What we’ve learned about the unique struggles and success of BIPOC news leaders, and how to better support them

Challenges include access to capital, lack of business experience and low capacity

October 2, 2023 by Christian Monterrosa, Stephanie Snyder and Lisa Heyamoto

Photo by Wendelin Jacober for Pexels
Photo by Wendelin Jacober for Pexels

We, at LION Publishers, know that the path to successfully launch, build and grow an independent news organization is far from easy. 

We also know that individuals with specific and intersectional identities face significant institutional barriers to access the capital, networks and other resources to run a successful startup. 

Nearly one-third of our membership has a leader(s) who identifies as Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine or a Person of Color, and/or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, or as a member of broader gender and sexually diverse communities. 

In an effort to better understand the successes and struggles of BIPOC leaders and to, ultimately, better support them, LION’s former Community Manager Christian Monterrosa conducted 13 one-on-one interviews in late 2022 and early 2023. What we learned from these interviews, combined with our growing breadth of experience supporting members in our programs, has helped inform who we plan to serve, and how. More details on that are below; but first, an overview of what we learned from this listening project.

Who we spoke with 

All participants in the community listening project identified as either Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine or as a Person of Color, and, in some cases, also as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. The news leaders’ organizations were based throughout the South, West, and Northeast regions of the United States, as well as in Canada and Puerto Rico. 

The size of the participants’ organizations ranged from being one-person operations to having up to five full-time employees. Their annual revenues ranged from less than $50,000 to more than $1.1 million.

Regardless of their area of focus, personal identities, or size of organization, we found their motivations for launching and leading news startups to be the same: to have a positive impact on their communities, which have been historically ignored and harmed by media institutions. 

As a result, their organizations have become extremely well-received and influential, evolving into the go-to news sources for their communities. 

“The way that we frame stories and the truth-telling that we do — our unapologetic voice was very refreshing for people,” one news publisher shared.  

What we’ve learned about the challenges faced by BIPOC leaders

The insights we gained during the 13 community listening sessions have been anonymized and shared with project participants’ consent. When relevant, we have also incorporated tangible examples that were publicly shared by other BIPOC news leaders throughout LION’s training programs. The data reflected here is based on our member organizations that have a leader who identifies as BIPOC, Hispanic, Latine, LGBTQIA+ or as an immigrant. 

  1. Lack of access to capital 

It is extremely difficult to find first-time investors or grantors, especially if the publication is in the early stages of becoming an established news organization. 

LION’s data shows that the median amount of original funding for early-stage publications with leaders who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQIA or immigrants is $7,000 and the maximum amount of original funding is $100,000 compared to a median of $17,500 and a maximum of $1 million for publications with leaders who don’t identify as coming from historically marginalized backgrounds. 

According to our data, though early-stage, BIPOC/LGBTQIA/immigrant-led publications have an average annual revenue that is higher than their counterparts, the former group tends to have much less cash on hand and a lower maximum revenue. The financial lows, then, are lower and the highs aren’t quite as high.

“The first two years were really tough,” one publisher shared. “You have a little bit of a honeymoon period for the first few months… Everyone really liked us and liked what we were doing, but no one wanted to give us any money.”

  1. Lack of business experience

Nearly every news leader interviewed started their career as either a journalist or a community organizer. As news entrepreneurs, they have been navigating the challenging process of launching small businesses, often learning as they go. 

According to LION’s data, more leaders who come from a historically marginalized background say they’re struggling to grow into their leadership roles compared to leaders who do not come from historically marginalized backgrounds. 

“None of us had any experience running anything close to an organization the size that we are now and [we didn’t have the] understanding [of] how to budget forecast or diversify revenue streams,” one participant said. 

  1. Low capacity

Seventy-two percent of publications with leaders from historically marginalized backgrounds do not have a dedicated person on staff focused on revenue generation compared to 66 percent for organizations with leaders from non-marginalized backgrounds. 

“My biggest challenge is figuring out how to step away from the journalism and maintain the quality at the same time,” one participant shared. “I know that has to happen for us to get the revenue we need, to build the capacity that we need to match our ambition.”

Our data shows that all leaders from historically marginalized backgrounds report that their workloads are always, often or sometimes unreasonable.

We also know that many of these publishers are emphasizing taking care of mental health in the newsroom, something not offered to them in their careers as journalists. 

“One of the things that inspired me to be a news entrepreneur was to have healthier newsrooms and to take mental health into account, especially for journalists of color,” another participant said.

News businesses with leaders from historically marginalized backgrounds tend to be slightly younger and slightly smaller in team size than other news organizations , and are much more likely to say that their salaries are below market rate.  

Compared to organizations with leaders not from historically marginalized backgrounds, these organizations also have a higher percentage of non-white staffers (58 percent vs 41 percent) and staffers who identify as women (61 percent vs 55 percent).

How we’re adjusting our support

As part of our five-year strategic growth plan, LION plans to prioritize more in-depth, hands-on help for our Focus Members who face the greatest institutional barriers to sustainability. 

These members will be eligible to receive this more intensive support, and we believe what we learn will help inform best practices and offerings that will benefit all of our members. Learn more about our Focus Members here.

A special thank you to the 13 publishers who gave us their valuable time to help inform our future organizational strategy and programming.

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