Akoto and Lauren, co-founders of Capital B, have worked long and hard to perfect their business model and product. By listening to consumers and pivoting when needed, they’re reimagining the entire journalism industry.
Season 2 – Call Paul – Episode 5
Paul: Hello friend, I’m Paul Jarvis. Welcome to Call Paul, a show where I get to ring up some of the most interesting minds in small business and have thoughtful conversations about their unconventional approaches to commerce.
I’ve run my own small company for 21 years and I’ve written books on how bigger isn’t always better in business. In this season I’m talking to folks who are prioritizing doing the right thing over just the most profitable. Some are starting something brand new, standing up their businesses in an entirely new environment. Others have been at it a while, working to ensure their continued sustainability through turbulent times. And there’s lots to learn from everyone.
Akoto: There’s the old cliche in that when America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu, and that is sort of how what’s happened with mainstream media and the Black press. …throughout history, Black press had just been present for so many major turning points. And as we find ourselves in another one, we want to be a part of the group that meets the moment and fills this void for Black Americans.
Paul: That’s Akoto Ofori-Atta, who, along with her co-founder Lauren Williams, are in the process of beginning Capital B - a Black-led, nonprofit, local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country.
The two met a decade ago working at online magazine,The Root, and became fast-friends. In the time between then and now, both Lauren and Akoto became seasoned newsroom leaders and climbed to the top of their industry.
Capital B isn’t a standard newsroom, as they aren’t going after advertisers to generate revenue. Instead, they’re a non-profit, seeking to raise donations from individuals and philanthropists, aligning themselves with others who get the mission. Embedded in their mission to serve Black Americans is the act of listening- and while other businesses solicit feedback only after they launch- for Capital B, listening from the get go is foundational. And like any other startup, they’re dealing with the complexities of getting a business from zero to one. _
Lauren: Across the United States over the last 15 years, we've lost a quarter of our local newspapers. There are whole communities that just don't get any news at all. There are some where the newspapers still exist, but they're like ghosts of their former selves. They don't come every day or they're half the size of these to be, and they don't cover the same area.
A lot of our local TV news has been overtaken by some companies that maybe don't have the best interest of the audience at heart or have some political intentions or biases, and underscoring all of that is the fact that mainstream media has never done an amazing job of covering Black people with Black concerns and Black stories. And so even at their full strength, Black communities weren't covered amazingly well. And now the news is not at its full strength at all. And it's we're not in a good place. Of course we have a really strong history of Black media and ethnic media in this country, but a lot of that Black media has been hit by some of the same business struggles that the rest of the media has been hit with. The decline in ad revenue, and so there are a number of holes that we're looking to fill with Capital B.
Paul: So the picture you painted for the industry is kind of bleak, right? So why start something right now then, given all of that?
Lauren: So our model has something to do with that a little bit. One of the reasons why the industry is struggling is because the traditional methods of revenue for the for-profit news business are kind of becoming obsolete. The ad business is not where it's at anymore. It's not going to be the model of the future. So we decided to go the nonprofit route. Local journalism, civic journalism, it's a public good. And this is an endeavor that people should want to support and philanthropists should want to support with their billions and regular folks should want to donate small amounts to support because it is really important for democracy for our communities to be informed.
Paul: Akoto, Can you speak to how that;s different in terms of a revenue model?
Akoto: Yeah. I think that as Lauren was saying that it's hard to find a market solution for journalism, because so much of the impact having sort of shape-shifting journalism that is necessary to do is not necessarily something that advertisers always want to support. It is time-intensive, it is slow. So it's not the kind of thing where advertisers see a lot of benefit, and what you can do with the nonprofit model is really align the funding more closely to the mission of the journalism, because funders are coming in believing in the mission and the vision of what you're trying to do. So it's more closely aligned.
Paul: Yeah I think that’s smart. Do you have defined roles for Capital B? What do you both do for the business right now?
Akoto: You're co-founding, you're both doing so much of the same thing, but we're at a stage where we are seeing that it might be beneficial to have some more clearly defined roles. So I'll answer for Lauren, sure. She is a visionary, she is thinking very strategically and deeply about all of our funding prospects, and how are we're really going to support this really, really big journalism idea we have. And she is thinking also deeply about staffing and about the editorial work that we'll have to do once we get this off the ground, in addition to partnerships and everything.
Lauren: Akoto is also a visionary, but she is also a strategist. She is someone who is thinking a lot about and strategizing around a lot of our audience and partnerships and making sure that we are talking to all of the right people and crossing all of our T's and dotting all of our I's as we are doing our research and starting to enter into these communities, and also making sure that we are compliant with all of our board stuff and finances and all of that.
