Tracie Powell on investing in the future of journalism

Zuri Berry: This is the Black Journalists on Journalism podcast, a ZMC Podcasts production.

And we're back. This is the Black Journalist on Journalism Podcast. My name is Zuri Berry and I am riding solo today, so to speak, without my colleague Donnell Suggs, the editor in chief of the Atlanta Voice. Of course, he's out doing Well, the work of an editor in chief, I mean, he's got so much going on. He's a busy man, but I do have a tremendous guest and I, it's actually a very special day for me to have her. It's Tracie Powell. She is the CEO and founder of The Pivot Fund.

And this is. This Friday, February 16th is the two-year anniversary of The Pivot Fund's founding.

Tracie Powell: Yep.

Zuri Berry: Yeah. So it's a big day. Tracie, welcome to the Black Journalists on Journalism podcast.

Tracie Powell: Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

Zuri Berry: I'm super. I'm excited to have you here for several reasons, but let me start one, you're a dynamo in the journalism industry with respect to your involvement in investments in Georgia, particularly for black and BIPOC publishers, in rural areas. That is now expanding. It's now in the Midwest.

It's now in Baltimore. I like to tell people Baltimore is the most interesting place in the world right now for journalism and journalism models. So we can get into that. Obviously I'm, I'm working in Baltimore, but also. You know, we're in this moment in the media right now where there's just so much change,actually a lot of fretting about decline, job cuts, job losses, and you're someone who is perfectly positioned to talk about those things.

So I wanted to get into all of that with you today here. And I have to disclose that you and I have worked with each other a little bit. I've done some work on the podcast for you, Tracie at the Pivot Fund. So I would just want to make sure that people are familiar with all of the things and all the reasons why we have worked with each other.

And beyond that.

Tracie Powell: each other through NABJ.

Zuri Berry: That's right, we've known each other through NABJ, and so I have been somebody who has followed you for quite a long time because you were a prolific writer about the state of the industry. And so I've always been a follower of yours in that respect. So again, thank you for being here.

Tracie Powell: Thank you.

Zuri Berry: And I do want to start Just like we always start on this podcast by asking about your particular journey. Could you pinpoint for our guests when you knew you wanted to become a journalist?

Tracie Powell: when I was in elementary school, maybe even before then. I was the kid who had her, you know, well, first of all, my, the way I learned how to read was by sitting on my dad's lap and my grandmother's lap. as they read the newspaper. That's how I learned how to read. And so the newspaper has always been in my, I say in my blood.

But as I got older, as an older kid, I would have my little notebook and my tablet at the time . It's a literal tablet and my little pencil writing stuff down that was happening in a family archive. Stuff that I was talking about with my neighbor or my mom and then I couldn't wait to share with everybody else So I was already being a little reporter back then so I've always known that I want to be a journalist That's is that never changed

Zuri Berry: And where did you grow up?

Tracie Powell: Atlanta Southwest Atlanta, we call it the SWAT

Zuri Berry: Where did you end up going to university?

Tracie Powell: I went to the University of Georgia. It was not on purpose. I was trying to go to Howard. My parents had a different idea. I had gotten a full scholarship to Purdue University and my parents found out about it because I hid the letter from Purdue and they thought I was crazy. They were like, why didn't you tell us about this?

And it was because Purdue didn't have a journalism department. I think they might've had an English department, but they did not have a journalism school or journalism department. And I was not going to a school that didn't have journalism. And so I think I stayed there a week. And I found my way back home and I was like, I'll just sit out until I could get enough money to go to Howard because I didn't have a full scholarship to Howard.

So I said, I'll just work and I'll, I'll, I'll earn the money to put myself through Howard. How about that? And my parents said, Oh no, how about that? You're going to the University of Georgia. We already applied for you. Now we just need to see if you can get some, see if you can get some houses that you, you know, you're going to UGA, you're not sitting out.

And so that's how I wound up at UGA. I think I was reporting, for, it wasn't the campus paper at the time, it wasn't the Red and Black, it was something called the Campus Times, a competitor to the Red and Black. Believe it or not, back in those days, our college campus had, I think, two, maybe three I think Campus newspapers.

And so I went to work for the competitor for the red and black because the red and black was, I remember they were trying to build a multicultural center on campus and the red and black ran a cartoon, an editorial cartoon. with a bunch of rats running around on a basketball court. And it said, put the multicultural center here.

And I just remember saying, I'm not writing for them. I'm not working for them. So I went and worked for the competitor. And then the red and black came trying to recruit me. And eventually they did recruit me.

Zuri Berry: Wow. Wow. Already. Incidents like that. You know, it's my impression that you've experienced quite a bit of that sort of coverage that you've had to respond to, particularly in your early career. But can you walk us through the first job, first opportunity that you had in a professional newsroom?

Tracie Powell: So my first job in a professional newsroom was at the Atlanta Daily World. I was in high school. The Scotts, who were the family that owned the Atlanta Daily World, it’s now owned by Realtime Media, but back then it was the Scotts. Went to church with us. And so I just remember my dad saying, Yeah, she says she wants to be a reporter.

She wants to be a journalist. And so the Scots was like, well, just bring her up here. So my dad drove me to the Atlanta Daily World and I would work on the paper there. It was mostly weekends and Fridays. But I loved it. I mean, they actually were physically laying out and cutting tight and laying it out on the page and stuff.

But I was there to work the phones and do stories, you know, calling people up and writing stories, you know, 'cause I couldn't drive back then. I don't even think I had my license. And so that was my first professional job. And I remember Mr. Scott, I just remember him telling me, no matter where you wind up, no matter where you wind up working, always tell our stories. And that stuck with me for my entire career. Wherever I was, I had to make sure that I was telling our stories.

And he also taught me — I didn't appreciate this until later — but he always kept this quote in my head. And it was to afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted.

