Faith is not a business plan
For journalism to have a future, it must broaden its definition of audience
“Anybody can paint on a canvas. You can just pick up a canvas and paint what you feel. A mural — from the design to the finish — takes planning. You’re literally combining all those things that schools tell you don’t exist in the same space and time: math, science and art. You’re in one place and you have to conquer whatever this texture is. It’s a challenge every single time.” — Sydney G. James, Detroit born and bred muralist and visual artist
Sydney and I were talking about process, motivation and my favorite conversation: “Why Detroit?”
From the day I first saw her art, nearly a decade ago, I was enamored with its beauty because it was so different than anything else I had seen. It was raw and somehow still graceful. It stirred something in my soul and yet brought me peace. Her art was a contradiction I deeply enjoyed. In seeing her work for the first time, I saw something familiar: I saw my community.
Sydney paints Black women. Specifically, she paints Black women from Detroit. She takes all of us: Our joy, pain, laughter, work and legacy and blows them up on canvas and on the sides of big buildings across the globe. She makes us the center of conversations about the human condition with each stroke of her brush.
It’s not every day and every artist that looks to Detroit or Black women for inspiration. Not everyone sees us as muses. Not everyone will see us as worthy of the hard work and planning it takes to go from a blank wall to a 180-foot tall masterpiece. In talking to Sydney about art, I heard reflected back some of the same values that led me to journalism and eventually to run a small newsroom in Detroit.
I want to build better newsrooms that reflect the needs of communities left behind by the business models of traditional newsrooms.
I am currently a JSK Community Impact Fellow and the Executive Director of Outlier Media. Outlier is a service journalism organization based in Detroit. Our model for reporting is unique as are the challenges of the people we center in our work. Detroiters can text our service and get information 24/7 about subject areas from jobs and debt, to education and food security. Sarah Alvarez, Outlier Founder and Executive Editor, was a JSK Fellow in 2016, which is where she developed the reporting methodology we use every day. She wanted to build a news service for people who are undervalued by most newsrooms: low-income communities and people of color.
Outlier has run on incredibly tight margins, mostly grant supported. Sarah and I have had periods when we weren’t paying ourselves. It was a risk we could afford more than our news consumers, but not much more. We are now able to pay ourselves and a small staff, but the business model of a news service as unique as ours — one focused on consumers left behind by multiple systems — is not one we can pick out of a box. It will need to be as rigorous and distinctive as our reporting model.
I am often asked how we will eventually sustain our work outside of our current model, which relies almost entirely on grant funding. It’s a fair question. We have staff to pay, expensive services to sustain, and growth with all of its necessary costs is not cheap. So I sit day after day thinking about money when what I really want to be working on is how Detroiters will get better information that moves them from surviving to thriving.
We are a blank canvas on which to build our model: a new way for newsrooms to build relationships with communities and not on the backs of communities.
When I speak to local news publishers of color, especially those who serve low-wealth communities, I am struck by a recurring theme. They started not because they had an investment or a business model. They seldom have wealthy investors backing them or the means to create a big media splash upon their founding.
Many were reacting to a critical lack of information in their communities, due to the loss of a daily newspaper or the inability for a city with a thriving journalism ecosystem to identify and address the needs of its most underserved residents. Lack of information exacerbates structural problems in communities, from wealth disparities to lack of health access.
If you went to business school, this model makes no sense. However, for those of us who have lived in or served an information desert, we know the cost of not showing up is far too high for far too many to sit by idly waiting for the dollars to arrive.
I grew up in a Detroit Black Baptist church. So much of my early understanding of community building and care came from this experience. The fifth Sunday was always hosted by the youth. We were the ushers, choir and speakers for the day. It’s where a young Candice found her voice. I can still hear in my head my pastor calling me up to the stage to read the scripture for the day. My favorite passage came from the second book of Corinthians; “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” You have to believe things into being.
Now I know you also have to fund things into being.
I still carry that passage with me, but I also know that faith alone will never be enough. Too many of us exist only on the belief that if we just work hard enough and make sacrifices, our ventures will attract the kind of attention and funding needed to be sustainable. That rarely happens. We don’t see the kind of investment in our organizations and communities that will give us the capacity to build or plan for the future. For journalism to have a future, it must broaden its definition of audience and serve more diverse communities with a staff and models that reflect the changing reality.
Well, for those publishers of color serving low-wealth news consumers, they’re already hitting that mark by attracting, serving, and building trust with those that many newsrooms have discarded. They are reimaging what a newsroom can and should be.
Over the coming months, as part of my JSK fellowship, I will ask the founders and leaders of newsrooms serving low-wealth communities what they need to attack the information and accountability gaps in their community. I hope that we can attach their efforts with resources that transform newsrooms and communities by centering the needs of both.
When I was wrapping my conversation with Sydney I asked her if she thought there was something unique about Detroit that makes creating or building here unique. She gave me what I needed to have a little more faith in my journey.
“This is just a city of independence and doing. And it’s flat land so we have to make our own landscapes.”
Candice Fortman is a John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow at Stanford University and executive director of Outlier Media in Detroit.