Tracie Powell, the engaging and provocative founder and CEO of the Pivot Fund, shares her unique perspective on the intersection of journalism, philanthropy, and racial equity. Drawing from her rich experiences spanning j-school, advertising and circulation, reporting, law school, and her current role in philanthropy, Tracie provides a nuanced view of the media landscape.
She delves into the mission of the Pivot Fund, emphasizing its commitment to centering BIPOC communities and the importance of participatory grantmaking. Tracie underscores the need for comprehensive, wraparound services for newsrooms, highlighting the importance of holistic support that extends beyond mere financial aid.
A significant part of the discussion is dedicated to addressing both the race and often overlooked class problems in journalism. Tracie provides actionable insights on how white-led newsrooms can foster inclusivity and better represent the communities they serve.
This conversation is a deep exploration of the challenges and opportunities in today's media landscape, offering valuable insights for anyone interested in the future of journalism and the role of philanthropy in shaping it.
(02:31) – What is the Pivot Fund and how is it distinctive?
(05:04) – Centering BIPOC communities (vs. BIPOC founders), participatory grantmaking
(13:47) – Tracie’s journey through J-school, advertising & circulation, reporting, law school & philanthropy
(21:48) – Wraparound services for newsrooms
(25:36) – Journalism’s class problem
(32:20) – What white-led newsrooms should do to include people of color
(42:16) – Rapid-fire questions
Listen to the episode here:
- Tracie Powell: LinkedIn, Twitter
- Pivot Fund: web, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube
- The Pivot Fund Pod: Apple, Spotify
- Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
- JSK Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University
- LION Publishers
- Racial Equity in Journalism (REJ) Fund at Borealis Philanthropy
- Public Square Initiative at Democracy Fund
- Columbia Journalism Review
- Georgetown Law Center
- Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
- El Tîmpano
- Local Media Association interview
- Pasa la Voz
- Black America Web
- Local Media Association
- Media Impact Funders
- American Journalism Project
- Nieman Lab
- Atlanta Daily World
- Indians in Cummings GA
- Wendy Thomas and Amethyst Davis interview
- MLK 50
- Documented New York
- Enlace Latino
- Sahan Journal
- Axios Atlanta
- Reynolds Journalism Institute
- Local News Matters: web, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
- Colorado Press Association: web, Twitter, Facebook
- Tim Regan-Porter: bio, Twitter
Tracie Powell is a leader in philanthropic efforts to increase racial equity and diversity in news media. She is the founder of The Pivot Fund, which seeks to support independent BIPOC community news.
Powell was a Fall 2021 Shorenstein Center Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, where she researched mechanisms for funding and capacity building for media outlets run by and for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and traditionally marginalized) communities. Powell is the immediate past board chair of LION Publishers, a professional journalism association for independent news publishers where she had served on the board since 2017.
Prior to her work with The Pivot Fund and Harvard, Powell was founding fund manager of the Racial Equity in Journalism (REJ) Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. Powell is also the founder of AllDigitocracy.org, which focuses on the media and its impact on diverse communities. She was a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund, where she worked on the Public Square Initiative that seeks to support informed dialogue through nonprofit journalism investments. Powell was a 2016 JSK (Knight) Fellow at Stanford University and has written regularly for the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter Online. Her work has been highlighted by countless journalism and academic institutions, including Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and The University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Tracie Powell [00:00:00]:
There has been a lot of activity across the country lately, and people say that they are being community centered in terms of launching these nonprofit newsrooms. And what we found is that they might be community foundation centered, but they are not community centered. That's the piece that funders continue to miss. I get funders asking me this question all the time. What do we keep getting wrong? What you keep getting wrong is that you're not centering community. You're not speaking directly to them. Keep on missing the key ingredient. In order to be respected, relevant, resonant, representative, we got to center the community. And that's what Pivot Fund tries to do. So that's one way that we differ big time from other funders.
Tim Regan-Porter [00:00:49]:
Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. In each episode, I sit down with guests from newsrooms and others in the local news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them, as well as the crucial questions they face.
This episode, I’m excited to bring you Tracie Powell, founder of The Pivot Fund which which seeks to support independent BIPOC community news. Tracie has a diverse background encompassing advertising, editorial and philanthropy. Powell was Shorenstein Center Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. She is also the board chair of LION Publishers,
Prior to her work with The Pivot Fund and Harvard, Powell was founding fund manager of the Racial Equity in Journalism (REJ) Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. Powell is also the founder of AllDigitocracy.org, which focuses on the media and its impact on diverse communities. She was a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund, where she worked on the Public Square initiative that seeks to support informed dialogue through nonprofit journalism investments. She has written regularly for the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and The University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
I loved this conversation, exploring what it means to really serve and be led by the community as well as the distinct challenges faced by journalists and communities of color.
If you like this episode and what we're doing more generally, never miss an episode by signing up for our newsletter at lnmpod.com.
What is the Pivot Fund and how is it distinctive?
Well, welcome, Tracie. Thank you for joining me.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
So you've got a fascinating background. I don't want to delve into that, but let's just start with where you are now with Pivot Fund. What is Pivot Fund, and what are you trying to do with it?
