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Inside Capital B

Why It’s the Right Time for a Capital B

We're building on the traditions of the Black press for an audience that needs more.

Welcome to Capital B.

We’re so pleased to debut our national site and our first local site, Capital B Atlanta, and to witness the realization of our big idea: bringing high-quality, original reporting to Black audiences across the country. 

On Capital B Atlanta, you’ll find a feature on Peoplestown, a gentrifying neighborhood where several Black homeowners are in a protracted eminent domain battle with the city, with exclusive new reporting on their case. You’ll also find practical service pieces to help meet our audience’s information needs — including how to find Covid tests in Metro Atlanta. 

Here on our national site, check out this piece on what the 1994 crime bill and other cost-cutting measures have done to education in prisons, and the ripple effects for Black neighborhoods; or this examination of the new wave of Black police chiefs sworn in since the murder of George Floyd.

What you see today is just a taste of what we’ll publish as we continue to onboard reporters (check out our listings) and build capacity (support us here). 

Although we still have a lot of growing to do, we’re absolutely thrilled that we’ve hired a group of founding team members who bring their unique experiences, perspectives, and voices to Capital B’s editorial vision and culture. 

But before it was a team, it was us — Akoto and Lauren. And we want to take this space to explain to our new audience why we decided to start a news organization from scratch. To understand Capital B — why we decided to start it now, why we chose our editorial mission, and why we picked our business model — you need some background. 

An Urgent Moment for Black America

We met in October 2010 as editors at a startup digital Black news site called The Root. This is when we became friends. And it’s when we learned that we have high standards for work product, believe in a strong work-laugh balance between the hours of 9-5, and don’t suffer fools. 

It was also a very specific and meaningful moment in time for Black America. 

It was a little under two years into President Barack Obama’s first term and many of us were still floating on a cautiously optimistic cloud (one that was close to the ground, so we wouldn’t get hurt when we fell). Of course America wasn’t “post-racial,” as the political pundits liked to write at the time, but still, our country had just elected its first Black president. What else was possible? 

Black people in America have lived in this state of wariness in the face of progress forever. We celebrate every first. We cheer every milestone. We rejoice each time we are elected, invited, or promoted into predominantly white spaces for the first time; pray that it’s not the last; and alternate between demanding absolute perfection from and prohibiting criticism of the chosen one. And we hope that nothing goes horribly wrong.

In November 2010, President Obama and the Democrats experienced what he famously called a “shellacking” in the midterm elections, ushering in a wave of Tea Party Republicans to Congress. The Tea Party movement arose after Obama’s inauguration, and although their stated concerns were largely economic — lowering taxes and government spending —  there were an awful lot of “Go Back to Kenya” signs at their rallies. Plenty of research proves what was obvious to Black people (including Black journalists) all along: for many Tea Partiers, racism was the primary driver of their Obama opposition.

An April 2009 Tea Party rally in Santa Monica, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

This movement would be the harbinger of a Black-president backlash that would help bring President Donald Trump to power in 2016. 

By June 2020, we were long gone from The Root (Lauren was SVP and editor-in-chief of Vox and Akoto was managing editor of The Trace). We connected via text one day to discuss our general sanity and the current state of Black America, which was quite different from the one we met under. There was an unprecedented, record-breaking number of people of all races filling streets across the country to protest for Black lives. This was moving and important and it meant something, although it was unclear what. But also, Covid-19 was spreading through our communities like wildfire, killing us disproportionately. And then the election — who might win the Democratic primary? What could four more years of Trump mean? 

What would Black people across the country need when the smoke cleared? Information is power, and so much of what is circulated on the internet is outright false. Mainstream newspapers might get Pulitzers for their coverage of this moment, but who will that coverage have been for? And who will get overlooked? 