Paul: What made you want to start Capital B with each other? And was there any worry there because you were friends previously to starting something and that being trickier, I guess, or was that not even something you worried about?
Akoto: So I think one of our first conversations we had was like, "We're friends, are we worried about working with each other?" And we pretty quickly were like, "No, we think this will be great." We didn't really have any concerns because, again, our friendship was born in the newsroom, so this is just a very natural progression. And we met at The Root 10 or 11 years ago. We had ideations of, "Man, if we had our own newsroom, what would it look like? What would we do?"
And we both had a long way to go before we could get to a place where we could actually launch our own thing. But 2020 happened. COVID, then the death of George Floyd and the reckoning that came after that in the country, and more specifically in our industry. You saw this across all industries, but in journalism, Black journalists really started speaking out about the ways in which they had been failed in their newsrooms and the ways in which the stories that they wanted to tell, they didn't necessarily have the space or the support to do it, and there was some pretty harrowing stories that came out of that time, and Lauren and I were thinking about everything that's happening in the world, thinking about what Black people would need coming out of this, and it just felt like now was the time to do it.
Lauren: The really outrageous thing is I live in the DC area and Akoto lives in Brooklyn and we have not seen each other in person from that moment when we texted each other that we needed to do this to this day. We made all these decisions. We decided to quit our jobs. We raised all this money. We started a news organization. We still have not seen each other in person in all this time. It's outrageous. We have plans. We're both fully vaccinated. We're going to see each other soon, but it hasn't happened yet.
Paul: So the text message happens. You're doing this. What comes next? What's the first concrete step that you took to start Capital B?
Akoto: The first thing we did was have a Google hangout so we could look at each other's faces, look at each other's eyes, an say are we're really going to do this?
Lauren: A million times. We're not doing this. Are we doing this? We're not really going to do this. Are we going to do this? No, and then we wrote out a memo about our idea. It started out with us really outlining what our values were and obviously, local news and the local news crisis was very important to us, and also very important to us was the sort of power and promise of ambitious national level investigative journalism, expensive, high touch journalism that big mainstream publications do, but Black media rarely has the funding to do. It's almost like radical to think about a Black publication doing that kind of work or getting the funding to do that kind of work and we really wanted to do that as well, and we realized in mapping it out that those didn't necessarily need to be two different ideas, that we could merge them into one mega, super ambitious idea in Capital B and really not sell Black audiences short in any way, and give us all of it.
Akoto: And the thing that Capital B is going to be doing on the local side specifically is really thinking about basic information that people don't have.
So these are not necessarily investigations and big features with all of the bells and whistles and photography and multimedia. If we're serving a community, how do we make sure that people living here have access to good information to help them navigate their community? Do I know everything I need to know about housing? Do I know everything I need to know about schools? Do I know everything I need to know about jobs and benefits, and just very basic service journalism that is really missing and part of what I think the industry as a whole is and a lot of places are grappling with, but need to do better at, and so you want to be able to provide that service for Black Americans, who are living in some cities under a lot of severe circumstances where they just don't know that there's information that can help them navigate those better.
Paul: You both helped build the media companies you were at and became known in this industry that you're in. Do you think it was harder to start something new given that you both had really good reputations going into things? Do you think that put more pressure on?
Lauren: I think it was much easier to do it.
Lauren: I mean, there's certainly a lot of pressure on us for us to make this good, but when you're out there trying to raise money for a big ambitious thing, it's really good to have a resume to back you up and we are confident in our ability to make this thing good, and so we just need folks to join us and believe in us and the resume helps.
Paul: Is there anything at all that you're like, okay, we've learned that this is something that we don't want and Capital B or we've learned this is definitely something that we want to see in Capital B as a company?
Akoto:I’ll go first, just sort of comparing my experience in non-profit versus for-profit, but there was something about the way really ambitious, almost moonshot ideas seemed to be supported from any level of the organization. If we had a fellow who wanted to do a big investigation, in my nonprofit experience, we try to find a way to make it happen, which is definitely something that I hope to carry through at Capital B and also something that I think Black journalists really want and need. Lauren, what do you think? Lauren: I mean, this isn't necessarily from my last job, which was pretty generous with benefits, but I do think that companies can be really stingy with benefits in a way that goes beyond cost cost-saving, and I want us to be just radically generous with benefits. I think that the benefits of benefits in the workplace and people feeling well cared for and happy and they're not working for evil corporate overlords. That pays for itself in some ways, in terms of productivity and in terms of retention, and I just think that there's so many just antiquated ideas that are just held onto in just work culture because it's how they've always been done, that are just kind of mean.
Paul: Like what? What's an example of that?