So the Pivot fund launched in 2021 after I launched the racial equity and journalism fund. When I stepped down after two years there, after getting that fund off the ground, I realized one of the things that I learned was that you just can't write an organization a check and expect them to go run with it and do great things. They needed some wraparound services, some supports beyond just the grant. And so when I left, I had all intentions of maybe going back to trying to run my own news organization or doing something different. It was right after the telling of the pandemic, so I also wanted to rest. But the phone calls from publishers did not stop people needing advice and mentorship and connections, whether it was connecting them to a fundraiser or connecting them to a funder. So all these calls just kept coming in. And that's how the Pivot Fund was born. We realized that we had to make sure that these hyper local news outlets were getting the dollars they need because they are our best opportunity to build and rebuild trust with communities. And so I needed to make sure that those dollars were getting to them, the organizations that are already trusted by community and then also layering that with the wraparound services that I mentioned. And so that is the Pivot fund. In a nutshell, we've launched in Georgia. We are a national fund because quite frankly, the organizations that we invest in are not on anybody's radar. And while other people preach about journalism, needing to be community centered, funders don't seem to know how to do that, but the Pivot Fund does. So we center communities. We employ participatory grant making, meaning those that are most impacted by the injustices and challenges that we see in society take part in also determining who gets money and who gets funding. We actually really center communities. We do that from the jump start in terms of who we even talk to, to find out what trusted sources are. And that's where we allow the community to direct us, direct where the funding should go.
Centering BIPOC communities (vs. BIPOC founders), participatory grantmaking
And you target BIPOC and traditionally marginalized communities or founders, including rural founders, is that correct?
We are community centered, so we target underserved communities that prioritizes BIPOC communities, immigrant communities. We invest at the intersection of race, ethnicity, disability or ability, class, educational backgrounds. That's why you saw our first investments in rural Georgia, right? We understand that if you invest in the community center organizations, particularly those led by and for communities of color, then it can lift the entire information ecosystem. But where people get it twisted is that they think that we center founders. That's not who we center at all. We center communities. And so there's a really interesting news outlet in California called El Tîmpano, and it centers the Latin community. It's one of the organizations that I've been wanting to invest in since I was at Borealis. But because there was a lack of understanding, right? This organization is led by a white woman, Madeleine Bair. There was a lack of understanding at Borealis that you can be white led as long as you're community centered. Pivot Fund gets that nuance instinctively. And so you can be something other than a person of color leading an organization, but if you're not serving that community let me put it a different way. You can be a person of color leading a newsroom, but if you're not serving that community, then Pivot Fund is not interested.
That's an important distinction. Thank you for that. You alluded to earlier sort of the distinctiveness of Pivot Fund and your ability to identify those organizations that are community focused. I was reading an LMA interview, I think, right as you were transitioning from Borealis into Pivot Fund, where you talked about disrupting philanthropy and doing new type of grantmaking. So can you elaborate on those distinctive aspects of what you're doing?
Yeah, I think a lot of funders talk about being community centered. For example, there's been a lot of activity across the country lately, and people say that they are being community centered in terms of launching these nonprofit newsrooms. What we found is that they might be community foundation centered, but they are not community centered. That's the piece that funders continue to miss over and over and over again. I get funders asking me this question all the time. What do we keep getting wrong? What you keep getting wrong is that you're not centering the community. You're not speaking directly to them. Now, we're centering these nonprofit newsrooms around personalities and star journalists. Now, community foundations that look a whole lot like a lot of the national funders that I talk to keep on missing the key ingredient. In order to be respected, relevant, resident, representative, we got to center the community. And that's what Pivot Fund tries to do. So that's one way that we differ big time from other funders. We also look to trusting the news organizations that we invest in. We don't try to tell them how to best serve their communities. The folks that we invest in already know that they're embedded in the community. They're part of the community. And so we trust that they know how best to use this money. Now, they may not know exactly how to launch a newsletter, for example, or how to develop new products, and so we connect them to our networks who can help them do that. And of course, a lot of times we are paying for that or helping them pay for it. So we do that. The other thing is, I mentioned earlier about participatory journalism and participatory grant making. We employed both. We want to invest in organizations that report alongside their community. So it's not just for or about them. It's alongside their community. One of the best examples I can think of right now is Pasa la Voz in Savannah, Georgia. There was a bus driver who forbid students. Majority of the students on the bus were Hispanic kids. This bus driver forbid them from speaking in Spanish while on the bus. Well, Pasa la Voz wouldn't have been able to effectively report that story. And they were the first, they broke the story without the fact that they were working with community members who were complaining and had been impacted by that decision to forbid their their relatives and family members and children from speaking in Spanish. And so they they reported that story alongside the community members, and it was a hell of a story, and they even produced a video. And so when other newsrooms picked up that story, they picked up that video that Pasa la Voz had on its website and of course had Pasa la Voz's logo, and it was emblazoned with their logo and their slogan underneath. So all the TV stations that ran that video ran Pasa la Voz's story, a story that they produced alongside the community. That's another piece that I think a lot of funders miss and that Pivot understands instinctively. We have to be able to trust our communities when funders have been hearing for a long time from communities what they need, what they say they want, what they need. And I've just saw a report come out from one of the major funders last week about what people say they want and need from news. They've been saying that for years. All we need to do is give them what they say they need the first time, listen the first time, and deliver. And funders, for whatever reason, that has not clicked with other funders.
I think that's so important. And we talk a lot about DEI in this industry. Sometimes it's all talk or checking a box. And I think it's important that newsrooms reflect their community, but even that is not enough. And it's going to take a long time to get our newsrooms to reflect the community. Our colleges need to diversify as well. But that should not stop you from including the whole community in your process. And that's probably the best way to get your journalism to reflect the community, is involve the community.