Perhaps at any other moment, we would have asked ourselves these questions and tabled it indefinitely. But June 2020 wasn’t just any moment. It was urgent. We began to sketch out ideas for what would become Capital B and talk to funders. And we decided to make the jump: Akoto would leave her job in November and Lauren would leave hers the following February. 

As we planned and raised start-up funds, we watched a mob storm the Capital on January 6, 2021. We witnessed the mass racial reckoning give way to a wave of anti-protest, voter suppression, and anti-”critical race theory” school bills across the country. And little has been done to move the needle on the criminal justice issues at the heart of the protests that spurred so much passion. 

It only affirmed our choice, and made us wish we could launch sooner. Black people need and deserve more journalists focused on these issues for them. 

The past and future of Black news

This is certainly not a new concept. 

In 1827, Freedom’s Journal became the first Black newspaper in America. It was aimed at engaging free Black people in the abolition movement and counteracting New York’s pro-slavery, paternalistic white newspapers. In its inaugural issue, editors Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm wrote of their mission: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us…” 

With Freedom’s Journal, Cornish and Russwurm launched an essential tradition of Black, local press in America, in which Black journalists acted as the antidote to the racism of the white press and used their reporting to effect meaningful change in a country resistant to it. Local Black newspapers across the country would follow in the wake of Freedom’s Journal: from the Pittsburgh Courier to the New York Amsterdam News to the New Orleans Tribune to the Baltimore Afro-American.

Journalists Enoch Waters Audrey Weaver at Chicago Defender offices in the mid-twentieth century. (The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

During the civil rights era, mainstream newspapers began to understand the value of Black journalists and became marginally more open to hiring them — often poaching from the very same Black papers that rose in defiance of these institutions. Their efforts didn’t cut it. As the Kerner Commission wrote in its 1968 report on the previous summer of civil unrest in cities across the country, “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

More than 50 years later, the press still hasn’t done a good enough job. Black people are still underrepresented in America’s newsrooms.

Research suggests that Black people want news that is delivered to them by people they feel understand them and their stories. Black people are far more likely than white people to value seeing ourselves represented in news coverage and in newsrooms, according to a 2020 Pew survey.  

A 2020 survey of Black Americans from the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement reflects a similar sentiment — respondents did not trust the media to cover their communities well and did not think the media covered their communities fully, most respondents had never met a journalist, and representation mattered when it came to media trust. 

Telling the right stories is an important part of Capital B and building trust with our audience is crucial to our Democracy and public health. Black people can’t be left out of quality information or locked out of it by the paywalls of newspapers that don’t cover their neighborhoods anyway. 

The audience focus of the Black press — not just the storytelling, not just the amplifying of voices, but the trading of valuable information — is absolutely key to its tradition. And it’s key to Capital B’s foundation. All of our local newsrooms, starting with Atlanta, will have a community engagement practice. 

Darryl Holliday, co-founder and executive news lab director of City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago, told us that nonprofit, collaborative news for Black and brown communities is the future we need to work for. 

In Chicago, we know that the people who feel most misunderstood and misrepresented by local news are the same people who are most eager to work with journalists to improve local news—these are Black, brown and working class folks,” he said. “I’m betting on the information and resources produced by working alongside these communities, in Chicago and beyond.”

Capital B is joining the tradition started in 1827 and continued by the legacy of Black publications still publishing today. We also join the other startup nonprofits, while not always explicitly Black, that partner with residents to produce and distribute meaningful journalism for their communities. City Bureau in Chicago, Outlier Media in Detroit, Berkelyside in the Bay Area, and others in Memphis, Philadelphia, and Newark, NJ all report alongside the people they serve, delivering impact that those communities can feel.  

At Capital B, we see this as a moment to reinvigorate the purpose and power of the Black and Black-led, independent press, to do the most ambitious stories, to raise big money from funders, to purvey impactful and groundbreaking journalism, and, importantly, to attract talented Black journalists from mainstream newsrooms where covering Black stories is not always a priority.

