The Revolutionary Potential of Minority-Owned Media

As the field of journalism enters into an uncertain period, and many media institutions struggle to reinvent themselves in a period of declining revenues and polarized audiences, publications such as The North Star may be cultivating a new way of approaching media.

The idea of movement-based, minority-owned media institutions isn’t new. However, minority-owned and led media content producers such as The North Star have carved out a niche as social-justice oriented spaces for journalists of color to publish. They also have embraced strategies such as movement-based subscriptions, in which consumers are not only buying the content, but the idea behind it. Similar strategies have been deployed by companies that ask consumers to pay a higher-than-market cost to subsidize socially responsible production.

The trajectory of The North Star comes at a time when journalists and media scholars are confronting the long, slow and painful demise of many media outlets. The very field of journalism — at least from the standpoint of paid professionals — is teetering.

The rise of minority-owned content platforms — is both an indictment on a field that has failed to account for the country’s rapidly changing demographics and a validation that mission-driven journalism can work.

Moreover, this model for journalism is increasingly invested in setting an important precedent: minority audiences no longer need to go to white-owned media sources to feel connected to the world around them. Moreover, media professionals of color may be slowly shifting their focus away from trying to compete for jobs at mostly-white institutions (many of which are facing their own financial perils) and working towards sustainable employment at media companies that reflect their own communities.

Since the Kerner Report indicted media institutions in 1968 for failing to communicate to diverse communities, media organizations — including all of the ones I worked for — have emphasized employee diversity as the magic elixir for making journalism more relevant and sustainable. While newsroom diversity at newspapers has increased from 4 percent in 1978 to 23 percent in 2018, more media platforms are merging or shut down because the industry is not seen as profitable. The recent Gannett-Gatehouse Merger, for example, is likely to lead to further cuts in newspapers, which have struggled to overcome declining revenues.

Thus, head-counting for diversity is becoming more irrelevant as publications close shop. As Gillian White of The Atlantic wrote: “Publications that fail to keep pace with changing demographics not only miss chances to connect with more of the population in a meaningful way at a time when growth is crucial to a publication’s solvency — but they also do their audience a disservice by failing to capture and relay the voices, concerns, and feelings of entire swaths of the American population.” Large media empires like Comcast-NBC, Disney-ABC, Amazon-Washington Post, and The New York Times aside, can media institutions be saved? Some argue that turning media institutions into public assets might be the only way, and that commercial, for-profit media is all-but-extinct. This was a prediction I have heard since my days as a journalist in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly after the bursting of the “ bubble” in 2001.

But few have considered whether people of color should focus on owning media institutions, instead of trying to get hired by them. At a time of racial and political polarization, minority-owned content platforms are beginning to emerge to fill the demand of audiences determined to see their stories shared.

Even as some legacy minority-owned media institutions struggle, others are slowly — but surely — finding ways to grow their business model through a combination of revenue streams.

The idea of ethical consumption marries several concepts championed by liberals who are willing to work within the constraints of capitalism: by buying into the idea of a company or institution, one is supporting a movement while also helping to sustain entrepreneurial startups. While some racial justice groups dismiss ethical consumption as a tool to maintain capitalism, the efforts to get minority audiences to invest in the media they consume is being championed by more activists and intellectuals.

This is a phenomenon that seemed unthinkable — or at least unsustainable — just a decade ago. Black-owned media companies either were bought out by larger conglomerates (such as the Viacom purchase of BET) or sought to maintain relevance by catering their content to largely white consumers. However, as more people of color engage with news and information sources, minority content platforms are finding ways to tap into newer — and paying — audiences.

As communications scholar Aymar Jean Christian notes, independent media platforms have provided minority media creators with opportunities they had previously been shut out from.

“Small-scale networked distributors — or independent television channels like SLAY often based on open-access platforms like Vimeo, YouTube or Facebook — develop shorter or cheaper series and release to smaller, online or mobile audiences,” Christian writes.

“For these indie web-based channels, intersectionality’s value extends beyond branding. These market actors are working to establish alternative systems that develop intersectional stories as valuable to the sustainability of the media system. They redistribute the surplus value of intersectionality, expanding development and distribution to the consistent production and reception of intersectionality.”

One major obstacle to building a critical mass of minority owned and operated media institutions is the lack of funding sources dedicated to these initiatives. Just 1 percent of venture-backed founders were Black, according to a recent study by RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC. While venture capital isn’t the only way to secure funding, the lack of institutional openness to minority-led media startups is just one extra hurdle many face in the all-too-important phase of raising money for their efforts. While minority media ownership might be one way to preserve the media industry’s relevance in an increasingly bleak period for commercial journalism, it will likely become more critical for minority-owned and led platforms to examine other ways of generating revenue besides subscriptions. And even though minority-owned media institutions serve alternative and counter-public spheres, their emergence as viable players in the mainstream media landscape could be the kind of lifeline journalism needs right now.

About the Author

Murali Balaji is a journalist, author, and academic with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. He is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil (2007), a political biography of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the editor of Digital Hinduism