Zuri Berry: Yeah. Listen, I, when I look at your bio, I see dotted all across different types of opportunities. And, you know, you were with Knight Ridder Newspapers. And you were a management trainee actually, in the nineties. And you were already editing publications and had teams of reporters.

You had reporting assignments in Georgia and Texas. You were the editor in chief at the Dallas Examiner and But then there was a shift. There was some legal, legislative work that you were doing. Can you talk to me about that time period of your life and the transitions that you went through?

Tracie Powell: I think I had a really, really tough time at the Austin American Statesman. That was probably one of those times where I should have done more investigation about the news organization before I accepted the job. And I remember I wound up in Dallas. I was working for the Examiner, but I was also stringing for Newsweek and People Magazine.

I had done some stringing for the AP too. I was keeping my feet in both worlds, basically what I've always done my entire career. And so, I applied to work for C-SPAN. It was going to be a, not even a full-time role. I think it was a contract or something. And I remember being asked, I don't know if it was because I had been an editor of a black newspaper or if I was a member of NABJ, cause I did have NABJ on my resume at that time. But I remember being offered the job by one person and then having another person call me and she asked me if I was a member of the NAACP and it was, I was stunned. I was like, why would I be a member of the NAACP? I'm a journalist. And she's like, well, we can't have anybody who's a member of the NAACP working for C-SPAN.

I just remember thinking to myself, I don't want to do this anymore. You know, coming out for the, you know, the paper in Austin and then this, I was just like, I don't want to do this anymore. I was completely and totally in love with journalism. But at that time, I felt that journalism didn't love me back. Not the way that I loved it. And my parents, who had discouraged me from going into journalism anyway, because they didn't see it as a viable career path, kept saying, Tracie, you got to figure something out. You know, maybe law school, maybe that's where you need to be. But you got to figure something out.

And so I applied to law school, got in and started, you know, cause I think I had gone — well, before I even went to law school, I went to Ghana and I was just trying to figure things out. But when I got into law school, I was like, well, I might as well go now ‘cause I'm in. And so that's what I did.

And I knew pretty soon, I knew in civil procedure, that I was not going to be a lawyer. I was just like, I don't want to do this. I mean, I was, we had to do my mock trials and stuff, and I was very good at it. Don't get me wrong. I can, I can argue a case, but, I just knew this is not what I wanted to do with my life.

And then it was solidified when I worked for the Department of Justice. I was, I don't, I don't even know that I was there a full year to be honest with you. It might have been a year, a year and a half, but I was pushing paper and I was just miserable. I was like, I cannot do this. I have to, I gotta, I gotta.

You know, and even in law school, I was still writing, right? I was still writing and reporting. I was right, I had a weekly column for Congressional Quarterly. And now law school, on top of writing a weekly column, I don't even know how I did it, but I did. And I do know that I made sure I wrote my column.

You can even ask my editor, Kathy Rizzo. She'll tell you I've met deadlines. but I, I, I was enjoying it. Law school, not so much. I mean, I did the reading and all that stuff, but I just, I just kind of, you know, in your spirit that this is not your calling. And so, yeah, when I graduated from law school in 2011, I decided,uh, well, Tracie, I don't know if you're going to walk into a role covering the Supreme Court and y'all are having, you know, everybody's having layoffs right now.

I wasn't exactly booming for journalism even then. And so I actually wound up creating my own beat. trying to help journalists understand media policy issues. Why they had to give a darn about broadband access and net neutrality. And I mean, I was, so I started creating my own beat. I got a job with Poynter as a sense making fellow, and then I got a job at CJR and they were paying just a little bit more than Poynter was with their sense making fellows. And so I started covering those topics. I started talking, writing about mug shots and the kind of legal issues and ethical issues involved in publishing mug shots on, on, news sites.

And so, they might've generated money, but you know, you were really putting people's lives. and livelihoods in jeopardy. Even if they weren't convicted, they had their mugshots in the paper and on the website. And they, and we were never, you know, publishers were never taking them down. And so I was part of that early drumbeat to get news organizations to remove these mugshots off of their websites.

so anyway, we were, you know, I was doing a lot of that, started getting picked up by. International trade publications, my stuff was being used to help, you know, journalism organizations make decisions about how they were going to embrace this, this internet thing that was taking over their lives. I think one of the biggest stories I wrote was about the news, about New Orleans when the Times Picayune decided to reduce its print schedule, down to just three days a week.

And that's when I started really writing hard about broadband access and how you can, some of the considerations that were not being taken into account when making these decisions. New Orleans at the time had, it was a, it was, it's an urban area. But at the time, it had one of the worst broadband access issues in the country, in urban areas, in urban areas because the state legislature there had intentionally made decisions that favored it.

AT& T and Comcast, we don't have to get into all that, but that's what I was writing about and I really had to break it down for journalists to understand why that decision at the Times, by the Times Picayune in New Orleans was so, kind of, earth shattering for our, for our industry and for the community it was serving.

So, That's kind of how I got into the policy and like you said, legislative stuff. it wasn't, it was done because at that time I didn't think that, or I didn't feel that journalism loved me as much as I loved it.

Zuri Berry: Well, and if I could just point out here, like, you were doing a lot of deep thinking and writing and reporting about things that Are sort of macro issues for industry and for democracy in some respects. And just in terms of just media environments, right? Like, that's, that's the, the, the crux of it. and if I could pick up, like, not too long after that time period, you founded AllDigitocracy.

And this is where I came from. to know you and came to start reading you with regularity. You founded essentially a website where you covered media issues. Can you talk a little bit about that time period? And I know that dovetails with a number of other projects and things you had going on. Yeah.

Tracie Powell: actually. And, and so, you know, That when you work for some of the mainline traditional organizations, you can't always cover the kinds of stories you want to cover. But the internet allowed us to do just that, you know, even if our. Bosses and publications didn't want us to do it.