“For most Black journalists inside mainstream media, everyone knows it is a full time job for them to have to explain why they should be covering communities of color. And the moment you return to the Black press that conversation ceases to exist,” said Andrew Ramsammy, chief content and collaboration officer at the Local Media Association, who also guides Word in Black, a digital collaborative of 10 legacy Black news publishers. “It tears at our soul; it tears at our being to have to fight every day to reach audiences we know exist.”

For Wendi C. Thomas, editor and publisher of Memphis-based MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the reason for making such a shift is clear. I want to be able to say that I was part of the solution, that I was not a part of institutions that harm Black and brown people with the kind of news they produce any longer than I had to be,” she said. “When you have an opportunity to go be a part of something new, and bright, and shiny, and progressive and focus on liberation, then I think more of us need to consider doing that. And we can do that work and win the awards, and be paid well, and be able to be financially secure. It’s not an ‘either or’, so why wouldn’t you want to be part of the future?”

The right business model for the moment 

If you’re not a media person, this might be a section you would want to skip, but you need to read this. It matters for the future of our democracy. We promise we’re not being dramatic. 

The media business can be like musical chairs. Since we left The Root in 2010, it has changed ownership twice. It was recently the subject of a feature in Gawker due to a mass exodus of its editorial staff, who feel that the editorial mission has been compromised by new leadership and the money-making interests of its private equity owners. 

This isn’t a unique story. While there are well-known companies doing just fine, the digital and print media business is not in an amazing place. Advertising, a primary revenue driver for these businesses, gets gobbled up by social media platforms, and there’s not much left afterward. Private equity firms and hedge funds are buying troubled media companies, and, while that might keep the businesses from going under, it doesn’t save the journalism.  

If you don’t pay close attention to the media, you may not have noticed that local newsrooms have been folding rapidly across the country for the last 15 years. According to research from Penny Abernathy at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism, who studies and tracks local news deserts, Covid hastened this decline, with 300 newspapers shuttering between 2018 and 2020. During that time, 6,000 newspaper reporters lost or left their jobs and newspaper circulation declined overall by 5 million. 

News is important. What has been lost — and what’s left —  hasn’t always been great for Black people. But having nothing is very bad for our future. What rises instead is low-quality or outright false information, sometimes that explicitly targets us. This has consequences for voting. And it has consequences for public health

When we started a news organization, we wanted to make sure we were building something that was going to fill the holes in local news for Black people. And we also wanted to build something that was going to last. We knew that the future for the type of reporting we wanted to do was not one that primarily relied on ads for all of our revenue. So we are a 501c(3) nonprofit, and our revenue model is a diverse one that includes philanthropic funding from foundations, individuals, corporations, and members, as well as ads and sponsorships. 

And we’ve organized in a way to minimize the cost of our local newsrooms, centralizing all of our business and operational functions. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we open a new local newsroom, and we can save our resources for the journalism.

The idea of journalism as a public good and something worthy of charity is not a new one, but it’s not particularly mainstream in philanthropic spaces. Good, quality, trustworthy information is the cornerstone of getting anything done. And anyone who cares about a cause should care about that. 

“If your first issue isn’t local news, your second issue should be local news,” Holliday said. “And it matters how that news is produced.”

Every challenge facing the nation right now — in education, health, criminal justice, income inequality, housing and more — requires strong, accessible information sources that equips those most affected with knowledge they can use to be more informed and more engaged in finding solutions.  

As Candice Fortman, CEO and chief of engagement and operations at Detroit’s Outlier Media told us, “You can’t say that you think about health but you’re only funding health organizations. People have to get that information from somewhere, and we’re part of that channel of influence.”

We’re proud to launch Capital B at this moment, as other newsroom leaders across the country are also working toward a better future for journalism. This is the wave. We’re prepared to do things differently, for audiences that deserve much more than they’ve gotten, and who need journalism to show up for them now more than ever. 

We’re ready to deliver.