A Q&A with LION member Robert Chappell, associate publisher of Madison365 in Wisconsin.
When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We launched in August 2015. Our intent was to cover communities of color in Madison, Wisconsin, but our geographic reach really covers Twin Cities to Chicago, with a smattering of readers around the country.
The event that first got us started, toward the end of 2014, was the sale of the local African-American weekly newspaper to a company in Milwaukee. The editor was laid off, and it became clear they would not be doing local news anymore. We saw a need to step into the gap.
The three of us — our publisher, that recently unemployed editor and I — just started talking about some ideas and whether this was something we could really do. And then three months later, in March 2015, a white Madison police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. We saw the difficulty the mainstream press had in dealing with that and we knew the dialog would be very different if we were already up and running. That event made it clear that we were needed.
What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I’ve been working in media in one way or another since 1989, when I was 15. I got paid $25 a piece for covering village board for my local hometown weekly. I’ve bounced back and forth between journalism and strategic communications, including stints as a local weekly editor and a glossy magazine associate editor. Most recently I was communications director for our former lieutenant governor and then director of strategic communications for a major nonprofit performing arts center.
How would you describe your operation and business model?
We are a nonprofit multimedia news and information platform for and by Wisconsin’s communities of color. We not only cover the stories ignored by the mainstream press, but we also cover the same stories everyone else covers, but from our unique perspective. Our business model is all about partnerships — partnerships with funding foundations, local organizations, other media outlets and community members.
What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
As a nonprofit, we don’t really think in terms of competition. There are a handful of publications that cater to communities of color, but we consider them colleagues more than competition. They are print weeklies and monthlies, and really serve their own specific communities well. There is also the former afternoon daily, the “progressive” newspaper, which is now mostly-online with a weekly print tabloid. They’d probably be closest to us in terms of target audience and editorial coverage area, but I still wouldn’t say we consider them competition.
What makes your site unique?
All around the United States there are publications that serve communities of color, both national and local. And there are many great nonprofit news outlets. But as far as we know, we’re America’s only nonprofit publisher of news specifically for and by communities of color. (If any other LIONs know of any others, please let us know!)
Locally, we are the only outlet in town with more than two people of color on the editorial team. We have as many people of color on our team as the entire rest of the local media combined.
Let me give you an example of how that plays out in practice. Last summer that “progressive” former daily I mentioned published a list of 12 Democrats who might run for governor against Scott Walker next year. All 12 were white! They ignored the party’s 2012 nominee for lieutenant governor, who is black, as well as the very popular Congresswoman Gwen Moore, not to mention a bunch of other elected and community leaders who have just as much political clout and credibility as half of the white Dems they listed. So, naturally, we published our own list of 13 people of color who could credibly run for governor.
The other publication isn’t full of racists. They didn’t mean to imply that only white people can run for governor. But as they were forming that list, there were only white people in the room, and no one looked at their list through any other lens. No one in that room had the instinct to notice the lack of diversity on the list. The list looked just like their everyday lives (and their newsroom), so it felt perfectly “normal” to them.
After we published our list, the editorial staff at the other newspaper felt duly chastised and issued a sort of “mea culpa” column. And then there was a really healthy dialog over the next week or two. No other media outlet would have been in the position to issue that critique. (And I know our list got some traction — we heard later that Gov. Walker approached one of the Latino guys on our list and asked, in all seriousness, “You’re not going to run against me are you?”)
What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
I wish I had known how fast we would grow. That’s a humble-brag, I know, but we launched without any real technical staff. Our site crashed in the first weekend after we launched. We had to upgrade our servers that first weekend and again a month later, and a few times since then we’ve had full days of downtime when one of our more controversial opinion pieces got picked up on Reddit and the resulting traffic crippled the server. Election night traffic knocked us offline for a bit, too, and we didn’t have anyone who could really jump in and fix it. It’s something we still struggle with.
What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
We aren’t a student publication by any means, but I think my biggest source of pride is our journalism training program, Madison365 Academy. Historically there’s been a disconnect between newsrooms and people of color. Editors say they want to hire more diverse reporters, but don’t know where to find them. Meanwhile young people of color don’t exactly grow up really engaged in mainstream media, so journalism doesn’t really enter into their thinking when they’re exploring career paths. We have taken kids who just like to write or have something to say and introduced them to journalism as a means to tell their story and make their voice heard. We’ve taken some kids already in j school and given them a taste of community journalism, as well as a byline and clips. Our very first intern is now a full-time education reporter. Three other former interns are now working for us, either part-time or full-time. And they’re turning out terrific work. They make me really proud.
What do you struggle with the most?
We work with sources who are not used to dealing with the media. The mainstream press covers “diversity” by talking to the three or four community leaders who they have decided are “spokespeople” for the black and Latino communities. Those folks are terrific leaders and are very good at dealing with the press. However, we are more deeply embedded in the community. Often, we’re talking to local neighborhood leaders. people doing the work in the small businesses and small nonprofits, entrepreneurs, small business owners, people running for school board, and so on. A lot of our people don’t really trust media of any kind, so we have a bit of a barrier to get over. And they’re very busy doing the real work. So it’s hard sometimes to get a call back or to get an interview scheduled.
What are some of your future goals for the site?
We need to continue growing our readership and community engagement. We hope to add a multimedia component to our Academy program, and at the same time ramp up our multimedia content with some video news and podcasts. We are also looking at geographic expansion.
Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
While a lot of what we are doing is new, we aren’t reinventing the wheel. A lot of other people have done similar things and faced similar struggles. I’ve already learned a lot from LION members and look forward to learning more, and to sharing my experience with you all. It’s really helpful to know that we might be kind of alone in this town but we’re not alone in the world!