How Jiquanda Johnson is building Flint Beat from the ground up

October 1, 2020

As part of our continuing conversations with journalism leaders centering communities of color, I recently chatted with Jiquanda Johnson, the founder, publisher, and executive editor of Flint Beat, a digital news site serving the Flint, MI, community. Johnson, a veteran journalist from the Flint area, launched Flint Beat in 2017 to fill news and information gaps in the community, after community members expressed the many ways in which existing news coverage was not meeting their needs. Democracy Fund proudly supports Flint Beat through the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund.

Below is a lightly edited recap of our conversation.

LT: Tell me about the very beginning of Flint Beat for you.

JJ: I launched the site in 2017, but I owned the domain name for a minute. I didn’t know what I would do with it, but I liked the sound of it and so I saved it for a couple of years. I grew up in Flint, and at the time of launching the site, we were knee deep in the water crisis, and news seemed to be filled strictly with crime and sports. I thought that we needed more, and I understood it as someone from there. We had a meeting at the newsroom I was working for at the time, and they’d made some decisions I just didn’t like. I didn’t like the direction things were going in. So I decided I would start my own newsroom. My last day was a Friday, and the following Monday, I kicked things off.

LT: What were some of the initial stories you saw were missing that you wanted to cover?

JJ: I had a list of maybe 40 ideas that I wrote down when I first started. For example, I remember wanting to do a story on gun violence. In the first year of launching Flint Beat, I brought that idea to Solutions [Journalism Network] and the following year, they gave me money to chase that story. We’re still extending our work there, and we’re probably the only newsroom in the state of Michigan that’s even looking at gun violence as a public health issue and also from a solutions journalism standpoint.

For me, I knew about all the cool stories and cool people, but I also knew about a lot of the issues that were plaguing the city. And when you come from a community that invested in you and made you who you are, you want to do better by them through your work. You want to take deeper dives, do investigative journalism, focus not only on problems but how to fix them too.

When you come from a community that invested in you and made you who you are, you want to do better by them through your work.

Being a Black person in journalism, you know stories that are told are not necessarily the whole story. There are so many stereotypes you deal with in a newsroom. So I want to see more people like me with our own platforms that tell the different parts and perspectives of a story.

LT: What are some ways you’ve brought the community into the work of Flint Beat?

JJ: I launched a youth journalism program that worked with Flint youth, and we had some great partnerships that are on pause now with COVID. When I got ready to look for people who could potentially work for Flint Beat or contribute, I learned that there’s no journalism program here. So how do you create this diverse newsroom that reflects the community that you cover if the talent isn’t there? I started to work with young people, trying to bring more diversity in newsrooms here in Flint and hoping that would spread to other newsrooms in the state.

LT: What were some of the challenges you encountered when you first struck out on your own?

JJ: I’m a Flint girl, so covering the city was nothing. People already knew who I was — I was already covering City Hall, living in Flint with my kids. So that was the easy part. But I didn’t think about the business itself. I started it as a journalist, not a publisher, and I didn’t even quite know what that meant. I invested in a $40 WordPress template that I’d pulled apart and recreated with my vision for the site. But I still covered stories as if I were working for any other newsroom.

I started it as a journalist, not a publisher, and I didn’t even quite know what that meant.

Six months in, my savings were depleted. I realized I needed money to make this thing work, and people were not just going to say, “Oh my gosh, you all are doing great work. Let’s invest in you.” I ended up having to work a full-time job and manage Flint Beat, all while caring for my two kids as a single mom.

It wasn’t until last year that I began identifying roles that weren’t editorial — fundraising, social media, etc. They’re not necessarily reporting, but they are still essential for building sustainability, engaging the community, and making a mission successful. But initially, I was everything to the best that I could be, not knowing much of anything at the time.

LT: That seems like a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to have as much knowledge and resources as possible for a venture like this. But if you take so much of that into account, it might stop you from doing the work in the first place and maybe learning as you go.

