the news cycle where some state Republican party says getting more people to vote is an inherently political act. I’m assuming you’ve run into the notion that merely starting a news site for Black people is an inherently political act. That’s the flip side of the voting thing. You say, “I want to get more Black people and people of color to vote,” and the response is, “Well, you just want to elect Democrats because there’s a one-to-one identity between minorities and Democrats.” Which I don’t think is the case at all.

When you frame your coverage, I think one of the more surprising revelations of this past news cycle is actually a lot of Black people are more conservative than the progressives are making them out to be. How does that play into your coverage?

Well, most Black people are Democrats, but a lot of Black people are lowercase-c conservative. So that’s the thing that will play into our coverage. I think that one of our core operating principles at Capital B is that in both our coverage and in our internal culture, we respect the various identities and beliefs of Black people in America and understand that there’s not just one way to be. I think particularly when we have a young staff that maybe leans further left than Black America at large, that’s something that we have to remember. There’s a wide range of political opinions, even within the Democratic Party. 

But, I think that is something else that our community listening will really help bring to bear. We’re talking to a bunch of boomers in Atlanta. They’re going to have a different opinion about public safety and the police than the kids on Spelman’s campus, and that’s just a fact. That’s really helpful information for our reporting.

Atlanta is a big city. When we talk about local news and your first market is Atlanta, Atlanta is a huge place. How do you decide what parts of Atlanta are going to take the attention? Is that just for the newsroom? I realize you’re a CEO and I’m asking a lot of editorial questions, but it’s a startup. I feel like you must have been talking about all this stuff.

Yes. That’s why we went with a real beat focus and we’re going to cover themes around the metro area and not focus as much on specific neighborhoods. Each of our reporters is going to identify a series of themes that they’re going to focus on throughout the area. We can’t hit it all, but we’ll really try to focus on where those big themes are playing out throughout the metro area and cover those big stories.

That split in the audience you mentioned — we’ll just stick with Atlanta for a second — you have a group of older folks who might be more conservative in some of their views and you have a group of younger folks on college campuses and you have a group of people online. Do you think that you can sell them an idea that this is a news site for all of us, inclusive of all Black people? As opposed to what is, very broadly, happening in the rest of the political media where you have to pick a political party and then you pick a news site. That’s the other way that you could segment an audience. You could decide you’re making a website for Democrats or liberals or whatever, and that is the prevailing trend. You’re cutting against that in a different way. How are you thinking about managing that tension?

I really don’t think it’s as much of a tension. There is a diversity of political opinion, but there’s also a shared cultural interest in and desire for news about Black people and the issues facing Black people that I think overrides those differences. I think if we are reflecting those differences fairly and just not pretending that Black people in Atlanta, or Black people in the country, monolithically believe in defunding the police, for example, then I think that’s not really that big of a problem. I think there’s a tie that binds that’s pretty tight.

You started with Atlanta. You also started with a national site, not another city. Why a national presence as opposed to another city?

We really wanted to hit two different levels of need that we saw in the market. We talked a lot about local news and what’s missing, and we talked about the service aspect of what we’re trying to do locally, but we also saw something that has often frustrated me and my co-founder Akoto, which is that there’s a lot of national news about Black people, about the issues that Black people face, ambitious investigations, ambitious features, that are about Black people but for white audiences. There’s not as much news like that for Black national audiences.

We really wanted to provide that level of ambition for a national Black audience. The type of news that drives conversation and moves the needle. Doing news like that at a national website also provides a real anchor and a hub for a growing network of local newsrooms. It just made sense to us to build that out as we’re growing the local newsrooms.

I feel like I understand the coverage strategy for local newsrooms. You’re going to cover a bunch of local politicians and local decisions and help people advocate for their communities. With a national news desk, you can pick anything. It’s a huge open waterfront. How did you narrow down what you’re going to cover on the national desk? How big is the national desk?

It’s going to be four to five reporters to start. The beats actually mirror the local ones: criminal justice, politics, education, climate, and health. 

Health is a big one recently.

It’s a big one. We chose those beats to start because those are the big ones that we feel are the most important to Black life in America. We do want to expand. I really want to have a rural issues reporter at some point. We want to do housing and economics, and build it out so that we’re covering every angle that really matters that we can go deep on. But it really wasn’t that hard to figure out the big beats that we wanted to cover.

When I would pitch an expansion for editorial, I’d have to go somewhere and say, “We’ve done some experiments, we’ve discovered there’s an audience here.” I’d have to talk to somebody on a sales team. They would have to tell me that they could sell it in some way, one way or another, to an advertiser. Then we could pay to hire the new people, and then hopefully that paid off.

You’re the CEO. How are you making those decisions?