And we've been asking for that again for years. I worked in traditional newsrooms. I remember hitting my head against the ceiling over and over and over again. Then when I left the newsroom, I was working on the outside, trying to help newsrooms diversify and be more inclusive, knocking myself against the head again. I've taken a break from that. The organizations that Pivot Fund invest in, they already understand inclusion. They already get it, and they already reflect the communities that they serve. I don't know. I'm with the Gen Z folks and the millennials saying, stop begging for stuff and just make it happen. And that's what we created the Pivot Fund. Just make it happen. Stop begging funders to do what they need to be doing, what they should be doing, and just do it. That's what we're about.
You used the phrase participatory grantmaking. What does that look like?
At Pivot, that means including people who are directly impacted by injustice and the challenges that we talk about. So we talk a lot about civic engagement, increasing civic participation, really understanding why community members are not engaging or not engaging in the way that would enable them to create the kind of communities they want to live in. Right. So we make sure that they are part of the process. That means from the very beginning, we're going to the community asking or trying to understand where they get information, what kinds of information they have access to, what they do with information once they have it. So really understanding what sources they trust, right. Allowing that to lead us to who we invest in, rather than meeting some star journalist and saying, oh, we're going to give them $10 million because they worked at some established white newsroom. We look at that again, we look at that community. And then once we part of our due diligence, we're including community members in our process about who should we fund and at what level should we fund. So we are including those folks. They're part of our review team, our due diligence team, in helping us decide who we fund and at what levels we fund.
Tracie’s journey through J-school, advertising & circulation, reporting, law school & philanthropy
And we'll talk about some of the wraparound services, but I think now might be a good time to just briefly go into your background. So you went to Grady at University of Georgia. And was it a dual degree? How was that structured?
It was. It was business administration and journalism.
And then you went in on the advertising side into journalism, correct?
Yeah, I spent about maybe a year or so in advertising and was able to maintain the levels of the previous salesperson that was in that role. I can actually sell, which I didn't know that I could, but I spent most of my time in circulation. That's where I really cut my teeth. And understanding how you really understand and center communities, that circulation gave me that skill.
And then you went into the actual journalism side and got a law degree.
I had to leave Knight Ridder newspapers because that's who hired me straight out of college. They recruited me. I remember they met me at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. Tony Ridder and Jim Batten recruited me straight out of school. And I spent, what, my first four or five years there. I won't date myself, but believe me, I was in management. And as a manager, I got that early experience as a manager, the kind of decisions we have to make even during a newspaper strike, I was management. So got the experience of going through a strike. I know that's like, unheard of these days, but yeah. And so after the newspaper strike, I realized, what am I doing? I really want to be a reporter. That's what I've always wanted to do. That's why I went to Grady, because they had a J-school. And so I had to leave Knight Ridder in order to make that happen, because they wanted to keep me over in circulation. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. Anyway. I was just like, this ain't going to be around for too much longer. I left and went to Morris Communications, The Augusta Chronicle, and I took a job covering night cops. That's when they had a night cops beat. So yeah, I left and was able to go to the newsroom at a different newspaper chain.
And then you ended up getting a law degree and clerking. And how was that transition? How did that came about?
We're talking several news organizations later. I even started a couple of things. I launched a couple of things before it was cool to be an entrepreneur. I launched a magazine and some other stuff, helped launch Black America Web. But I was breaking my parents heart because they were like, they saw me struggling. The industry went through a recession and all this stuff, and they saw me struggling. And my mom was like, why don't you go to law school? This is thought about it. So I did it to make my parents happy, I think. But I knew, like, almost I think it was civil procedure. I knew then that this was not going to be what I wanted to do. And I clerked at the justice department, push papers, because that's what they do. I was pushing papers for the government. And this was during my clerkship. And I was like, I was so unhappy. Even in law school, I was still writing. I was writing for the congressional quarterly. I had a weekly column. I was doing some copy editing and stuff. So I kind of knew in my heart that I was not really going to leave journalism. So when I dreamed my clerkship, I realized like, no way. Eric Holder was the director. Then. I was just like, no, he was the attorney general. I'm sorry. So lots of experience, lots of exposure. But at the end of the day, I left and I created my own beat. I was a Poynter Sense-Making Fellow. I'm not even sure how I got that, but I landed that and no money at all. But I created my own beat trying to help journalists understand why they needed to give a damn about this digital revolution, what they needed to understand about Facebook and Google. And I was on the judiciary committee when Google was writing the rules around Section 230. I was there. So I experienced, I saw with my own eyes, like, how this stuff really, really works. I saw Google and Facebook give themselves immunity under Section 230, an immunity that did not exist for newspaper publishers. And so I wanted to help them understand that. I wanted them to help them understand why broadband access was so important. I saw on the horizon, again, being a former circulation manager, saw on the horizon where people, these newsrooms were going to start reducing their print runs and print schedules and going all digital, but we hadn't built the infrastructure in a lot of our communities to actually handle that. One of the pieces I wrote was about when The Times-Picayune decided they were going to go down to three days print editions and the rest digital. And I talked about in New Orleans how broadband access was so poor at that point in time, and why journalists needed to understand that, why it was so important sooner. Eventually, I went over to CJR. And I was writing for CJR some of these same kinds of stories, and a little bit more money than porner, not much more. I actually created my own website at that point called TMP Unplugged, which that was my own little personal thing. But I was actually covering hearings. So when google, when Eric Schmidt and company had to go down to congress to testify, I was there. And I was covering that stuff for my own personal blog. And little did I know. I think I wrote a piece about the civil rights groups lining up against Obama's technology initiatives. And it was the new school of civil rights groups like color change that was lining up with him. But the old school like NAACP and others were lined up against Obama, and that was so weird. First Black president and the NAACP is lined up. So I wrote about that from my own blog, and it went viral, right? People started paying attention, and I think one of my editors at CJR was like, why didn't you write this for us? I was like, because I didn't think you all would be interested. And so anyway, TMP Unplugged became All Digitocracy, and that really blew up, and.