We could do it for ourselves. And so that's what I wound up doing. I launched TMP Unplugged and I was writing about all these like media policy issues. Right. And it was just for me, I thought, you know, it was like feeding my soul. And so I, I wrote a piece about, the Republican led Congress at the time they were holding, they were holding some kind of hearing.

I don't remember if it was something, I don't know if it had to do with Google or whoever, so long ago. But I just remember they had a dry erase board and they were taking, putting notes on the dry erase board. I was like, Lord have mercy. Just having a conversation about technology. Yeah, they use a dry erase board.

I remember writing about that, like to show the start, how disconnected. Congressional members were from what was actually going on, in terms of digital, the digital world. And I wrote, I wrote

Zuri Berry: Not much has changed, not much has changed because you still see these congressional hearings and they ask, you know, CEOs, what's going on with my phone kind of business.

Tracie Powell: Right, right. They still don't, they still don't know.

Zuri Berry: Yeah.

Tracie Powell: there was another story happening. when, when Barack Obama was, he had launched his new technology initiative. And I just remember the old school civil rights groups like Rainbow Push led by Jesse Jackson, and other kinds of old line Civil rights groups were lining up against Obama.

And I was like, Whoa, wait a minute. This is deep. You know, the black folks line up against the black president, but the newer civil rights organizations like color change and other organizations were with Obama and his new technology initiative. And so I wrote that story and next thing I knew, it went viral.

Again, I didn't know that anybody was paying attention to me, but that went viral and I just remember the editor at CJR saying, Why didn't you write this piece for us? And I responded, I said, I didn't think you cared, right? I didn't think you would care about this. and so that led to so many other things, but I found myself being invited to the Rockefeller estate.

To talk about all things, the internet of things and community engagement and civic engagement and all these things. and, one thing led to another, you know, Democracy fund came calling soon after that and said, Hey, can you help us with this mapping project to better understand information consumption and media ecosystems across the country?

And that was a huge project. And I said, yes. And then JSK Stanford came knocking and said, Hey, can you, and so people kept on, can you, can you, can you, and I was like, Oh, TMP unplugged needs to be changed to All Digitocracy. And it was the merging of digital and technology and democracy. and so I was able to really, really, I really got a lot of attention with, with that, with the birth of All Digitocracy.

I remember being a, again, the Rockefeller state, and I had just gotten an invitation to apply for JSK Stanford and, They were, they were having a dinner party and I had to go sit down. I had to go attend the dinner, the dinner and sit in between two people. And, and they were, they saw that I was grappling with something and it was whether I could leave All Digitocracy and go pursue this fellowship or should I just pass up the fellowship and keep growing. All Digitocracy turned out to be two funders.

And they were like, how much do you need to step away and go take advantage of this fellowship? And I wish I had been better prepared. I was not better. I think I said something like 50, 000 something, something really ridiculously low number. And they were just like, Oh, I'll give you half if this other person gives you half.

And I was just like, Whoa. And that was my first fundraising.

Zuri Berry: Wow. Wow. Accidentally walked into a fundraiser and then he had no idea

Tracie Powell: Didn't even know. Didn't even

Zuri Berry: listen, we, we going to have to get into this because now you are at the forefront of those conversations, not just for The Pivot Fund and raising funds for what you do for other news organizations, but you're talking directly with publishers and news entrepreneurs Both in Georgia the Midwest and across the country about how they can position themselves to raise money And so I, I'm super interested in that sort of, evolution, if you will, because now you're the expert, you're the consultant, you're the person that people go to.

Can you tell us, because I feel like after, and correct me if I'm wrong? If the timeline is wrong, after the, the, the Stanford opportunity, the fellowship, that's when sort of the idea, if you will, came for The Pivot Fund. Can you, can you walk me through the timeline?

Tracie Powell: Yeah. So after I finished JSK Stanford, you know, so I hired Barry Cooper to run All Digitocracy while I took the fellowship because I got the money from those funders. And so Barry was the founder of black voices. He was the original founder and he founded it at the In Florida, I think it was the Tribune.

Was it the Tribune in Florida? Anyway, or it wasn't the Orlando Sentinel, I don't think. But anyway, he founded Black Voices, and so I brought him back in, and he was overseeing All Digitocracy while I was away. When I, one of the lessons I learned is that you, as a founder, cannot leave Your baby, go do something else and come back and think your baby is still going to be alive.

It might still be alive, but it's not going to be the same baby that you left, you know, a year ago. So when I came back, All Digitocracy was different under Barry. So it was hard to regain my footing after that to try to figure out how to go back to what I was building when It really had Barry's footprint on it now.

And so, while I was trying to figure that out and also like to try to raise some more money for All Digitocracy, the democracy fund came knocking and said, Hey. We'd like to hire you as our senior fellow. And I was like, well, what is a senior fellow? I don't even know what that is. And so I came on board, and basically what I did is I helped to inform them, their strategy that they built around, more engaged, information ecosystems and, and public square, dialogue.

So, I was there informing that strategy. I was enjoying myself, actually, because as a senior fellow, you have all the benefits of an organization and almost none of the headaches. Um, and so, that was a beautiful, beautiful thing. And I could, I could still dabble in other things that I wanted to do.

But I got on the speaker circuit, so I was speaking everywhere, around the country about the work that Democracy Fund was doing and the work I was helping them with. And then after three years, they said, Hey, you're always talking about investing in folks on the front lines, because at the time there's this emerging ecosystem of publishers, publishers who have been laid off or who had walked away from their, their newsroom, you know, their corporate media news jobs, and they were launching their own, I also saw some movement among Oh, yeah.

People who were not journalists and they were trying to launch something, trying to figure out what it was. And I was like, there's something to this. And so I wrote a white paper for the Gates Foundation and it was called The Rise of the New Jacks. And this is the rise of the new media makers, the new, new gatekeepers of news and information.

And so that white paper came out and everybody, it kind of took philanthropy by surprise. They were like, wait a minute, they didn't know it was happening. And then I, I documented and I had interviewed all these people, people like Wendy Thomas, before she even launched MLK50, I interviewed Wendy when it was just an idea.