Lauren: Oh, just not trusting people around their sick leave or I was talking to a friend. We had unlimited vacation and sick leave at my last job. I was talking to a friend about how they can't take more than two days of sick leave at her job without bringing in a note, and I was like, what? She's like, oh yeah, because they don't want us to use our sick leave instead of our vacation. If you're not really sick, they want us to use our vacation so they don't have to pay you out when you leave and it's just so diabolic, forcing someone to go to the doctor. That kind of thing, it just makes you feel bad about work, and people just shouldn't feel bad about work.
Akoto: I agree, and particularly with the sick days thing, having worked at a news room that covered gun violence, where you're basically dealing with deaths almost every day. It's not every kind of sick day that you can get a doctor's note for. Some days, you're sad. You're not going to be able to do the job the way that you want.
Lauren; And that's not a vacation day.
Akoto: It's not a vacation day either.
Lauren: You lie to call that a vacation day.
Paul: Yeah -- in terms of benefits and thinking about the structure of how things work, what is the zero to one of setting up a news desk?
Lauren: So one of the really important things about Capital B is we're not just two women from DC and New York parachuting into these cities, deciding what a community is supposed to care about and just plopping a website there. At a minimum, we have four people, staffing of your own to start and they grow from there depending on the size of the city. And every bureau will have a community engagement person who will be in charge of not just social media, but the actual active community engagement, which could mean offline events, talking to people, going to people's houses, potentially knocking on people's doors to get people the news and information that they need.
What we want is for the community to really drive what their individual Capital B Bureau is really going to be about, and so before we launch, we do focus grouping,we interview a ton of people.
Akoto: I've done that in my previous role for a very specific project and it's incredibly valuable information that you get, letting people, popping the hood and letting people who are going to be ultimately engaging with this see what you're working on to give you some real feedback.
Lauren: We hear what they find lacking about the news that they currently have, what they would want from the news if a brand new news organization came, and then we hire folks who live in the community. You really have to be open to allowing your priors to be challenged. You can't just go in thinking that everyone's going to tell you the newspaper here is racist or whatever. You have to be really open and hear people out and what is it that you like about it? Why are you loyal to it? What do you wish that you had, and the thing that is an absolute important truth is that Black people are not monolithic. Everyone is different, and understanding the contours of a community and the different people in it, is a really important part of that going into it.
Paul: Is Capital B going to be just digital or print or is there going to be, because I know you have experience with video, right? So is it going to involve all of those things to get different, I guess even just age groups, I think about younger folks not wanting to read a newspaper like their parents?
Lauren: So we want to meet the audience where they are. Our baseline product offering is going to be a website, but we want to partner with print publications to publish our work. We may even publish our own work. We want to partner with radio stations. We want to partner with local, popular social media accounts. We want to have live events. We want to do what we can to reach people because we know that a website, depending on the demographics and the news habits of a group of people is not necessarily going to be the thing, and so we will be really aggressive about trying to reach the people in the community where they are.
Akoto: If you're an area where broadband internet is not widely accessible, then we can't expect you to come to a website to engage with Capital B work. If you're a younger person, we expect that you might prefer to hear from us on a social media platform, like Lauren was saying, so we really want to be nimble as we think through that stuff.
Paul: Can you tell us why, then place is so important?
Akoto: Capital B wants to be in position to capture everything. And to do that, I think responsibly, you have to just be committed to a place, and really invest in people and resources to make sure that we have the big picture and the full context when we're doing our news. Context is a very big, important thing for us. Lauren comes from Vox where their mantra was explaining the news. We can't deliver on that context, if we're not serious about a real commitment to the communities we're serving. Lauren: There some black neighborhoods out there that only get news coverage from their local media when someone gets shot. And we're talking about national media parachuting in to cities, but on a local level, that happens in neighborhoods, where the local media just comes in to cover a crime and then leaves.
And what we're saying we do in the local communities, is not leave. Is cover that neighborhood in good times and in bad, or cover the neighborhood from the perspective of people who are trying to be safe, and not as spectators to a tragedy. And that is part of what we want to do to build trust, and part of what we just want to do because that's what people who live there deserve from the media.
Paul: Yeah. That makes sense. What do you want your audience to take away from Capital B?
Akoto: What I hope Capital B does in the long run is habituate people to recognize trustworthy and accurate information and to expect that, and I think with all of the misinformation that's swirling, a big part of our mission is to combat that particularly since Black people have been targeted in some really crazy ways, but getting people to understand the value of journalism and the value of trustworthy journalism and recognizing good, trustworthy journalism is something that I hope we can accomplish, and I think key to that is doing a lot of that local stuff, is just sort of giving people information that is actually useful for them, and part of becoming a more informed, more engaged citizen is just knowing where you can get information from.
