Q&A: Capital B
Lauren Williams and Akoto Ofori-Atta on their vision for a national network of Black community newsrooms.
A national newsroom with local hubs around the country, built specifically to serve Black communities. Coverage of health, education, criminal justice, politics, and wealth. Investigative reporters that interface with local reporters. Local reporters that interface with established community papers.
That’s the vision for Capital B: a newsroom founded by Lauren Williams, most recently a senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Vox; and Akoto Ofori-Atta, most recently the managing editor of The Trace.
The newsroom aims to launch in fall of 2021, but both Williams and Ofori-Atta talked to The Objective about the newsroom’s next steps and what Capital B might look like in ten years. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk a bit about where Capital B is now?
Lauren Williams: My last day at Vox was February 12th. And Akoto has been full-time Capital B since November. And what we're working on is primarily raising some money so that we can make Capital B happen. So we're having a lot of fundraising meetings. We're doing a lot of work to set up — well, I say we — Akoto is doing a lot of work to set up kind of the infrastructure of our business, like accounting, benefits, and all of that. And so we are, trying to set up the foundation of Capital B right now and we're hoping to start hiring next month.
Akoto Ofori-Atta: And you said raising money, right? Did we say that?
LW: Yeah, we said raising money.
What was the impetus to start Capital B? How did you get to this point where you decided, "Okay, we're going to leave, we're going to do our own thing. We're going to leave the infrastructure that already exists and try to do this ourselves.”
LW: We met about ten and a half years ago at The Root, where we worked together for about three years. And then we've been friends since. And we've often talked about a Black news organization — a utopian Black news organization — what that could be. And it's evolved over the years, as our careers have evolved, and the things that we know and understand about the industry have evolved. But last June, when everything was happening at once: Black Lives Matters Matter protests, COVID, the election, racial reckonings in our newsrooms across the industry — plus Akoto and I had both reached points in our career where we were experienced newsroom leaders who really understood how to run a news organization — we realized it was just the right moment to do it.
And you know, it wasn't an immediate decision to do it, but it was over text, in our group text with Jenée Desmond Harris. And, you know, we just said, "Let's start really, really seriously thinking about it." And it didn't take long for us to realize that there was will in the industry and philanthropy for this to happen. And the time was right: we couldn't really put it off if we didn’t do it now. And so, both of us had trouble and it was hard making the choice to leave where we were because we'd spent a lot of time and put so much of ourselves into our roles, but this seemed so important. And it was almost like once we came up with the idea, we couldn't not do it.
AOA: After George Floyd and the 2020 protests, it just became glaringly obvious that the status quo was untenable and we couldn't just do things the way we'd been doing them. And so Lauren and I really asked ourselves, "What can we do with our expertise and our background to contribute to a new future for news?"
You said you’re going to start hiring next month. So what does it look like when you hire? What do the beats look like for reporters? Who are you hiring? What's the structure?
AOA: Lauren and I are just really itching to get to the journalism and hiring for beats and doing all that stuff. But one thing that has become super clear is that, because the editorial idea is so large, the business side needs to compliment that. And so our first hires are going to be some business folks who can really think creatively about revenue and sustainability. But also we're looking for top editors in several different areas. So if we meet someone we're also open to it. You know, we want to be as nimble as possible, but business hires are a priority.
LW: We can tell you a little bit about the beats that we're thinking about and the structure of how we hope for it to work. The core Capital B beats are going to be health, education, criminal justice, politics and, wealth/economics. And the way that we're thinking of these beats playing out is, in our local bureaus, we'll choose the beats primarily based on the needs of the community. We want to be very, very, very intentional in our local bureaus about what the needs of that specific community are. We don't just want to create like a cookie-cutter replica, Capital B's everywhere we open. That's not going to make a lot of sense. We know that communities have different needs and different demographics. In some communities, the Black community might be skewing younger, in some places, skewing older, and that opens up a whole different set of factors in how we're going to be reaching our audience. Nationally, we are going to have investigative and accountability journalists focusing on those core beats. And we want our local journalists to be helping our national journalists understand what's happening in Black communities across the country. We want our national journalists to be working with our local journalists on the big, broad themes of the beats and helping them to contextualize national stories for their local audience.