People like Sahan, you know, Mukhtar Ibrahim of Sahan Journal, who was, you know, right, might have been right on the cusp of launching Sahan Journal andDocumented New York. I mean, these are people who are, you know, Dexter Thomas, who was actually leading an organization called Those People, and he was part of the medium platform before he went to Vice.

so I, I, I was documenting all this stuff and in this paper and, and everybody's like, whoa, whoa. And then next thing I know, a bunch of black people who work for philanthropy organizations said, Tracie, Hey, why don't we meet? I forget where we were. We might've been at ONA or somewhere. Why don't we meet?

You join us for dinner. And so what we started talking about is launching a fund, our very own fund, that would fund Black, Indigenous, and other people of color led news outlets. And so I was just like, hmm, this might have legs. I was like, I was trying to figure out how you channel money to people on the front lines in this, and here it is.

This is the opportunity. So I wrote a second paper establishing the need for the racial equity and journalism fund. and so, once I wrote the paper, I thought I was going to go back and I was still focused on launching my own thing or relaunching All Digitocracy. And then somebody tapped me on my shoulder.

It's like, We need somebody to run it. We need somebody to run the fund that you say we need. And I was just like, Oh, okay. All right, well, okay, I'll launch it. And, and, that was 2019. it was right before the world changed with the COVID virus. and then George Floyd. And so, I, I've, I started working at Borealis in December, I think it was December of 2019.

By March 2010, 20, I had launched that fund with funding, was it 16 organizations right out the gate. and then the earth fell in right as the, right when it just, I don't, I think it was the same week or maybe the next week after the checks went out. I mean, advertising's dried up. So I had, I had publishers call me, Hey, can we, can we use the money for this instead of this, I know this is what we talked about, but we, you know, and I was like, Oh my goodness.

So a rapid response was needed. we had to be flexible, to support, to best support publishers. I had no idea this was going to be my job as a fund manager, having to coach, having to, you know, publishers, literally, literally in a puddle of tears in front of me, having to hold them up, and at the same time trying to figure out how to get additional dollars to them when they needed it most.

I remember Mukhtar was out covering the protests following George Floyd's murder. I remember being on the phone with him and he was just. If you know Mukhtar, you know how phenomenal he is, a person he is, but he was like Tracie, what do I do if I get arrested? and I was like, I should have known this.

I should have known. I should have anticipated this. Because as a freelancer, I remember covering protests and like, who do I call if I get in trouble? And here I have this publisher saying, who do I, who can help me? And I was just like, I gotta go get some money for legal support. I gotta get lawyers on call.

In case any of these publishers need them at a moment's notice. And so we created pro bono legal support for publishers of color.

across the country for anything. If they get in trouble covering protests or if they get, I mean, if they need help with a content review or anything, then they have access to lawyers. And so that program still exists, but that came out of that relationship with a publisher who, you know, if he got arrested or detained by police, He really didn't have a place to turn.

I think he could have turned to the NABJ, but I don't know if back then he was a member of NABJ. I'm just not sure.

Zuri Berry: Well, it's a, it, it nicely sets the stage for all of the support that you do now. And so you were working at uh, Borealis as this, program officer, fund manager, and you're now providing wraparound services, or what's the start of wraparound services, right? Um, how did you, how did you transition then to saying, I'm doing this fund, but maybe I should do my own with The Pivot Fund?

Tracie Powell: Yeah. I was a staff of one and while we had money, I felt like the organization was in a state of flux. And so I was not allowed to hire staff. It was just me. so I did have some support in terms of an associate. A program associate, but she was not up from the world of journalism. So really, it was just me.

At the same time, I still had to raise money for the fund to make sure we could continue funding people. So I was having to raise money, manage the fund, and do programming. I was juggling a lot. And, by the time at the end of two years, I was exhausted. I had agreed to launch this fund. I did what I agreed to do.

but I also understood that while we are in the house with organizers and lobbyists, that may not be the best for a journalist. The Journalism Fund was so different from the other funds at Borealis and it felt uncomfortable at times. being there, they will have training, for example, lobbying training for staff and I was just like, I'm not a lobbyist.

I'm a journalist and my folks are journalists. They are not trying to lobby, governmental organizations or lawmakers. I remember having a conversation with someone who was in the policing fund and she wanted to do a program together and I was like, yeah, we need to get police in the room and get activists in the room and talk about some of the bigger issues that separate police from the communities.

and I just remember the person's face like we ain't trying to do that. So I was just like, wow, as a journalist, you want to facilitate

Zuri Berry: doesn't go over well with that crowd. We like that.

Tracie Powell: right, right. No, we ain't trying to do, you know, I was like, Oh, you know, so, so sometimes it got to be feeling a bit uncomfortable, but I was also exhausted being a staff, really a staff of one.

And you have to remember, I launched a fund during COVID and racial uprisings. So I was exhausted and my health started being impacted. And so I just remember my doctor said, it's time to let it go. And I was, I listened to my doctor as, you know, someone surviving cancer, I listened to my doctor. And so I said, I have to let this go.

I, and I think I had, I had positioned the fund really well. I raised nearly 10 million from. From forward with the help of great people like Faraj Hodea, committed, a large sum, millions to, to this fund really, And, I had great funders, Heisman Simons and,Craig Newmark and, and, and Democracy Fund, they were all backing me and I was very happy for that support, but I just physically was drained.

It was a lot to carry, almost single, nearly single handedly, I won't say fully single handedly, but nearly single handedly was a lot to carry. And so I stepped down after I think I raised in excess 10 to Maybe 15 might be a little high, 10 to 15 million for the fund. So I said, y'all are set for the next two years and I'm gonna go rest.