Then you got into philanthropy.
So I thank All Digitocracy for opening that door. I got to see firsthand when I ran All Digitocracy, what existed for I was, like, among the first wave of publishers, right? And so there was nothing for us. Like I went to NABJ. I was going to all these ONA, I was going to all of these conferences, and I was just like, where are my people? Where do I learn how to be a publisher? Right? Where do I learn how to get access to stuff I need to build an actual business? And that didn't exist initially. That opened the door to Democracy Fund. They saw what I was doing, and they invited me to participate in this mapping project, this huge mapping, totally blow your mind type stuff. And so I participated in that. And then after I finished my fellowship at Stanford, and I think you were at Stanford too. I'm not sure if we were there at the same time, but after I finished that fellowship, that Knight Fellowship, Democracy Fund invited me to come join them as a senior fellow to help inform their building out their strategy. And as you know, Democracy Fund is probably one of the leaders in this space now.
Wraparound services for newsrooms
So let's talk about the wraparound services; that leads us straight to that. It's something that as the Press Association here in Colorado with Colorado Media Project and Colorado News Collaborative, we've been talking a lot about and I know from the Knight Foundation, the group of funders they've been gathering have been talking a lot about those core services that if we want these newsrooms to survive, they're going to need that kind of support. So what's your view of what is that support that newsrooms need and how does Pivot fund enter into that equation?
So when I was running All Digitocracy, we needed access to how do you get a 501(c)(3), or should you become a 501(c)(3) at that point, why you needed to be a 501(c)(3)? We needed support around how do you responsibly build out an audience, especially in this digital space? We needed support around just understanding basic accounting and organizational budgets, right. All of this stuff that as a journalist, nobody ever talks to you about because as a journalist, a lot of people become journalists because they don't want to do math. I didn't have that luxury because I was also majoring in business. But all of these things that were missing and so LION Publishers kind of came online and that was a place where we turned our attention as funders. Like, this is where we can kind of build out a foundation to teach journalists how to be publishers, how to run businesses. You needed—eventually needing to learn and understand building out advertising revenue. How do you do advertising sales? Right. That was my first job out of college, was advertising sales. Like, how do you do that? So needing to teach journalists that kind of stuff and why they needed to not why they needed to know how to do sales or hire the right kind of people with the right skills to do sales, I think also engagement was a big thing back then. Like how do you do community engagement? It still is. And so all of these things that are not necessarily part of were not necessarily part of journalism school training or even journalism training period. At other associations, we were able to kind of help, support and build out. You saw other people come online eventually LMA you brought up them and a few others to come online to kind of help build out these skills. Lion was able to really professionalize and further build out and strengthen their mission, core mission. But there was still something missing, especially for BIPOC newsrooms, I would think it's still missing for hyper local newsrooms period. And that's what I started, I began to call capacity building. And so it was a Media Impact Funders meeting right in the height of the pandemic. I remember they invited me to come speak and I talked about capacity building. This is right when I first launched the Racial Equity and Journalism Fund and I talked about capacity building. You cannot deliver all of these nice services unless the organizations have the foundation and capacity to handle it. And so you can have a news pack, for example, great website and SEO, but unless you had the capacity within those organizations to deploy it and understand it and maintain it, then it went for not. And so starting to talk about capacity building and what that actually looked like, it took a minute to catch on, but I think because with AJP coming online around the same time Borealis did, that really help to help funders understand what capacity building meant.
Journalism’s class problem
Going back to the diversity angle, one of the things you recently wrote, I think it was this year in Nieman Lab, was that it's not enough to have black and brown people. We need to also have diversity of lived experience and thought. I don't think we talk enough in journalism about the class problem in our newsrooms. We all have similar educations and professional status and economic status. So can you talk a little bit about sort of expanding the view of what diversity actually means?
