Journalists of color deserve more support. Here’s how Seattle can help.
There's a way to fund vital reporting without depending on shrinking subscriber bases or benevolent billionaires.
When the entire news industry suffers from the flu, media outlets created by and for people of color endure bouts of fungal pneumonia.
That phenomenon bore out earlier this month when the Seattle Globalist sent an email to supporters detailing a dire financial situation.
After seven years of operating an award-winning journalism platform and educational programs for Seattle’s immigrant, refugee and POC communities, the organization was forced to lay off all of its employees and consider shutting down completely, read the email sent by the Seattle Globalist Board of Directors.
“As an organization, we’ve run out of money to support any staff,” the email said.
The Globalist had been facing financial challenges for at least two years. It was supported by the University of Washington and operated out of the UW's Seattle campus until June 2017, when budget cuts severed those ties and stripped away much of the nonprofit journalism outlet’s funding.
Promptly carrying out a fundraising campaign in an attempt to plug the revenue hole, the Globalist managed to stay afloat until Friday’s announcement signaled its time could be at an end.
It came as a gut punch to many who had benefited from its existence, including myself.
As was the case with many of its journalists, who initially went undetected by other news media in the city, the Globalist was one of the first publications to support my work. There weren’t many outfits willing to mentor a novice 30-something journalist who had freshly emerged from a career in the investment world and whose professional clips mainly consisted of hot takes on Kanye West’s fashion sense.
But the Globalist was willing, because, as one of my mentors and its co-founder, Sarah Stuteville put it: Everyone has a story to tell.
Unfortunately, sharing those stories is harder in a media environment where 7,800 professionals lost their jobs in 2019. While the economic challenges ravaging the industry as a whole make the plight of the Seattle Globalist far from unique, the sobering news of its likely demise was tragically relatable to someone like myself who runs a startup grassroots media organization catering to underreported communities.
I have found that, unless your outlet is undergirded by an adequate endowment for a yearslong runway via the blessing of an angel donor or foundation, you eventually land at one of three options: focus your limited energies on the most essential aspect of your enterprise, the journalism, and forgo the kind of outreach a media outlet needs to gain relevance and become more than a niche publication pigeonholed as “ethnic media”; embrace an 80-hour work week to keep pace and the eventual burnout that comes with it; or retreat and leave a void you first attempted to fill.
Whatever you choose, you can never adequately serve the community you hope to for the long haul. And sometimes the difference between survival and succumbing is small.
“It’s pretty upsetting that it’s a matter of several thousand dollars that’s leading to this decision,” said Jessica Partnow, a Seattle Globalist co-founder and board member.
We should all join Partnow in her frustration. At a time when most newsrooms give lip service to racial diversity while being whiter than a Friends Trivia Night on Vashon Island, writers for the Globalist are 67% people of color and 45% immigrant or first generation American.
There’s no newsroom in the city that comes within Jupiter’s diameter of those numbers.
Most importantly, the Globalist acted as a fertile training ground for emergent journalists of color. Many of those journalists, with only the means provided by a working-class income, found traditional tracks such as journalism school cost-prohibitive. Amassing tens of thousands of dollars of debt for the tenuous prospects of finding a well-paying media gig after graduation didn’t quite pencil out.
Globalist writers were there to cover the Beijing Queer Chorus, to ask local Korean community members their perspective on potential for peace between North and South Korea, and to shine a light on the burgeoning of King County’s No New Youth Jail movement. They were there when few others cared.
The Globalist deserves applause for pulling off these feats on an annual operating budget south of $350,000. Conversely, what we say we value in this society, and specifically in our “liberally enlightened city,” deserves appraisal.
It’s hard to not be disappointed with a city where a truly nonprofit venture like the Globalist perishes while the for-profit Seattle Times raises more than $700,000 in donations for its Investigative Fund through the nonprofit conduit of the Seattle Foundation, and where KEXP was gifted $10 million by a sole donor.
And yes, I realize that these institutions serve a public good and are struggling in the same crowded marketplace as the rest of us, but they still have more resources than the Globalist, South Seattle Emerald, International Examiner, Northwest Asian Weekly and Runta News combined. Imagine the life that kind of money could have provided our legacy media’s malnourished POC kin, who have mastered doing much with little.
Unfortunately, our affluent citizenry seems more consumed with consternation over the commercial viability of the Showbox and downtown Barnes & Noble, than the narrative uplift of the marginalized.
“A lack of funding for POC media is a larger reflection of society. It really transmits what the values of people with money are,” says Travis Quezon, who was laid off as Globalist executive director last week.
Reinforcing Quezon's assertions is data showing that only 7% to 8% of billions in philanthropic giving is ever sprinkled on communities of color. When the life or death of POC-helmed media organizations rests on meager budgets, this miserliness can doom them.
Quezon, who was the former editor-in-chief of The International Examiner, a bi-weekly newspaper serving the Chinatown-International District community, and Partnow have both seen the vast funding gap for POC media firsthand over the course of their two decades in journalism. And that discrepancy is most likely related to who controls the money spigots.
“So much money for any nonprofits comes from foundations,” says Partnow. “Like other areas of society, power is held predominantly by rich white people. And, it’s totally natural for them to preserve the status quo,” she says.