And so one of the funders actually said, I'll write you a check to go, just prop your feet up somewhere and think about what your next steps are. And I was like, you're going to give me money just to. Just to think, okay, that had never happened before. Stuff that I didn't, I had no idea this, you know, this is what people did.

So it's like, she wrote a check and, and she was like, you could take it to CUNY or you can take it to Harvard, either one of them and you know. So, you know, you'll just have a fellowship and figure out what's next. So that's what I did. And I took it to Harvard. got accepted into Shorenstein, of course, they're not going to turn their noses away from money, someone coming with their own money.

So, and so, instead of resting. I kept getting phone calls from publishers. They are still needing support. Now they have dollars. Well, Tracie, how do we spend this money? How do we, who do we hire and where do we find them? And you know, how do I get a fundraiser in so I can get more money? And how do I fire a salesperson?

So they helped me do this average. I was like, Oh my gosh. And I mean, it just didn't stop. And so, I was like, if I'm going to be working, I got to get kind of compensated too. And so I started raising money from, I got some sponsorship dollars from Knight Foundation and a couple of other folks gave some money.

And I did some selling swag online to, you know, support this work. Cause I was connecting them to newsrooms, to consultants, and I was the one consulting myself. So it was just, and you had to compensate people. So anyway, I started raising money to do that. And then by July, August, I was like, Oh, okay. First of all, I need to figure out what impact this money is having.

What else needs to be done in this area in terms of capacity building and wraparound services. and so I launched, I deployed a major research project while at. at Harvard. Now, yes, I had funders, the funder who gave him the money and some other funders coming and saying, Tracie, you supposed to be resting.

But I was like, but it's too much work to be done. But I, yeah, that deployed that major research project and Harvard didn't really know what to do with it. So I was sitting there with all this data. I knew I wanted it to have more impact than just sitting in somebody's database somewhere. I had held a focus group and all these publishers had been interviewing and stuff.

and so I picked up the research and took it to Northeastern, where Dr. Meredith Clark sits, and she has her own center. She's also a former journalist, black journalist, and so, Dr. Meredith Clark and I. She saw the research and she was like, Oh my God, she's like, this is so valuable. She was like, and she's like, Oh, we know exactly what to do with it.

And so she took that research. She used the framing of critical race theory to assess the data that I had collected and we produced a major research report. So somebody said, Tracie, you were supposed to be at Harvard chilling out and you came out with a major research report and it was the first of its kind.

Not only that, but it was the first peer reviewed report about funding in BIPOC spaces in the journalism industry. And so, it was published by the International Society of Online Journalism. I presented the paper. and several places, but the ISOJ conference that night hosts funds I presented there.

So yeah, I, that

Zuri Berry: is phenomenal.

Tracie Powell: Really, that set the stage for Pivot, right? Because I knew where the gaps were and I knew nobody was addressing those gaps. still, to a large degree, nobody's doing it except for Pivot, in terms of culturally competent management, training and leadership training, but also, like I mentioned in our birthday newsletter yesterday, never did I ever think I would be assessing CMSs and CRMs that are most customizable and, and, accessible to hyperlocal community publishers, particularly BIPOC publishers. But that's where I find myself now. That's what I'm doing because the, what we, what the journalism industry is offering them. is unaffordable and or inaccessible. So Pivot is having to now create the change we want to see by, by now assessing CMSs.

And if, you know, if there's nothing out there, then we might have to, you know, we understand we might have to build it. We might have to create it. We have to partner with somebody who can do that. you know, we had a news outlet that combined, that merged with another newsroom. Never did I ever think I would have to figure out how to get them, M& A, services. How do you, how do you, how do you merge and acquire successfully? I mean, that's the space in which Pivot is working.

And yeah, we're still doing that. I mean, we're supporting them around recruiting and hiring. We got a digital sales manager at a legacy radio station. Their very first digital sales manager, who generated a hundred K and new revenue for that news for that radio station in just one year.

These are the kinds of services that we provide. It's the kind of change that we're creating, and that, you know, Pivot was born out of that research at Harvard because I hadn't planned on doing it. I just know that we need to move money to communities of color and the publishers that serve them.

And we have to move the money in the right ways in order to ensure their sustainability.

And that's what Pivot, Pivot does.

Zuri Berry: That is tremendous. All of what you guys do is tremendous. And the fact that it's research backed. operation from the, from its genesis, I think is, something that I think few people understand about what you do and how you operate.

And you continue to do more research and do assessments, I think, of regional areas. And one of the things that I'm interested in, when we started working together, you were, getting into the throes of the landscape in Georgia there, but you've expanded now. Now you're, you're, you're going to the Midwest.

Can you talk about this work that you're doing, these assessments that you're doing and, and what goes into that?

Tracie Powell: Yeah, so when Pivot Fund talks about landscape analysis, we're talking about starting with the community first. And so we go to that community, we talk directly to community members about Where they get information, how they access it, and most importantly, who they trust. Because they can access information from sources that they don't trust, and they tell us that all the time.

We just read that to see what they're talking about to see what the other, other side of town is up to, what kind of mess they are up to this time. But so they, we really want to understand. Who do you trust? Who do you turn to? In times of crisis, and we had the kind of supporting documentation of during COVID, these public health agencies and even some lawmakers had identified these grassroots organizations that journalism hadn't even paid attention to before, but but public health and, and, and, politicians had already started identifying, like, we can't, we don't have to go, we don't have to go to the traditional news outlet.

We can go around them to this little group over here. Because this group over here is closer to the community and to the voters who we want to impact. Or if I'm a public health

Zuri Berry: right? Which is a shame, like that, that, that's the case that they know better than us in the, in the media, those journalists that work in these newsrooms that we're not connected to the media. Community. That's, that's rough. Mm-Hmm.

Tracie Powell: I will tell you where I first learned it from, when I was working on the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives. I saw how my boss would go around to certain groups and certain people who had blogs, and that's how they would plant information. Sometimes that information rolls up to the corporate news outlet.