Look, sometimes I feel like I'm not the right person to talk about this because I've lived a very privileged life, right? I went to law school at Georgetown in DC, graduated from the University of Georgia, did fellowships at both Stanford and Harvard. So I do recognize and understand my privilege. But I do think it's because my early work was so community oriented, community focused, that it helps me. It helped give me that level playing field to see exactly what we continue to miss. So I mentioned earlier, you can be a Black-led or person-of-color-led organization, but if you're not serving the underserved communities, communities that deserve quality, credible, fact based news and information the most, then Pivot is not interested. It is not enough to simply put a person of color on the masthead and check that box like you mentioned earlier, it's hypocritical, and quite frankly, it's offensive. I don't know that funders understand when we see some of this sometimes, how offensive it is. We have to understand what true inclusion and representation looks like, sounds like, feels like. And in order to do that, we have to understand and get to know our audiences. Our audiences are highly complex and nuanced. There's a lot of intersectionality. And so talking about making sure we're representative of LGBTQ communities who also happen to be black and brown, representative of community college educated, high school educated. The founder apostle of Pasa la Voz has a GED, and she's more of a journalist than a lot of journalists that I see out here today. Right? We need to be open to that. That's more reflective of our greater society than the folks who are working in these newsrooms with their elite college degrees, from their elite backgrounds and upper middle class lifestyles and experiences. And so being really open to that. I think in 2016, I was a fellow doing the Knight Fellowship, and I remember telling my fellow fellows that this person called Donald Trump had a really excellent chance of winning. And they just kind of rolled their eyes at me. They didn't believe me. They were just like, no way. He's not going to make—Hillary Clinton is going to win. And I was like, no. Well, number one, I had worked in government, and I understood that there were a lot of folks in government that didn't like Hillary Clinton. But when I traveled around the world, around the world, around the country, I'm from Georgia. I've worked in Texas. I've worked in Ohio. At the time, I was living in California, but I was also coming back in South Carolina, because my mom was in South Carolina. All these communities living in Virginia and also DC. I heard the conversations. I heard people talking, and I was skeptical about what the conventional wisdom of traditional journalists were, was that Donald Trump could not win. I tell you, it's because of my experiences living in the south, working in the Midwest, living in the Southwest, living in Texas, accumulated experiences. And I was like, this is going to happen. Nobody believed me. But when it did happen, I had people calling me on my phone, journalists calling me on my phone. How did you know it's? Because I had an ear to—I've always prided myself of keeping one foot in one world and the other foot in another world. I've always had to traverse two or three different worlds simultaneously. It's just I went to a white high school, majority white college. I've always had to live, my family. I'm Black. My family is Black. I've always had to live in two or three different worlds, navigate these different worlds. And because I've had to do that, I knew what was happening, what was about to happen. While everybody else was shocked, I was just like, okay, what do we do now? And I think that actually helped me make that decision, that I couldn't continue to beg white-led Newsrooms to do the right thing. I think that experience is what taught me I need to be focused in my efforts in these communities that have been underserved these rural communities. I remember talking to somebody at NPR, and I asked them a question. What do you think the folks in rural communities, what do you think they're talking about around this election versus the folks in some of these major cities? What do you think the conversations are like? And his response to me was like, well, people in real communities are probably doing saying X-Y-Z and the other ones are doing ABC. And I just remember saying to him, they're talking about the same stuff. They're worried about the same stuff. And what media is so busy doing by trying to label, everybody is creating divisions. I remember when we came up with that blue stuff and red stuff. I remember that. And I remembered thinking back then, yeah, blue and red, the crypts and bloods. We are buying into the same kind of gang culture. I know this sounds crazy, but those were my thoughts. Like, we cannot separate people by color. Blue and red cannot separate. These people have more incoming than you think. The folks in rural communities were worried about jobs and how they were going to put food on the table, just like the people in the city were. And so we could serve them with the information that they needed and said they wanted, but mostly needed. Then we could actually bring people together, bring communities to get together, connect communities with each other. And that's what I went about the business of doing. That's what we're missing because we refuse to take into consideration what conclusion and representation really means when we fail to take into consideration diversity of thought. That's why we keep messing up and.
What white-led newsrooms should do to include people of color
We're all poorer for it. Let's talk just for a minute to those white led newsrooms. Last week I went to a meeting of the Colorado Association of Black Journalists, and they played Black in the Newsroom short film, and it was heartbreaking. And the conversation was heartbreaking. As an industry, we're losing a lot of young people, and we're certainly losing a lot of young people of color. And it's particularly hitting TV right now because they're going through their own disruption. And a lot of that comes back to not just the industry dynamics, but how they are managed and related to. So what advice would you give to white Lead newsrooms? To two things. One, for their own staff, keep people of color engaged and progressing in the newsroom. And then second, how should they relate to their community? How should they relate to these publications that are focused on communities of color? Those are two very different questions. So if you want to tackle one.
First, we have to treat people better. The same stuff that drove me out of the white Lat newsroom is the same stuff that's happening today and driving people of color out of the newsroom. They're not treated well. They're not listened to, just like the communities of color are not listened to. Journalists of color are not listened to in their newsrooms. They are often extracted from, right. You want to take, but you don't want to give back. Pour back into them. You don't want to promote them. And if you do promote them, it's not in roles that are decision making. Or it might have the title. I mean, I could tell you I have friends now who had the title, but we're given none of the responsibility or we're undermined by those above them or even their boards because right now we are importing a lot of the bad behavior and some of the problem people into the nonprofit space. We're bringing a lot of them into the nonprofit space now, which is a huge mistake. But yeah, we got to treat people better. We have to invest in them. We have to appreciate them, and we have to pour into them. We can't just extract and take from them. I remember during the pandemic, during the racial uprisings, there was a reporter who was told that she couldn't cover the protest because she was, quote, unquote, too close. That happened to me. That happened to