Well, in a nonprofit, it’s a little different. The calculation is, “Is this something that is objectively important for us to cover, and is there a way to pay for it, either through a grant or through advertising sponsorship?” We feel like everything that we’ve chosen thus far is objectively important to cover. I think when it’s grant-funded, you find someone who shares your values on this and also believes that it’s objectively important to cover, and you make it happen.

You have three levels of donations. It starts at $96 per year and it goes up to $240. How does that work?

It’s our membership program. You can either pay monthly or for a full year. It’s not a subscription. We don’t have a paywall. It is a reader donation program that readers can contribute to if they believe in us, believe in our content, and want to help us be free for everyone.

What do you think, in the end, the primary source of revenue is going to be? Is it going to be from a mass of people donating? Is it going to be from foundations and grants?

I think that our primary source of revenue will continue to be major gifts and foundation grants, but we’re growing our membership base and growing our earned revenue from sponsorships. The goal is to build up those two so that we aren’t entirely dependent on foundations and major gifts.

How do you decide when to launch the next city? Is there a dollar amount that you have in mind? Is it developing enough of an audience, you have a playbook, you have refined it? What’s the decision process there?

We want to raise a significant amount of money to fund the next newsroom because local money is important in funding the local newsrooms. We also have to hire, and hiring is slow and hard. That’s also a good part of it. We do a lot of research. We interview a ton of people. We do preliminary community listening. There’s a lot of pre-work that goes into it, in addition to the fundraising. That all has to be done before we launch our next local newsroom.

Do you have a list of targets in mind? I would say, here in Atlanta, it seems fairly easy to go to Houston. It’s right over there. Do you have a list of cities like that? You’re in DC. Would you pick DC? How are you making that list?

We do have a list. One of the primary qualifications for our cities is that there’s a large Black population. You can guess that most of our cities on our list are in the South and the Midwest, but then also DC is on it and Baltimore and New York. You can just look on a population map and guess what the cities are: New Orleans, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit. You know where the Black people are. The decision is just figuring out which one is right at the right time.

How do you make that decision?

Funding, talent, and I think stories matter. This is one of the reasons why we chose Atlanta. It just seemed like the perfect prototype for a Capital B newsroom because of everything that’s going on there. We want to be able to make a difference there, and when there’s news, you’re really able to do that.

When you think about your overall model with a bunch of cities and the national desk — I’m just in the weeds now — how do you think about growing the national desk versus picking a new city? Because those seem like your different audiences. Presumably the national audience is a larger total, but it seems like your emphasis is on the cities. How do you make the decision between the two?

It’s not an either/or, and I think that sometimes they feed each other. It depends on funding too. We might get a grant for criminal justice coverage and that will fund national and local criminal justice coverage. That will help us grow our national team and our local teams. But we also fundraise separately for these, so they’re not necessarily all part of the same pot of money. They’re not the same decision, necessarily.

What have you learned already in your first week in front of the public?

That’s a good question. We need more people.

You might be the CEO, but that is the ultimate editor-in-chief answer. I have to be honest with you, that is exactly what I would have said. “It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I just need more bodies. Just spend more money on me.”

We need more people, Nilay. It was a blur of a week and we worked so hard to get here. And it was like a reset; oh, now we’re fine. Now, there’s a new version of just working hard. I’m excited.

I want to take some time at the end here to zoom way out and talk about the overall media. You obviously ran a huge newsroom. It was very much built on the back of social media distribution. Vox has a big YouTube channel. I remember at the very beginning, there was a lot of talk about using Facebook well. All those platforms come and go. The dynamics of those platforms shape the media in all kinds of ways. Google search has more of an impact on the media that you read than maybe anything else. It’s completely underreported on. 

You have a week under your belt. You’re like, “We need more people. We’ve got so much to do.” Are those platforms shaping you? Do you think that the media’s finally divorcing themselves from it? Because, to me, it seems like we’re in a moment where there’s just a lot of reconsideration about the relationship with the media writ large to the distribution platforms that have their own agendas, for lack of a better word.

“People aren’t putting capitalbnews.org into their browser.”

No, I don’t think so. I wish, but I don’t think it’s fully divorced from it. We’re in our first week. People aren’t putting capitalbnews.org into their browser. They’re not typing it in. Where are they finding us? Where are they seeing anything about us? It’s on social media. I can’t imagine being totally divorced from it. Without it, how do we even launch? It’s kind of impossible to think about how a digital news site would launch without that.

I think that the dependence on social platforms and search, that full measure of dependence on it, that full reliance on it — and that full reliance on traffic, period, as probably the real thing that we’re breaking from is really important. But it’s still, unfortunately, so important in reaching people. And I don’t know how that goes away.