Sometimes it rolls up. But most importantly, If they wanted to get a message out, they weren't going to that adversarial newspaper. They were going to these other people. That was my very first time seeing that when I was using my law degree over at the House of Representatives and Judiciary Committee.

I saw that I recognized that, but it was driven home during COVID or right after COVID when we saw what was happening. and so I was like, Hmm, okay, they are, they are really on to something.

Let me find out. Let me find out who else people actually really, really trust for news. And so, We went out and we had strategic community conversations with key stakeholders in the community. We did a phone survey, so we worked with a phone company to go do a survey here in Georgia.

And we compiled, we did market studies, so this is, it was really kind of. Layered market studies. And so we came back and we pulled together our first landscape analysis in Georgia, but it was only about it was only for part of Georgia because some, I'll be honest with you, some, voting rights organizations and some democracy funders wanted to understand how to reach voters in the black belt of Georgia.

So this is middle and South Georgia that we were surveying. We didn't do the whole state. And so, we came back and we had, like, just an entire list of these kinds of grassroots organizations that have popped up. Paz Lavos in Savannah, BTV in LaGrange, NotaVision Georgia in, Warner Robins.

They got a freaking TV station in their car garage at their house. That was, that's, they created a studio and I had to go see for myself. Like, are you serious? They got a studio in the garage and sure enough, green room, green screen and everything in their garage. I mean, so these things were popping up everywhere and I was like, this is phenomenal.

I didn't know. I'm from Georgia. I didn't know these things existed. When I went down to Paso Lovos, they had a Facebook group with, I think it was, it might have been like 20 some thousand people. On, on their Facebook group. And I'm talking to this woman like, you know, she's asking me, why are you, why, why are you here now?

You believe me asking a funder, why are you here? Why are you here? And I was like, 'cause you are doing journalism. And she was like, I don't have a journalism degree. I don't even have a high school diploma. And so, you know, like she's, I'm not, I'm not a journalist. And I was like, what you're doing, you committed acts of journalism on a consistent basis.

And you're more journalists. And so when she told me, I asked her, I turned the question around on her, cause I'm a journalist. I said, well, why do you do what you do? Help me understand. And she said she wanted to understand why the system does not work for everyone. And then she wanted to tell people about that so that they can help change the system.

And how it worked and who it worked for. And I just remember breaking down in tears because for me, that went right back to what Mr. Scott told me when I was in high school. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And so I was like, you are more journalist than most journalists I know. And I mean, I, I saw this all over and I was like, this is what, this is where journalism needs to be.

This is. This, this is it. This is where the connection is. You were talking about that disconnect. Well, they have a connection. They have the trust of a community. And so that's where we decided to invest because somebody else paid for us to identify these organizations but it didn't necessarily mean they were going to fund them.

We still had to raise dollars to help fund these organizations. but I just knew that this was the future of journalism and this is where our focus needs to be.

Zuri Berry: Yeah. I think it's something, what is it? 500 million that you've committed to invest in these communities?

Tracie Powell: Have committed to 500 million, but there is now we got, now we got a competitor, a major competitor on the scene that's

Zuri Berry: seeking to raise 500 million too. So, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I saw, I saw, well, hey, hey, look, more money going into news organizations. That's,

Tracie Powell: We need more, we need more money to go to the, but as long as, as long as the money goes to news outlets. From that, from that, and, and, I mean, I, I, you know me, I'm a, I'll, I'll call you out. Press Forward is the new fund on the, on the, on the scene now, and they're seeking to raise 500 million to invest in journalism.

And that's great. I was one of the first ones to both cheer, but also raise the flag. You have to invest in grassroots, hyperlocal and community news, especially those organizations serving communities of color, serving at the intersection of race, ethnicity, economic,income and, gender and sexual orientation, you have to invest.

Because that's who we currently are, we, you know, traditional corporate media often, I won't even say often, will sometimes write about those communities. Through a white lens, but they're not producing news and information for that community the organization's Pivot invests in Are producing news and information for that community and alongside that community not just about that community So that's really really important.

It's very very nuanced. Not everybody gets it,

Zuri Berry: No, no, they do

Tracie Powell: reason Pivot Fund exists. No, they know and that's another reason Pivot Fund exists because we are not only trying to fund these organizations, but we're trying to create systemic change in the way journalism is, is, designed and defined and also how philanthropy works.

Zuri Berry: So just a quick comment and then another question. So the comment being, it's interesting to me that we have, sort of all come to agreement within the industry that the focus of investment has to be on hyperlocal and niche publishers. Yeah. And obviously there's, you know, a very much a focus that, you know, I'm interested in for BIPOC publishers, particularly black publishers, but, that also says, you know what you regional newspapers, you regional news organizations.

I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if you 're going to be a success. The success rate there is, is not necessarily there. And that gets at right now, this moment that we're in, serious decline that we're seeing across the board in terms of news organizations. So that's the comment I do want to ask you though, because you've now turned to investing in Baltimore, which is, I think is.

amazing that you jumped in and supported the Baltimore Beat, which is led by Lisa Snowden, the editor in chief there, founded that organization. It is a tab newspaper and it is, by someone of the community and it is for the community as you describe it. Can you walk me through what led you to invest $150,000 into that news organization?

Tracie Powell: Yeah. I've been watching Baltimore Beat and Lisa Snowden for at least two years. I've been watching her. and I love the fact that they create critical news and information alongside the community. And what I mean by that is their coverage and reporting is informed by not just community conversations but the struggles of Black Baltimore, the triumphs of Black Baltimore.

the good and the bad and the ugly of Black Baltimore, they're there for it all. They are advocates for that community. And I advocate for that community. It doesn't mean they are advocating for, you know, political candidates or political issues. They're not, that's not what they do. They're advocating for their community.

for Baltimore to be all that it can be the best that it can be, that it can be more informed and make more informed and better decisions. And so when I saw Armstrong Williams and David Smith purchase the Baltimore sun, I saw that outcry and I heard the outcry after that. And I had already started thinking, well, yeah, they're already in our In our, on our radar, I think we had already even asked them to submit an LOI and invite them to do that.

