Q&A: S. Mitra Kalita on how collaboration turns scarcity into abundance for community media organizations
S. Mitra Kalita is CEO and co-founder of URL Media, a collaborative network of Black and Brown community media organizations. Kalita also launched Epicenter-NYC in 2020, a publication that covers Queens and is part of the URL Media network.
Previously, Kalita was SVP of Digital for CNN, and has worked for major publications like the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. We caught up with Kalita about why she left mainstream media and how collaboration has become a crucial element of her work in community media.
WF: How did you get involved in journalism?
SMK: For me, the earliest memory of journalism is when I was 12 years old. I was moving back to the mainland from Puerto Rico, which is where I was raised for some years of my childhood. I was very upset about the move. I remember protesting this decision by making my own newspaper out of construction paper. I drew my family and had a banner headline saying “Kalita family to leave Puerto Rico” — and then I had some negative thoughts on that.
We ended up arriving in a middle school in New Jersey and I joined the school newspaper as a way to make friends. In my first few weeks at the school I was interviewing the principal about standardized testing. The seeds for finding my voice through journalism came at a young age. In high school and college, I was also on the school paper. I was lucky enough to have those school newspapers and advisors that took interest in me, which formed my eventual career trajectory. The role of teachers in my life is really quite something, and a few years ago I spoke at my high school journalism teacher’s funeral, Mrs. Blader, who had a special impact on me.
WF: When did you start to think about collaborative journalism and what does that term mean to you?
SMK: There’s an element of collaborating that’s inherent to the journalistic process. You have a byline on the story, but you have an assignment editor, a copy editor, in many cases you’re working with other journalists. Working at Associated Press, even though I didn’t love working at a wire, you really do lose a lot of your ego, because so much of an AP story is pulled from members, freelancers, or someone who’s in the field. That was my approach to collaborative journalism initially, which can just be described as a selfless approach.
In 2020, I started to think about collaborative journalism a little bit differently. I had come out of mainstream media and started to think more about partnerships with smaller media outlets, ethnic and community media. As I set up Epicenter and URL Media, when I went to mainstream outlets they were saying we don’t know about your “standards” or “ethics,” and I said I know I don’t agree with yours. It’s often the bigger outlet that gets to be dismissive of the smaller. But for those of us who operate in service of our communities, we actually have a lot of questions about the ethics and standards of mainstream outlets, who often practice a form of journalism that feels harmful.
The way I think now about collaborative journalism is intent of the parties — to make sure that we have the same mission and purpose with our journalism — as opposed to thinking about it as access to platforms. It’s really thinking about why we are doing this, and are we aligned? That’s what collaborative journalism means to me now.
WF: What made you want to launch URL Media? How did your career in journalism lead you to that point?
SMK: I was at CNN for five years, and a senior vice president in 2020 when we had the collision of the pandemic, the racial justice protests, and a presidential election. I was looking ahead to the next few years, at myself personally, and I really feared committing journalism in the same way I had for the decades previous. During this soul searching, I launched a small newsletter in Queens called Epicenter.
There’s nothing like launching something small while working at the biggest of the big. I was still at CNN at the time. I really thought about servicing a specific neighborhood, community, or audience — it’s very rewarding, but it often doesn’t meet the standards of scale that are necessitated to be successful online, whether it’s through Google and SEO or Facebook and social media. I launched URL because I thought, surely, there’s a way for smaller outlets who are doing really meaningful work in service of their communities to band together and achieve scale — but not have to sacrifice who they are in order to amplify their message. URL initially launched with eight partners, today we have 27.
Everything in my career led me to this point. Because I worked in mainstream media, I understand virality, the ability to find new audiences on the internet, and how social algorithms work. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would be pushing us to really challenge whether the information we’re getting is the best information, or whether it’s been able to game forces that don’t have to do with the quality of content or service to the community, but everything to do with scale and the history of who gets to be big. I don’t think it’s just my career in journalism that led me to launch URL Media. It’s also because of my belief in community, and in many cases the answers being among communities, as opposed to journalism that is somehow up on a pedestal, imparting information in some distant way.
WF: How do you approach collaboration at URL Media? What makes your work successful, and what are you most proud of?
SMK: We approach collaboration very organically. We are immersed in news outlets and their content all day long. We start to see themes in coverage, and we often surface them before mainstream outlets do because we are from the ground up. That is what makes our work successful. I’m most proud of the ability to surface that work. There’s a story I’m thinking of from Black Voice News, which covers the Inland Empire in California, on how Black patients dress up to go to the doctor. Anyone reading that story will learn that Black patients are fully aware of being treated unfairly or inequitably by the medical profession, and dressing up allows them to be taken more seriously. That type of work, the ability to respect and center the integrity of the storytelling, by communities and for communities, is what I’m most proud of.
With Epicenter, there are a number of times we’ve been able to work with Documented, which covers immigrant New York. We did a guide for SNAP benefits, and Documented was getting a lot of questions in Spanish on their Whatsapp messages about the same subject, so they reached out and asked if they could take the story and translate it with an eye towards the community asking questions. We then re-published that translated story, too. I’m most proud of these organic examples where the community is demanding information and we’re able to help serve our partners.
WF: What are some of the biggest challenges still facing URL Media, and Black and Brown media organizations? How are you working to get around them? What are you finding most helpful or useful?
SMK: One of the biggest shifts of this year has been the uncertainty of the economy and a changing social media landscape. Facebook doesn’t favor links to journalism. Twitter consumption is not what it used to be, and happens to be owned by a man who says he doesn’t believe in DEI. We’re facing the same external challenges that the industry and society at large are facing. What is the place of the rhetoric around inclusion that we’ve spent the last three years hearing? Many of those commitments have been abandoned pretty quickly. We continue to fight for diversity, on behalf of our communities. For us this is not a fad, it’s our entire livelihood.
Demographics are on our side. We are on track to be the majority minority in the US. Black and Brown people are 80% of the world. We find that helpful, even as clearly the thought of that is what fuels the anti-DEI sentiment and the backlash we’re seeing now. The other piece is the ability to operate from abundance as opposed to the scarcity that has marked so much of the industry. It’s hard to ask organizations to be giving when everyone feels like they’re in retreat. A lot of us grew up with this philosophy in our families and homes, it’s a very natural position for many of our outlets. We share content, pitch decks, contact info for funders. That’s a different posture than the more singular success that a lot of mainstream media outlets might be after.
WF: Overall, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your journalism career?
SMK: By being in service to our communities, we are breeding trust. Once you serve a member of an audience, an individual, they will come back to you, whether it’s with another question or a desire for more content. Once you’ve helped someone — enabled them to get a COVID vaccine or access to a resource they need — the amount of trust they have in you as an institution is something I wish I knew and had felt more when I worked in mainstream media. The audiences with Epicenter and URL Media are a fraction of a size, but we’ve experienced more trust exponentially.
Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with operational and project funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, NJ Civic Information Consortium, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.