In collaborations, who gets paid?

This is a short note to tackle something head on that I’ve been having sideways conversations about for a few months. It’s a very “inside-journalism” subject, so please forgive me if you aren’t in the media. Hopefully, this is still interesting and applicable to your industry.

Many of my colleagues have asked to know more about this year’s Collaborative Journalism Summit, held in May in Philadelphia. It was a great group and a great event. It’s been written up well by others — I was especially fond of the closing key note — but there was one issue that warranted discussions on the sidelines of the talks and panels. And it was one that was at the core of much of the discussion but never quite discussed directly: race.

The event was dominated by people and organizations trying to increase coverage of people who have not been well represented in mass media, often majority non-white communities. Several of the projects that were featured, however, acknowledged that the makeup of the people and institutions that participate doesn’t necessarily reflect the demographics of the communities they are trying to serve. This was often in the form of, “I wish we had more people of color on staff,” or, “I wish we had more people of color participate,” or, “I wish our partner organizations were more diverse.”

The bravest in the group also recognized that the funding for these projects was also not distributed to media organizations that have long histories of serving the communities they were trying to report on and reach. In the final tally, even when there was representation in many of the collaborations, the budgets and overhead costs were largely concentrated in new organizations with white founders or leaders or in older media companies that have histories of neglect or malign coverage of non-white communities, that have only recently begun to improve their hiring practices to be inclusive.

The smaller media partners that brought the most important audiences — the people who are actually the subjects of the journalism — were not often the recipients of the big grants. Their participation was mandatory for the project to move forward; their financial gain or stability was not.

Tweet in box: 

    Really good question by @denisejames. What’s the danger of collaborations replicating, amplifying the hegemony of the news organizations that participate? What happens when news orgs aren’t diverse to begin with? #collaborativej #collabj   — Angilee Shah (@angshah) May 17, 2019
Tweet in box:

I always think about this. For JOC, that audience is hard won in a media ecosystem that encourages distrust. What makes it worth it, at what price or exchange, should we give that up to large institutions that have harmed us in the past? #collabj #collaborativej   — Angilee Shah (@angshah) May 17, 2019

P. Kim Bui wrote a report in the Membership Puzzle Project that articulates the nature of this kind of power imbalance well. She interrogates the language we use when we talk about the kind of work that seeks to better involve communities.

By ’empowering’ communities, we are perpetuating privilege. The privilege of giving a starving group the thing you hold in vast quantity. It’s time to rethink our language. What if instead of empowering people through non-financial contributions, journalists shared their existing power or access to power?

From my point of view, a large part of news media organization’s existing power is money. It is in the choosing of who benefits financially for their contributions and who does not. Some people get full time jobs with benefits and year-over-year support. Others get stipends or freelance rates, “exposure,” or the chance to participate. Part of what I think media organizations that want to be more inclusive must do though is pay people and pay them well. Pay people for their valuable and rare skills to report from within communities, from within their areas of expertise. Pay organizations that have track records of service. Pay people of color. It’s what I call “financial justice”: real, honest looks at who benefits in dollars from the work we do.

Report for America is a good case study, and luckily there’s a good review in Columbia Journalism Review. In the program, which received upwards of $5 million from one foundation alone, funds go through an East Coast-based organization to bolster local newspapers by subsidizing the hiring of new reporters. But the two newspapers that the researchers examined were organizations that did not have trust from underrepresented communities to begin with. The papers got the benefit of support to hire full time reporters — a diverse group of fellows, as is often noted — but in temporary positions at relatively a low starting salaries. The fellows are often tasked with high-level duties such as building new beats or establishing new community connections, but they are compensated at entry-level rates.

I propose that in collaborations it is vitally important to tally up the dollars. Who actually gets the most? Does that budget, from foundation bank accounts through managing organizations down to the journalists and communities doing the work, reflect the values of the project?

I make this proposal not because I think the collaborations that were featured at the Summit weren’t powerful or on the whole good. The journalism is often stellar. And there were several organizations that made conscious efforts to make their budgets match their mission. I ask questions about money and race, though, because now seems like a good time to address it frankly. In collaborations that seek to represent so-called “underrepresented” communities, who should be in charge and who should get funding?

And I also raise this question as a rallying cry for us all. Let’s identify and call out the best independent journalists, entrepreneurs and community-serving news organizations out there. Which media outlets represent and serve diverse communities while distributing the dollars they raise or earn in a way that is just? What can we do to support their work and sustainability?