And so then, I was, I forget, I was up late one night, it was on a weekend, I couldn't go to sleep. And I went on Twitter. I don't even hardly go on Twitter anymore, but I went on Twitter. And, um, David Simon, the creator of The Wire. life on the streets was on Twitter attacking Lisa Snowden. And I was like, Oh my goodness, what happened?

So I read all his old threads. I read Baltimore Beat, went through all those tweets. I went through Lisa Snowden's tweets. I was like, Oh, he doesn't really understand why she sent him a tweet asking for his support. He doesn't understand the inequity there. The Baltimore Beat relaunched in 2022. It already existed, but it relaunched in 2022 as a black publication with $1 million when a white family there divested itself of its wealth and gave it to Lisa Snowden and as a co-founder to, to relaunch the Baltimore Beat.

At around the same time, or maybe a few months later, The Baltimore Banner was launched with $50 million. And so I said, David Simon doesn't understand how, and I kind of outcry the people on Twitter, they were really upset the way he was, strong arming or stiff arming, the Beat. and so he took it very, very personally, I think.

And so he and I started tweeting back and forth to each other and I was trying to make it. I was trying to reason and also have a meeting, just in the middle. And also say that you didn't have to choose between the Beat and the Banner. They,

Zuri Berry: Yeah.

Tracie Powell: they're two different publications. And I think Baltimore needs and deserves both publications.

The banner is about Baltimore. Anything you want to learn about Baltimore, you can read The Banner and find out. But if you want a publication for Baltimore, one that is of Baltimore, and for Baltimore, and by Baltimore, then that's the beat. And so, I was trying to explain it to them, and that nuance is really hard for some people.

to grapple with. and so he would, David would not be moved. And I was like, that's fine. You know, thank you for your support in the Banner and let me know how much money you raised for him. Cause he was trying to get people to subscribe. I said, let me know how much money you raised for the, for the banner.

I think that's incredible. And he said, well, I'll let you know on Monday or something like that. So I came back. Maybe that Tuesday and I saw that maybe I think he contributed a dollar for each new subscriber They got and the Banner got a thousand new subscribers. So he gave him 1, 000. I was like, oh, that's nice But it was still an attack . He was still for whatever reason attacking the beat and Lisa Snowden.

And so I went to my board and I said I would like to expedite funding to this organization. I need your support. And the board voted unanimously to support the Baltimore Beat.

And I'm not saying that $150,000 is anywhere near, $50 million. It's not, Nor does it take $50 million to run an organization like the Baltimore Beat. All Lisa needs to do is hire maybe one or two more people. And I think she would, she would be, you know, and she can build on that, right?

Especially if she hires some revenue people, she can build on that. and so that's what the pivot, pivot fund does. We provide transformational dollars and $150,000 is transformational for the, for the Baltimore Beat. Plus we add those wraparound services on top of that. and so

Zuri Berry: This is, this is the part where I should just note for the audience listening that I work at the Baltimore Banner. So I'm like intimately aware of all of this in a sense that I was watching as that conversation unfolded online on Twitter on X and I saw Lisa's response, I saw David's response and I thought to myself, that.

There's a lot going on there to unpack, and I'm so glad you

Tracie Powell: It was, and I tried, I tried to unpack it in the Poynter piece about him, how David attacked the Beat or quick sin, he accused them of. shaking him down for money, how that was perceived by black folks, how, how I perceived it. Right. that, and he may not have even intended it to be, but it doesn't change the fact that that's a racist, that hasn't, you know, the effect of racism on our community.

and then when he said, well, I supported the, the, the, the Afro. That was the equivalent of saying I have a black friend. Afro didn't ask him to use them in that way, that was disrespectful and offensive. And then when he blocked the Beat, that was, that was, that was the moment that I made that decision that I would go to the board because when he blocked the Beat, That was the equivalent of locking them out of potential funding the same way that philanthropy has historically done to black communities and black entrepreneurs and black founders.

And so

I use,

Zuri Berry: I was just gonna say that's part of why I wanted to talk to you, because it, what my takeaway was that this was representative of this larger issue of, being disinterested, if you will, in funding a black led news organization versus a,a, a, a more mainstream one, if you will, and, and that

Tracie Powell: general interest, I would say. 'cause I think I would say general, a more general interest one, because Baltimore is 64% black. Well, you know better than I do. It's 60 something percent

black, so, so the beat is the, is the mainstream publication as far as I'm concerned.

Zuri Berry: Yeah, absolutely. And so, in that, with that respect, I just thought to myself, this is exactly why The Pivot Fund exists to fill that gap, to fill that hole. And so it was, it was, it was. nice to see somebody respond immediately and say, you know what, we're in a position to do something about it. So I thank you for that.

you know, as somebody who's just working in this market. Yeah. Sorry, say

Tracie Powell: I don't think, I don't think David blocked us, but he got upset about it. That's okay. David will be fine. I told him he would be fine. I said, you'll be fine and pivot will be fine.

Zuri Berry: Yeah, and if I could just make one comment on David. He is combative, as many people are, on Twitter. I don't know what it is about the platform, but it sort of draws that out of some people. And so I think that sort of was a contributing factor in all of this. and you know, so again, you come in, you, you make this investment.

Tracie Powell: It is a big deal, transformational, as you put it for the beat. I read the beat. I am a contributor to the beat in terms of dollars. Um,and so all of which is to say that, like I, I understand what that money's going to do. And I know that it's going to be helpful. We certainly hope so.

Zuri Berry: I want to, I want to change the topic just a little bit.

can we talk now, if you will, and I realize we're over for time,The state of the industry obviously feels like it's in decline. We've had a lot of job cuts. Can you tell me how you feel The Pivot Fund can help in this kind of moment, if you will, particularly given the number of job cuts we saw over the last month and a half.