Okay, you just have to market the website as opposed to marketing individual stories and hoping then they’ll go viral. One of the tensions I see here is, you’re trying to build a site for a very specific audience. And when you measure just traffic, those platforms just want you to get everybody, somehow. 

Those platforms are not great at being diverse themselves in how they relate to people. You can just look at the top stories on Facebook and be like, “This isn’t everybody.” It’s weird actually, what consistently goes viral on Facebook.

Right.

So when you’re trying to find an audience, if you’re an advertiser, the platforms will give you lots of tools to segment the audience. But if you’re just going for broad reach, everything kind of ends up looking the same.

This would be my criticism of the media: Facebook and Google search have made virtually every website the same. You can replace the banners and logos and you’re like, “Oh, this is all pretty undifferentiated,” because the algorithmic forces of these two platforms in particular make everything look the same. How do you fight against that?

That’s how we’re thinking about our offline efforts and our partnerships with Black media and our other ways of finding audience. Because what you’ll sometimes find with some national digital Black sites is that for this very reason, some large percentage of their audience is white, because of the way their articles are being discovered. And we really, really want to be intentional about our audience, by building direct relationships with the platforms honestly, and being partners and running experiments and doing things like that. Which some people might think is getting in bed with the enemy, but it’s also a way of getting what you want out of your audience. And at the same time, very few news organizations get that opportunity. You have to be flashy or the new kid on the block or the cool kid to be able to get that opportunity.

I was just thinking about when I was growing up in the sort of late ‘80s to early 2000s, that window of time before the internet and the internet distribution just upended the media.

That’s a big window, Nilay.

There’s a reason I’m picking that window. There was a more powerful Black media ecosystem at that time. Everything wasn’t quite as flattened, right? And you could just see that there was more culture being produced by Black people, for Black people. And everyone else was invited to participate in it, but it wasn’t the point to make everything for everyone.

I feel like we now live in a media ecosystem where you have to make everything for everyone. Everyone is chasing clicks and clout and views — and you’re not trying to do that. Why do you think that that changed? Is it just internet distribution flattened everything out? Do you think it is the tenor of our politics? Because to cut against it, you kind of have to understand why it happened in the first place.

I think there were a lot of different things happening at once with that. I mean, I think there’s a news side of it and then there’s the entertainment side of it. On TV and in movies in the ‘90s, there were so many Black TV shows and…

Yeah. I like how you flattened my date range, to just the ‘90s.

I mean, that’s basically what you were saying. The late ‘80s, so, 1989 to 2001. Okay, Nilay. The ‘90s.

All right, fine. I was trying sound worldly — my three decades of experience.

I think everything got politically sanitized on the entertainment front in a way that really took a lot of the bite out of the Black entertainment on TV and movies, that then made it seem very flattened. 

There was also a very thriving Black news and magazine ecosystem that also kind of faded after that time period, that had to do with the industry’s woes and digitalization and all of that, in a totally separate way. But it just combined to lessen the “for us, by us” aspect of Black media, all around.

I think that’s changing now. I think the Trump years and what happened in 2020 after George Floyd, was a wake-up call and a series of wake-up calls that Black people just always get, that the progress isn’t quite the progress that it seemed. And the things that were created because we needed them, 20 years ago or 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 200 years ago, in the case of Black newspapers, we actually still need them. And we need to revive them.

Do you think that the community writ large feels that? To me, that is one of the more challenging aspects of all media right now. You can point to historical media formats and media products and say, “We used to do this. This is a thing that used to exist for a long time and it was wiped out by a whole range of forces.” And particularly with younger audiences, that has no resonance for them. They’re just like, “Well, but I live in this TikTok world. I’m very sorry that investigative magazine journalism used to happen at a larger scale, but I’m doing tea accounts on TikTok.” How do you bridge that gap?

I think you can bridge it by just not trying to do it the same way. We’re not trying to do Black newspapers the exact same way that they always were. I think not being snobby about the way people receive information is a really important way forward here, and I also think being really realistic about the way people receive information. 

Are these kids on TikTok ever going to pay for a newspaper subscription? I don’t think they are. And so, what’s going to be the future of that model? We should really think about that. We should think about the way that we are adapting to how folks are changing and how they’re consuming their media and how they’re getting their news — and not waiting until it’s too late.

Yeah. Well, Lauren, this has been a great conversation. I could honestly talk to you for a full other hour, I think there’s a lot more to talk about. But it’s only been a week, so I think you should probably come back after you’ve had a little more time actually running this thing.

I’d be happy to.

All right, Lauren. Thanks so much.

Thanks.

Decoder with Nilay Patel /

A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.

Subscribe now!