When Crazy Rich Asians became the highest grossing romantic comedy in years, I realized how much I associated romantic narratives with Molly Ringwald and John Cusack. Asians were part of the narrative for me, but only through the lens of films made by those outside the US. (Thanks, Shah Rukh Khan.)
But now, there was no reason that the touch points of popular culture couldn’t look like me and my friends. There was no way anyone could say that the market doesn’t want narratives that express our diversity, or that the majority of audiences (read: white audiences) would not relate to these stories. Crazy Rich Asians of course, is not a perfect representation of Asian Americans or Singapore — indeed, there is no such thing — but it was irrefutable in its appeal. Like Black Panther that same year, it was proof that we, people of color, are blockbuster caliber. We are, in fact, mainstream.
This kind of breakthrough has not happened in the news media. In our industry, we are still battling the idea that new news organizations that focus on communities of color, immigrant communities, or particular geographies, are niche or small or charity-cases or worse, they are seen as risky investments and don’t get the upfront capital they need to become the mainstream news sources they could be.
So it was a real honor to help elevate these vital news organizations that I think should enter our information and news culture as often as CNN or NPR or the Washington Post. I moderated a panel called “Turning the Tables” to close out this year’s Institute for Nonprofit News annual meeting. It featured organizations that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know well through my work as a coach with the Listening Post Collective. And because it was online this year, I can share it with you.
Mukhtar Ibrahim, founder of Sahan Journal, described the vital role his organization plays in how we understand Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Twin Cities have been in the national news often in the last decade for police shootings, immigration and national security events and it is home to a rich network of local news organizations. And still, the representation wasn’t there.
“We have two daily newspapers, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. We have Minnesota Public Radio, a couple of TV stations, so there is no ‘news desert’,” Ibrahim said. “But when you go to these websites, the issues they cover are almost the same. Immigrant and refugee communities, some people of color, are almost absent from the media that you tend to see. We were trying to really change that.”
Sahan Journal is now well known among many because of its crucial coverage of the murder of George Floyd, the ensuing trial, and the ongoing story of police violence in Minnesota. But its coverage has been high quality for a long time. And I often wonder what might have happened had they gotten the kind of investment they are seeing now when they launched in 2019.
“One of the biggest differences between news outlets serving communities of color and news outlets serving whiter communities is simply their sustainability. New outlets serving communities of color don’t have the same access to capital that newsrooms serving whiter communities have,” said Madeleine Bair of El Tímpano in Oakland.
Carla Murphy articulated the idea of what “mainstream” can and should mean in this summer’s Dissent: “I don’t view the progressive or liberal journalist’s pursuit of news about marginalized people as progress. From my view in the borderlands, the progressive mission should be to expand the production of news (about race, class, and gender) for these audiences. It should be to create multiple mainstreams strong enough to compete with the mainstream.”
She’s talking about redefining the word, and challenging who can be dominant in news. Mazin Sidahmed talked about his organization, Documented, which is often cast as niche but actually aims to serves a majority of New York City. The immigrant-focused news they provide is relevant to at least 60 percent of households who have at least one non-US citizen among them. (See the data from the New York City mayor’s office.)
“Maybe as an underground hip hop head, the word ‘mainstream’ makes me uncomfortable sometimes. I kind of like the fact that we are putting our thumb in the eye of the larger news organizations,” he said. “But maybe [mainstream] is something that we need to own… If we embrace the fact that we’re the alternative, that we’re off to the side, we’ll always only have access to the off-to-the-side money.”
Ibrahim dropped wisdom on how we might re-imagine “mainstream.”
“A lot of people, when they hear ‘mainstream,’ they think about whiteness. But imagine Sahan Journal as the metro section of the Star Tribune. Opening up that newspaper every morning and seeing the diversity of lives and communities that live in St. Paul/Minneapolis.”
As news consumers, maybe it’s time to expand our definition of mainstream news, too. It’s time to change how we get information about our own lives and communities. Here are some news organizations you might start with. Who else should be on this list? Who gives you news that is about you and your community?