Paul: How do you get... I guess that's something I'm just thinking of now as you're saying that, Akoto. How do you get people to trust a news source?
Akoto: I think trust starts with listening and then staying and then having a consistent approach to what you're covering and making sure that what you're covering is also accessible, and there's tons of different ways to do that.
Paul: What's the dream for Capital B? Say the show checks back in five years with the two of you and Capital B? If all goes according to plan, what does that look like, assuming we can even get you on the phone?
Lauren: One, you'll have to call our team and I don't know if you'll be able to grab us, but we will be in cities from coast to coast and we will have a large and robust national team doing really impactful journalism for Black Americans across the country, ... We will have had made a difference in millions of people's lives. That's the dream.
Akoto: We will also have made the industry better by training and working with Black journalists, giving them platforms and opportunities to do really ambitious work. We want to have a sort of a marked influence on how the industry is hiring, retaining, supporting Black journalists.
Paul: So I noticed when I checked out your website that it’s just two pages so far. And it's clear you all are still at the beginning of this journey. What might you want to tell others who are thinking about just starting a business?"
Lauren: Something that's been really interesting to us is starting something that aligns with the values of just so many regular people out there. Like you said, so far, we just have basically just a splash page. We don't have any content yet. We have not launched. We won't be launching until late fall and we've really just basically announced that we're doing this with a couple of Twitter threads and we've collected emails and sent out two emails so far to our email list and we've already collected almost small donations from almost 500 small donors who see what we're doing. And they think it's a really good idea and it connects with how they're thinking about the world right now too, and I just think as you're thinking about putting yourself out there and trying something new and taking that risk, making sure that you're not alone on an island in it, and that it's something that you think will resonate with others as well. So that you have partners in your journey is really important.
Akoto: Yes. Highly recommend.. I've said this, but highly recommend building things with your good friends. It makes things easier. -- Paul: What sticks out to me from this conversation is how important building trust with local communities is. And how much that seems lacking right now, which leads to how important Capital B is in this moment.
To repeat what Akoto said (as this is important, not just for news companies but for all companies): “Trust starts with listening, and then sticking around, and then finally having a consistent approach to what you do.”
Listening is the openness to hear what you maybe weren’t expecting, and then change or pivot if needed. Because that seems like the core of what business is, serving others - and to do that, you’ve got to hear what they need first. This is such a critical step that many small businesses often miss.
In this way, Lauren and Akoto are creating the type of newsroom they want to see exist in this world. One that’s not just paying lip service to the Black experience in America, but instead one that properly addresses it to a community that shares a common experience, but is definitely more than just monolithic-ly Black.
Capital B launches in the fall of 2021 with one national and one local newsroom. Shortly after, they’ll be phasing in another two local newsrooms. I can’t wait.
Paul: Next Friday I’ll be chatting with two founders who are growing their mental wellbeing company while mandating time off. I hope you’ll join us.
Ariela: In startup culture the concept of unlimited PTO is offered to individuals but never used. What I found is that to actually feel a sense of rest and break requires everyone feeling it. And what I've seen in practice is, it's not just that people feel more restful upon return, it's also they feel a greater sense of community with one another because we have this shared ritual of a quarterly week off.
Paul: In the mean time you can listen to the small business spotlight, sharing with you a behind the scenes peek at the day to day of running a company. These stories are from folks who are doing amazing things, I think you'll really enjoy them. They’re also in the Call Paul feed.
Call Paul is wonderfully produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast player, so you can check out all our other episodes and seasons. And if you want more awesome content, go to mailchimp dot com slash presents.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Austin, blogger, illustrator and author, shares his entrepreneurial philosophy.
Bunnie, bookstore owner, shares a behind the scenes peek of running a company.
Kolkata Chai Co.’s co-founder on the importance of your business's north star.
Joey, co-founder of Baronfig, shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Adena and Chad, owners of Another Lane, on understanding your customers.
Laura, owner of Adventure Cats, shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Benedicte, creator of POW!, discusses sustainability over scale.
Kelli of The Gathering Spot shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Akoto and Lauren, co-founders of Capital B, discuss building customer trust.
Kyle of Totally Good Time shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Listen to the leaders of Real talk about revolutionizing mental healthcare.
Latosha of Proper Gnar shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Jeff, owner of design studio Ugmonk, and a new way of doing business.
Tiffini of Latched and Hooked shares a peek of a business’s day-to-day.
Leah, the COO of Juniper Ridge, discusses sustainable business.
Brandi of Just Add Honey shares a behind the scenes peek of running a company.