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Do you know where you're going to plant those local bureaus yet?
AOA: Here’s how we're thinking about them. We're looking at places in the Rust Belt because there are large Black populations there that are ignored by the news. We're looking at, in general, just large metro cities with large Black populations with low access to local news (which is literally almost all the big Black cities). And more specifically, we're looking at states where demographics are really changing, because we've seen that Black people have been targets of misinformation campaigns in those States. So that's our criteria. We have a shortlist and we will be making decisions soon.
LW: As we were talking about sustainability, we want to be able to find support for Capital B in these communities. And so, and you know, another factor is, you know, can we open a Capital B bureau and sustain it, to some degree through local support is, is a big part of the consideration.
Do you have plans to work with whatever Black community newspapers already exist in the space?
AOA: Yeah. So we are taking very seriously the idea that Black people need robust news ecosystems to tap into, right? And so we want to be additive. We don't want to replicate what's happening in any given area. And this is part of the reason why our bureaus will look so different, right? So if we go to a city with a publication that is covering some areas, we'll work with them to make sure that we're together creating an ecosystem that feels complete. But what we have found is that a lot of the Black publications, while they do incredible work in community news, commentary, and sharp aggregation, there is a gap to fill when it comes to original reporting and investigation. So we think that that is going to be our primary wheelhouse, and also, the service journalism aspect of it, just getting people basic information that they need to navigate their communities.
Who did you look to, if anyone, that's already doing similar work? Any inspiration for the frameworks that you're using?
LW That's interesting because this model of Black news does not really exist. And even in mainstreamed networked models, this model of thinking about the way we're serving the local community a little bit differently than the national is also a little bit different. There are a lot of network models out there that are doing good work, and there are also, I think, a lot of local Black led nonprofits that are doing really amazing work that we're happy to join that group.
What do you want folks to know off the bat as you launch? What should they know about the work that you're doing?
AOA: Every time someone asks me that I feel compelled to say that I have a Come to Death Row speech. What do we want people to know? We want people to really understand the ambitiousness of the idea behind Capital B. And we want people to know that we're moving in this direction and moving so aggressively because we believe that this is really, really important work and Black Americans deserve really, really good news sources and need them especially now. What else do you want people to know Lauren?
LW: I think that the interesting thing for young journalists reading this is that a lot of the complaints that have come up around newsrooms — young journalists of color not feeling empowered or feeling pushed aside because of their identity and experience when it comes to stories that it intersects with those identities and experiences, as opposed to being brought in — that's just not going to be the kind of newsroom that Capital B is by its very nature. If I fast forward to 10 years from now and Capital B journalists are at the New York Times and The Washington Post, having been reared under a nurturing and empowering newsroom atmosphere, I think that is a win for Capital B and it is a win for the industry as a whole.
AOA: We want to be a place where yes, young journalists can come and learn and grow and, move on any way they want in their career. But we also hope we can be a model to our peers who are running newsrooms. We surely don't want to rear journalists at Capital B and they go off to places where they're not as supported. So we do want our peers to sort of look to us and learn from us as we build one of the most inclusive newsrooms in the industry.
What critique do you have for the way things are going now? I mean, that's the impetus for a lot of the work that you're doing. So I'm curious what comes to mind?
AOA: The first thing that comes to mind for me is less of a critique and more like just an honest question, which: What happened to all of that movement after June. And I don't ask that sarcastically. I really want to know, do Black people at newsrooms across the country feel that they've done things differently? Do non-POC managers feel like they've done things differently? What are the results of the things they try to do differently? I am very curious about the "post-reckoning."
LW: When I think about the industry as a whole, you often hear about how hard change is. It was even hard for legacy media organizations to start teaching reporters SEO. And this is just a much more fundamental change. And I think we're seeing not just movement, but also resistance. And so it's not this easy road where everyone's eyes get opened to the reality of what it's like to be a Black journalist. There's also a set of people who are digging in their heels and deciding that things have gone too far and change isn't worth all this. And so it's messy. And I think that there's going to be just rough times ahead in newsrooms as this change happens because it's not in any way simple.
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