me in Augusta, Georgia. I couldn't cover it because I'm Black. That's a problem. That's a problem. I'm a professional journalist, just like that other young woman was. Yet because of somebody else's insecurities, we get pulled off of a story. I was told I was not an investigative journalist or an investigative reporter after I broke a major story about mismanagement in Austin, Texas. I broke that story. They took the story away from me and gave it to a white male reporter. Took that story away and gave it to a white man who years later was drummed out of the business because he plagiarized right, that kind of stuff. And so because that still is happening to other people, other reporters who come behind me, I mean, we're last hired, first fired, first laid off. That is always the case. And then a lot of journalists of color get in this business. Well, at least I did, because they wanted to make a difference for their community. One of the things I interned at the Atlanta Daily World, which was a Black newspaper in Atlanta, and the publisher then told me to always, always find a way to cover our community. A lot of times we aren't allowed to. Now, these days, not only are we not allowed to, it's not enough capacity in the newsroom. So even if we wanted to, we can't because you're covering multiple beats. We got to do better. It's not my job to lecture white newsrooms on how they need to do better. Like I told you, I stopped doing that a while ago. I don't know. That's the best course of action right now, to try to educate white newsrooms on how to do better. Somebody has to do it, and I'm happy that they're doing it. But for me, there's been so much harm produced by those newsrooms in communities across the country. It used to be that this still is, but they used to be really bad. Newspapers made intentional decisions not to cover certain communities because they were so busy chasing the affluent dollars of white suburbia. And so they made very intentional decisions not to go into communities of color in particular, unless it was to parachute in and parachute back out. Now those communities are making very intentional decisions. Actually, they did a long time ago. They started making very intentional decisions to ignore us, to ignore traditional media. And it's not just the communities of color that have tuned us out. Who have stopped reading us, have stopped listening to us. It's those white rural folks, too. Hell, it's those in white suburbia have stopped trusting us, have stopped listening to us, have stopped reading us. And so I just think it is the better use of my time at this point in my life to invest in the sources that are trusted, that are listened to, that are read. And so that means for me, hyper local and community news. And so that's where I'm putting my focus. Because quite frankly, I don't know if a lot of these traditional newsrooms are going to come back from this. I don't know. I think whole communities have started writing capital J. They're writing off capital-J Journalism. They are. And so I just think the best way to try to recapture or rebuild or build up some communities we don't even have anything then have relationships with, period. Trying to build relationships. Again, our best opportunity is to invest in the community, hyper local newsrooms that are already there. We have to recognize. I guess philanthropy will catch up with this at some point. The contraction in our business, the failure of our business model came after communities had already started erecting their own information infrastructures. And because those communities had already started erecting their own information, they're now a little bit more mature. Right? When I look on Facebook and I see Indians in Cummings with 25,000 followers, I'm just like, wait a minute, I don't even know how the Indians got the Cummings, because Cummings, Georgia used to be—you were here. Cummings, Georgia, used to be a Sundown town. If you're a person of color, particularly a Black person, you couldn't be in that town after sundown. But now there's Indians in Cummings with thousands of followers on Facebook. So when I see that and then I see that they're posting job listings for their community, posting job listings, some of them getting paid for it, they're posting stuff about schools and childcare. They are a resource that is an information source that we need to be investing in, that we need to be paying attention to. And now that the Atlanta Journal Constitution knows about them, they might try to partner with them. But that is our best chance right now to rebuild and to reclaim not just our democracy, but even I'm talking small-d democracy, democracy back home about what's happening in your own backyard. Like a bus driver telling your kid that you cannot speak Spanish on the bus. That's where we need to be looking right now. I'm not bashing. I tell people all the time, no, I'm not trying to save newspapers. That's where I cut my teeth. That's where I learn how to be a journalist. But I'm not trying to save newspapers, trying to save local news. And that's an uphill battle. When we keep wanting to romanticize newspapers, we need to go where people are grab them and hold them right there with relevant high quality news and information. Go to where people are. They are not reading us, reading dead trees anymore. Increasingly fewer and fewer people. I tell you, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, once and once upon a time was one of the highest circulation newspapers in the country. Not anymore. I think the highest circulation newspaper was the was it the Star Tribune? 42,000 circulation. I had 42,000 when I was in Milledgeville, Georgia. When I was in Columbus, Georgia, I had more than that. We got to go to where people are now. They are increasingly turning to trusted sources. Where that? Trusted sources on the local radio, podcast, newsletter. Unfortunately, Facebook plays an outsized role in some of these groups. But what Pivot Fund tries to do is deplatform help them deplatform their audience from some of these social media channels and put them on their own proprietary platform. So that's part of the wraparound services we provide.
Let's end with some rapid fire questions. So first, all compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about local news?
When I look at our grantees, I'm much more optimistic. I see the work that they're doing and I'm incredibly stoked, like they are kicking butt some of these hyper local newsrooms. Great journalism. Check out the podcast Prison Town when you get a chance. It's about Smith Prison in South Georgia.
Were you at the Knight Media Forum this year?
That was the most optimistic gathering of journalists, of journalism I think I've been to in a while. And I think there's a lot of sense of that, that we have an opportunity to build back better and not just wallow.
Yeah, I stopped wallowing a long time ago. I think we just can't afford to rebuild a system that we already have. And that was the concern that I had when I left the Knight Media Forum, that we might be in danger of replicating a system we already know doesn't work. And I know philanthropy thinks they want innovation. They don't really do innovation as long as we figure out how to innovate and not just build back better, but build differently, build something different.
What's the best single piece of advice you've been given?
Don't bother asking for permission. Just go ahead and do it. And if you make a mistake, then apologize. Do it over, but yeah, don't ask for permission. Just do it and apologize later if you have to. And that's pivot fun. Pretty much everybody. I was like, I didn't really intend to launch a foundation. People were like, Tracie, you launched a whole foundation. That was not in my intent. I was just trying to move money to communities that needed it.
Is there a piece of common advice or conventional wisdom that drives you crazy in its wrongness or oversimplification?