JJ: I’m not sure how much a person should have to learn as they go. I know we haven’t figured it all out. But I wish I didn’t have to later learn about the newsroom budget and how it can tell a story so that people might be more willing to invest in you. I wish I knew I could engage people with my brand through something like a newsletter before launching an entire website first. I was putting out so much content that I burned myself out.I wish I’d known the value of my work. I undervalue myself. I still do it. I’ll ask for less than I need in a grant proposal hoping funders will be more likely to invest in us. This is the first year I’ve gotten a salary, and it’s a very modest one.

I wish I’d known the value of my work.

It’s those things I wish I would’ve known beforehand. I didn’t mind learning that my audience prefers us covering City Hall instead of the school board. But I wish I had a publishing angel on my shoulder saying, “No, ask for $250,000 because that’s what you actually need for the next two years.”

LT: How are you thinking about sustainability now?

JJ: With the funding from Borealis, I’ve started to fill key roles within the newsroom to help make things more sustainable. There’s our newsletter. I kept trying to do it myself, and one day I thought, “I’m not good at this.” We hired Detour Detroit to handle it, and now our newsletter is generating donations and responses from readers saying how much they love it.We hired a community and business liaison. We hired a managing editor so I can focus on growing our brand and generating revenue. I am still part of the news conversation.And if there’s something that really interests me, I’ll cover it as long as I’m not stepping on my team’s toes. But my managing editor acts as my supervisor whenever I write, so I can be fully in the role of journalist for those times.Identifying these other roles has been so important. Now that that’s squared away, we’re asking questions like, “What are our major goals? How are we bringing in revenue?” We’ve been working with News Revenue Hub to figure out a membership model that works for us. And we’re also focusing on a combination of advertising, sponsorships, and grants.

LT: How has having these positions in place been useful, especially during COVID?

JJ: It’s been a blessing and a curse. COVID has positioned us for funding that probably wouldn’t have been there to cover communities like Flint, and it’s also opened the door for new partnerships. We’re partnering with the Center for Public Integrity doing data journalism and FOIA work through the Facebook Journalism Project. We’re able to take that funding and take a deeper dive into COVID, which is something my newsroom wanted to do anyway. We just didn’t have the capacity.

COVID has positioned us for funding that probably wouldn’t have been there to cover communities like Flint.

Then there’s our ad pricing. We have low overhead, low prices, and thousands of people coming to our website that are right in local businesses’ backyard. So if a business is trying to let people know what’s happening as they reopen their doors during COVID, we’re a more affordable option for advertising compared to other local outlets.COVID has been horrible. People have died, businesses have closed, communities are shut down, and we’re not living our normal lives. But I’ve gone from a team of one to six, not including our freelancers. I can pay myself. And we have more people solely focused on Flint than probably any other newsroom.

LT: That’s really inspiring to hear, because we know so many Black-owned businesses have been hit hard economically by COVID. What sort of support do you think Black-owned media needs right now — not just to weather the storm, but actually thrive?

JJ: When I launched Flint Beat, I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the capital, nor was anybody willing to give it to me. I had to show the work first. I had to struggle through it. I found myself at the welfare office doing this just to feed my children. Another publication, run by a white man, started the same day that I did, and the local foundation gave them six figures without a thought. I can’t even get them to give me $50,000.So, one thing we do need is for people to respect that we know what we’re doing. I know news. I know Flint. I know I can make an impact. My goal was to be the number one news site in the city of Flint, and that’s where I’m heading — faster than anyone thought we would. I deserve to be respected, invested in, like anyone else in this industry. They’re willing to take risks on people that look like them doing half of the work. What’s the difference, other than me being a Black woman?

They’re willing to take risks on people that look like them doing half of the work. What’s the difference, other than me being a Black woman?

I want to see more foundations support us, without having to go through a third party to tell us what we need. Why does money have to stop somewhere else first before it gets to us? With Borealis and Facebook, I didn’t have to deal with any extra barriers. They knew I could do the work, and they trusted me to do it.When you look at how many Black and brown people are launching news agencies, so many are women. We’re out here trying to save local news. They say they support this…come on, support us.