Tracie Powell: First and foremost, my heart breaks for an industry that I have already stated, brought so much joy into my life and has taught me so much. Heartbreaks because I still love journalism and I still love news. The crossroads that I came to. Several years ago is that it's not news and journalism that's dying.

It's news and journalism as we know it. That's what's dying. And it's newspapers in particular, that's dying. And it's the way that newspapers have been run and treated people and mistreated people. That's dying. And that's actually a good thing. because newspapers in particular have done a lot of harm in communities.

So if we are, if that's, if that stuff is dying, then I'm not gonna cry over that. But it is disconcerting to see so many people lose their livelihoods because there was a reluctance to pivot sooner. And I'm not using that term to just Be cute. the industry needed to pivot. A long time ago. And it fought change.

It fought change. It fought bringing in more people of color to reflect the communities they were supposed to serve. They fought digital transformation. It fought, Well, they, they're fighting now, you know, technology and AI and everything. I mean, there's fighting now against the workplace culture. I mean, they've been having these kinds of fights for years and years.

And so it's the way that they've always done business that I think is changing. That's, that is, that is dying, but there's some aspects of journalism that we can't afford to lose. And, and I'm fighting for that, I'm fighting to hold on to those pieces and, and, and, and, and make sure we are, including them in the culture, in the fabric of this new news media that's sprouting up, that's emerging.

You know, holding power to account, covering the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, telling our stories, amplifying our voices. Those things I, we have to make sure we're implementing along with the investments we're making. And also showing the industry how to, how to do this well, how to do this better, how to, how to create a culture that reflects multiplicity of voices and perspectives.And respects those voices, not just uses them when they need them. But respects them and includes them in a way that's meaningful. I mean, I think that's what's happening at these grassroots organizations and why Tracie Powell is supporting those kinds of organizations.

Zuri Berry: I was just going to ask, what do you think is the model or the type of media organization that is primed for success?

Tracie Powell: Mm hmm. I think you have a lot, I think you have many different kinds of models right now. but if I were to point to the organizations that are really, really being successful right now, I would, I would point to Documented New York, Enlace, North Carolina, looking at how they are taking very seriously, their role in providing news and information for their communities.

Useful information for their communities, information and content that reflects not only the people in the community, but also the concerns and interests.

It goes back to my days when I was a night at Knight Ritter and management training, when I had to go out and sell a subscription to a household, I didn't ask them, hey, will you buy a subscription? I'm not at the door or stopped them in the grocery store at Walmart and said, hey, what was the first thing on your mind when you woke up this morning? And then it was my job to make sure that my product reflected whatever that concern was that that person told me they were experiencing. I had to make sure I was meeting that need, that information needed for them.

And I had to show them how I was meeting that need. That's what's happening right now in these grassroots organizations. It's what the traditional corporate media has forgotten. Because their circulation departments have been gutted. Their advertising departments have been gutted. So you don't have nobody telling them how to be responsive to community information needs in that way.

And so while I feel bad about the failing model, I do believe that MLK50, Sahan Journal, organizations that understand that they must have diverse revenue streams that they must reflect the needs of the community, that they must be meeting the needs of the community that they're reporting for and about and along with the communities.

They did not preach to the communities. It's not top down information is bottom up and, you know, organic information flowing upwards. Those are the successful models. For me, those are successful models. we cannot, I mean, this is what I'm afraid of. We cannot replicate a system that we already have.

One that we know is failing. And I think it is our tendency because we tend to do what is most comfortable. We tend to do that, which we know. That kind of thinking leads to doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And I'm here to tell you that that's the very definition of insanity.

And so, journalists who have been laid off, I'm speaking directly to you, especially if you're Black. or Hispanic or Asian American. There are opportunities in nonprofit journalism right now. There are opportunities. And that is where the growth is happening. Thank God. My parents made me go to the university of Georgia and made me get another degree in not just journalism.

I got a degree in journalism, but also business administration and the business person in me. Is telling you, you got to recognize what time, the time to pivot, you have to recognize the time to pivot and when, and right now while you're pivoting, this is a season is not, you know, I know it's hard to see the, the light right now, but I promise if you look outside that which you are comfortable and look at some of the nonprofit journalism organizations that are doing some hard, some really, really hard and interesting and profound work right now. You may not get paid 300, 000. No, that probably ain't gonna happen, but we didn't, we didn't get into this business to get rich anyway. Never, but I think you will be able to have some real impact.

There's also opportunities to launch your own news outlets. I know that's not for everybody. but there is opportunity there.

Zuri Berry: Absolutely. Last question for you, Tracie. advice that you have for those people that we're talking about who are interested in launching and publishers out there. What advice are you telling people on a regular basis about, you know, what they should be prepared for?

Tracie Powell: You have to have intestinal fortitude. you have to, you know, as a salesperson, before I was a journalist, you have to understand that no means not yet. It doesn't mean no. And this means not right now. Right? And you have to be persistent. You have to be persistent. But here's something else that I tell them.

You cannot go rebuild what you just came from because you know that that doesn't work. If it was working, you would still be there. So you cannot come out of there trying to rebuild something that you just left. you really have to be a news organization that is embedded in the community. And if you don't want to be that close to the community, then I don't think journalism shouldn't be your, your, in your job anyway.

Look for something else. Look for something that involves communications or academics, but if you want to really be close to the community and report for, and with the community, there's no time better than right now.

Zuri Berry: Tracie Powell, CEO of The Pivot Fund. Thank you so much for joining me.

Tracie Powell: Thank you, Zuri. I appreciate you having me.

Creators and Guests

Zuri Berry
Zuri Berry
I tweet about📝 journalism, 🎙 podcasts, and 📈 business. I run @zmcpodcasts. MBA grad. Originally from SF. 🌉 He/Him
Tracie Powell on investing in the future of journalism
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