Sleep Steady performs during the sixth annual Block Party at coffee shop The Station in Beacon Hill in 2016. The event was one of many covered by The Seattle Globalist. (Jovelle Tamayo/Globalist)
In a city where around $80,000 will get your head slightly above water if you’re a family of four, POC media like the Globalist encounter the reality of serving underrepresented communities who possess the passion for a publication, but not always the means to support it. In Seattle, all POC racial groups average out to lower median incomes than white Seattleites collectively.
Though the Globalist has built a healthy monthly membership base of hundreds who individually contribute a few dollars a month, 62% of its 2017 funding came from onetime or nonrenewing grants.
The Globalist’s storytelling style is often also dismissed in better resourced newsrooms, according to Kamna Shastri, who was awarded The Globalist’s Community Journalist of the Year award in 2018 after being a reporting intern.
“In mainstream media, so many times you have to fight to convince an editor a story is meaningful,” says Shastri.
According to her, most other publications she pitched wished to focus on conflict and strife within communities. “Even though they wanted diverse narratives it was always with the same framework,” she says.
In her two years with the Globalist covering stories like the Kashmiris’ protest of the Gates Foundation’s award to India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi, Shastri found an outlet that coveted stories celebrating the vibrancy of underreported communities, presenting the world from their point of view.
But that perspective is being further shoved to society’s margins, left there to shout from a ridge of obscurity, with little notice from the powerful in our society.
And as our society grows more unequal, the result is outsized power in the hands of the wealthy few to decide what survives and what doesn’t. And the things that matter little to them, such as POC media, increasingly find themselves in the wasteland of the insignificant.
I suspect that’s because publications like the Globalist have writers who regularly critique, question and challenge the status quo, examining the structures of white supremacy, patriarchy and predatory capitalism that permitted people their racially and financially dominant positions in the first place.
Stories like “The Five Reasons White People Should Go to Black Lives Matter Protests,” “Is Seattle the Capital of Global Income Inequality?" and "Could Greater Compassion for Men Curb Mass Shootings?" aren’t headlines one finds at most publications.
With extraordinary exception, people holding power rarely listen with any sincerity to voices examining oppressive systems, let alone fund those mechanisms to be heard.
And why would they? That is “privilege” in grand purity; the ability to insulate yourself from voices carrying the pain, plights and aspirations of others, while they are forced to regularly endure yours.
That privilege snakes through too many newsrooms and wider society, where the optics of people of color come at the expense of their authentic selves. Of the 17% of POC journalists working in daily newsrooms, few hold high level editor or senior management positions.
These are the positions that hold the ability to attune the public’s attention toward who and what is deemed important. When that power rests with people who have little experiential connection with an increasingly diverse population, many objectively important news items are too often left out: anti-transgender violence, the invisible HIV crisis impacting the Latinx community, the chronic racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans.
But there is an alternative.
What if a citizen, no matter their economic means, could contribute significantly to the type of journalism serving their community?
As crisis roils through journalism and disproportionately impacts the working class and communities of color, we have to find a sustainable way to serve those demographics. That means reducing journalism’s reliance on either the financial precariousness of a shrinking subscriber base, or the whims of “benevolent” billionaires and angel donors.
With parallel aims of mitigating money’s influence on our local democracy, why not fashion a support system for local media after Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program?
Annually, every citizen would receive a select number of vouchers — call them Truth Tokens — to direct toward their preferred local outlet. Whatever someone’s political leanings, ideals or values they could give all, or some, of their vouchers to an organization they gauged as a reliable source of “real news.”
Not only would such a program spur the rise of a more diverse media ecosystem. With a focus on localized media, it might also lead to greater trust in the industry as a whole at a time when confidence in the news media has seen an abysmal decline.
How to pay for such a program? The natural source of funding would be the flush tech behemoths responsible for destroying much of journalism’s old revenue-generating models. The city would put a small tax on every advertisement placed through Google, Facebook and Twitter, targeted at a Seattle audience, whether or not the ad buyer is from Seattle.
The approach, already developed by journalism advocacy group Free Press, functions much like a carbon tax, except it counters the “pollution of the civic discourse” by social media content.
The city already uses public money in a less participatory manner to finance The Seattle Channel, paid for by fees collected from the cable cartel of CenturyLink, Comcast and Wave Division I.
It may be a drastic shift in how we think about sustainable journalism, but it’s one worth making. A free press, after all, is the one mechanism above all others that, in the right hands, can be a leveler of society, allowing a community to outshout the lies and stereotypes projected onto it.
That is the legacy of a publication like the Seattle Globalist, placing the power of story in the hands of those who needed it most.
Initially founded by three white people, including Partnow, as a way to bridge the international community with Seattle, the Globalist gradually evolved to emphasize social justice reporting and high quality mentorship programs for aspiring journalists at the behest of the community it served.
“We wanted to be what the community wanted and had to be susceptible to change. That’s hard for bureaucratic newsrooms to do most of the time,” says Partnow.
And as the Globalist currently calls upon its community again for financial support and feedback in whatever pathway it might take, Partnow has a request for anyone valuing the equalizing properties of a diverse media:
Listen to the need and respond accordingly.