I think philanthropy sometimes gets me down really discouraging at times. We have our own podcast. We had Wendy Thomas and Amethyst Davis on our podcast last week. I think it was week before last. And I keep reading this quote over and over and went viral on Twitter about when it comes to white folks, philanthropy invests in ideas. When it comes to people of color, we have to prove ourselves. So they invest in the work that we're already doing. Not our ideas, but what we've already done. And unfortunately, that means struggling for us, for people of color, we have to struggle. And so even with Pivot Fund, it's a struggle. These are my own folks journalism funders. I've had to look outside of them for our support because they insist on doing things the way they've always been done. They insist on investing only in the people that they know. And like, what I'm seeing is a lot of folks who are on the corporate media side now, coming over here to the nonprofit side and bringing their bad behaviors, their poor behaviors, the same ways that they conducted themselves when it came to hiring and recruiting in corporate media. They are now on the nonprofit side deciding who gets funded in that same way and is bringing more harm and doing more harm on the nonprofit side now. And the other reason Pivot was created, other reason it was built, is because I saw that coming down the pipe, and I said, not on my watch. I will stand up. I will fight against it. I will speak out against it, and I will call these folks out just as I'm doing now. I will not allow you to bring in one or two people of color that you deem okay to fund at the expense of all of these news outlets out here who are doing their best to serve communities that you decided a long time ago that you didn't care about. I'm not going to let that happen. And so I see that right now, I'm a proven product. I have launched a fund. This is the second fund I've launched. I've invested in some all the newsrooms that people talk about the most these days. MLK 50, Documented New York, Enlace North Carolina, Sahan Journal, on and on and on. I was one of the first, if not the first, investor that they had. I know I was the first transformational funder that they had. And now all the rest of journalism is talking about them. I am a proven product. Pivot, under my leadership is proven. But I'm still having trouble getting support from my own folks journalism philanthropy. So I've had to go outside. Now, I mean, I do have support from MacArthur and Democracy Fund, a number of the Heising-Simons, Carmen Family Foundation, several funders that I'm really happy to have their support. But I'm having to go outside. I'm having to go to funders who understand community as opposed to journalism, because journalism funders don't understand community. And so that drives me crazy. That poor behavior that's being imported over in here. They're building out strategy around ego, around star power, around everything but what we should be building around, and that's community. And it drives me up the wall.
You mentioned innovation, and it's practically religion in Palo Alto that failure is important to innovation. Do you have a favorite failure of yours that led you, you learned from or it led you to someplace new and better?
Wow, that's a great question. I launched Eclipse Magazine early on when I was in Dallas, Texas. It got real big, real fast. We had the Dallas morning news looking at us and like, wow, wait a minute, what are they doing over there? We were raising money from coma Katrill and Tom Joyner, but ultimately I had to leave because one of the things I was so much of a journalist, so much of an editor at the time, breaking incredible stories, but I partnered with someone who was the publisher, who did not share my same values. So great at throwing parties, lavish parties, getting people to the launch parties and stuff, all the issues, but just really didn't share the values. I was glad that he brought a balance to my heart news journalist self. But when it came to running the values of running a business, it's important that you choose your partners carefully. And so we had broken the story about the police chief in Dallas, their first Black police chief. I had already been warned by the SCLC, Texas SCLC to trade carefully with this police chief because he was the first Black one. I'm from Atlanta, born and raised. I've only known Black police chiefs and Black leaders, Joseph Lowry and Eldrin Bell, and I only know Black leadership. So it did not impress me that they had a Black, first Black police chief. And so when a young man carrying a subway sandwich and a soda was killed by police who said he had a gun, I covered the hell out of that story, and I should have. I was actually even working with Dallas Morning News reporters to help me tell the stories that they couldn't tell at the Dallas Morning News. They told it in Eclipse Magazine, so incredible publication, but it failed because I failed to choose my partner carefully. He came behind us on that police, one of one of our police stories, and deleted the story. After the police chief called him and told him they didn't want that story to run, he deleted that. And when he did that, I walked. So I considered that a failure. We're still Facebook friends, the publisher and I, but that taught me a real heart lesson. Choosing your partners is really, really critical for in terms of success. I think another failure is trying to be both publisher and editor at All Digitocracy. I was trying to do both. I was writing, editing, and selling ads and stuff. You can't do that and I think that's a lesson that I impart often to publishers. You got to make a decision, and it doesn't mean you have to stick with that decision forever. Wendy was one of them. I told her, you got to choose right now. You got to focus on building out the business. Maybe you can come back to being a reporter, being an investigative journalist. And she didn't listen to me initially, but now she tells everybody, I should have listened to Tracie. And it's really good because she did have to step back and run MLK 50 to build the business out, and now she's hired somebody who can run the day to day so that she can go back to being an investigative reporter. Anyway, I've learned several lessons along the way. It's not just a singular failure.
Good lessons. What's your favorite place to think big?
I really enjoy I have a six year old nephew, smart as a whip, and I love hanging around him. I love being around him because just listening to him and playing with him helps me gets my juices flowing. And I think when you're that age, when you're six, when you're a child, there's nothing you cannot do. There's nothing you think you can conquer the world. It's not until we become adults that we start thinking smaller. And so I actually is not aware as a who, I think, and just spending time with my two nephews, especially one just graduated from high school, he's headed to college. It's a whole wide world out there open to him right now, and that's what he sees. And so that's helpful in terms of my own outlook. We can turn this world upside down for the better. We can change this world for the better if only we try. But if we don't try, we know the answer to that.
Burnout and mental health is a growing problem in newsrooms. What's one thing you do to restore yourself and maintain your sanity right now?
I think, like I said, those two nephews. But one of the things that I need to do that I got to do is I need to go find an island and just sit on the beach and breathe. It's been pretty nonstop democracy Fund again, because we're such good friends and I work with them. After I left Borealis, they were instrumental in helping me get the fellowship at Harvard to just kind of step back. Now, in my infinite wisdom, I launched a major research project while I was there and then launched a Pivot Fund. But I think taking those opportunities that exist when given to you to sit back, reflect, and think is really important. In our podcast with Wendy, she talked about the importance of having a therapist and talking through your issues or concerns with the therapist. I think that's really good. But my place give me a beach any day, a beach in blue water, and I'm happy.
Imagine we're five years from now. Pivot Fund has been remarkably successful. The industry has built back better and differently. In your mind, what does that look like?
That looks like journalism. Funders putting me out of business. They should put Pivot Fund out of business. That means making sure that communities are centered in our storytelling and our philanthropy. That means making sure that we're producing news alongside the community, not just about them. So there's no such thing as parachuting into communities anymore. That means that we are connecting community members to one another and not producing content that is divisive and polarizing. That means that we have accountability journalism in place. So politicians are no longer really trying to circumvent us and talking to audiences directly and providing producing disinformation and misinformation. That means that we are working in concert with the platforms and serving audiences. We're not being there. They're not using us. They're not using us and using our content, but we're working in concert with one another. I'm pretty sure they still exist. So there's not going to be a way around that. I think it means that journalism looks, feels, and sounds a lot different than it does today. It's going to be truly reflective and representatives of the communities we serve, and we're not going to be so high and mighty that we're not really serving people. We will be serving people. We'll be truly serving people because we're not all out there somewhere. We're actually part of the communities we're covering. Right. I think that's really important. That's what the hyper locals have on us right now. I talk about my hometown newspaper all the time. I love the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I grew up. That's how I learned how to read, actually. Sitting on my dad's lap, teaching me how to read by reading the newspaper. The Atlanta Journal Constitution. We had the Atlanta Journal come to our house. We had the Atlanta Constitution come to our house. The Atlanta Daily World. You name it. The DeKalb County Champion. We had multiple newspapers coming to our house. That's no longer the case. I think… AJC is out in Dunwoody somewhere. No longer even in Atlanta. I guess, because they still have the name, they think people are fooled. No, I think again, we have to be embedded. We have to be something that people want and need. Five years from now, that's probably really lofty goal. I'm going to give you all a little bit more time than that. Several years from now, a decade from now, I pray that we are what people need and want, that we are sources of information that empowers people to better navigate their lives and their communities and more so we are sources that enable and empower people to create the communities that they want to live in. Right. That's what journalism is supposed to be at its core. Information to help people understand what's happening around them and providing them with solutions on how to affect the change they want to see, right? We're not supposed to be partisan tools. We're not supposed to be bullhorns for the police. We're supposed to be in service. We're the only industry mentioned specifically in the US Constitution. We got to start living up to that. So in five years, I hope that we are.
And then the last question before I just ask you to plug where people can find and follow you and pivot name three to five pieces of media that you would recommend.
Well, I mentioned one already. Check out Prison Town. It is a podcast. It starts off like a crime thing, but it's not. It's actually talking about policy, how these prisons came to be in South Georgia. South Georgia is populated with prisons now. When the farming industry, agricultural industry went into tailspan, prisons came on board and they were sold as these saviors for local economies. Anyway, so that's one piece definitely read that. I subscribe to the national newspapers, I mean, New York Times and Washington Post, but I also consume all of our grantees. I'm reading about what's happening in their own communities. I think one of my favorite ones right now is the Kansas City Defender. I just love the stuff that they're doing out there, and I'm pretty sure that one of the major funders will soon invest in them. That is my hope anyway. What's the third? I think oh, Black Joy. Reckon puts that out. Trying to think what else do I read? I read everything. I mean, Tim, that's that's an unfair question because I read so much. It's really I every morning I read the Axios’ newsletter about what's happening here in Atlanta. While I may not care that much for that culture, I like their newsletter. I think everybody should know the hyper local newsrooms in their communities and consume those. Decaturish is not far from where I live in Lawrenceville. I grew up in Decatur, so of course I read that. I try to read the AJC, but I stopped subscribing to them and now I get hit with paywalls all the time, so it's not as easy to use to read them. Oh, there are a couple of Instagram, I call them publications, but they're not publications because they're on Instagram. Scoop Atl. I always follow them because they always have the scoop. Old stuff, just crazy stuff that's happening in Atlanta. But they also cover Stacey Abrams and abortion ban and all that stuff. Book banning. And then other one is Atl Butter. You would be surprised what you find on TikTok and Instagram. They don't even call themselves journalism sources or news sources. They call themselves media. But what it is is journalism at its heart. They commit lots of acts of journalism all the time on these platforms, but for whatever reason, they don't want to call themselves journalists because of, again, the harm that we've created in their communities. But anyway, those are some of the ones that I peruse.
And then final question, people want to find out more and follow you and Pivot and the podcast. Where can they find that?
Pivot is on all the socials, so primarily on LinkedIn now because Twitter ain't what it used to be, but our account is still on Twitter. We have an account on Facebook, though. We don't pay that. I don't know if we need to pay that more attention now or not, but we're on Instagram and I'm there as well. Tracie TM Powell is on there. And again, LinkedIn is probably where we're putting most of our energy these days, growing our audience there, which has been growing pretty much. But yeah, we're everywhere. We have a newsletter that comes out once a week. Really proud of that newsletter. We have YouTube Channel. TM Powell is on YouTube too, but don't follow her because she doesn't do anything. Our Pivot does have content, though. Loads content, often. And we have a podcast on Apple, Spotify, all of those. Knight Foundation actually sponsors that. And we got some sponsorship dollars from Reynolds Journalism Institute, so I should shout both of them out.
And we'll have links to all of those on our website as well. Thank you, Tracie, for your time and your thoughtfulness and all the work you do.
Thank you so much. It's a pleasure talking to you. I'm glad we connected, since we didn't connect while we were at UGA, we're connecting now.
Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast, and thanks to Tracie for your time, your thoughtfulness and all you do for the ecosystem and communities.
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