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Remix Spaces: Invest in Reimagined Newsroom Spaces and Ecosystems in Transition

Sabrina Hersi Issa
/
September 11, 2019

Q: “What is media?

A: “It is the movement of thoughts and ideas through time and space”

– Matt Locke, Director of Storythings to Tony Ageh, New York Public Library, Chief Digital Officer

As part of research conducted for the Engaged Journalism Lab exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts, technical practitioners and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.

A substantial part of this work has involved scanning similar fields and communities also undergoing deep transitions and shifts to surface what lessons, patterns and practices in those spaces can be applied in the newsroom context.

They share similar struggles and are asking themselves a similar set of questions media and journalism funders are grappling with: What comes next? How can we have the most impact? How can we support leaders in this space? What does growth look like in this new world? Where do we go from here?

The challenges are shared and I observed more leaders from overlapping fields asking these set of questions in common physical space with community journalists.

That is because for many communities, physical newsrooms and newspaper buildings are relics of the past.

The physical headquarters of newspaper buildings and local broadcast stations once represented prestige and as sources of pride for its owners. The buildings were often grandiose, ornate, symbolic to news organizations stature in civic life. The structures reflected, both visually and physically, lop-sided power dynamics between newsrooms and the communities they covered. As David Uberti wrote in Columbia Journalism Review,

“The buildings often had on-site printing presses, adding the machinery’s low hum to already buzzing newsrooms, and affording residents the opportunity to see a newspaper being made. The properties were a physical link between journalists and the communities they covered, the ultimate branding tool. Their dazzling architecture and mammoth scale sometimes rivaled those of government buildings or other institutions, showcasing newspapers’ prominent place in the community.”

Journalism is intended to serve the public. Yet for more than a generation it was considered standard practice for local news operations to be housed within ornate, sweeping physical structures creating a structural hierarchy and barrier separating journalists from the very same public they were intended to serve. On the surface there was a functional reason for this: printing press operations required substantial space and the technology to decouple printing press operations from newsroom operations did not become was not ubiquitous or affordable for local newsrooms. But there was also a more sentimental, emotional rationale for this practice: the buildings that hosted news headquarters were universally considered by owners, investors and powerful actors as highly prized possessions and regarded as crown jewels to local media empires.

Until the crown jewels became unprofitable.

As the news industry struggled to find ways to increase revenue, many buildings that served as local news headquarters in cities around the country were put on the market. The buildings the news operations occupied were more profitable than the businesses run inside it.

The Oakland Tribune permanently moved out of the historic Tribune Tower building in 2007, the building has turned over ownership several times since the sale. News operations for The Oakland Tribune relocated multiple times over the ensuing decade before the 150-year-old publication ultimately ceased publication in 2016. Around the country, amid rising real estate values and diminishing revenues, legacy local news operations faced similar fates: in 2011, the Inquirer Building which over the years housed both the The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News sold to developers for an estimated $20 million dollars. In 2014, the building that once housed the Detroit Free Press sold to developers for more than $8 million dollars. Claiming losses of around $11 million dollars, Publisher E.W. Scripps Co. placed The Rocky Mountain News up for sale. The paper’s final issue was published in 2009, it’s former headquarters sold and later demolished in 2007. The Des Moines Register left the space the newspaper occupied for more than 95 years, the building was later sold and is now luxury lofts.

Market dynamics led local news outlets to shift from real estate owners to tenants or in less fortunate outcomes, to shift from real estate owners to fading memories. While the digital disruption led the remaining outlets left standing to reckon with a laundry list of constraints; smaller staffs, shrinking budgets and ever-shrinking audiences, just to name a few. For others, this flux presented an opportunity to redefine and renew: the fundamentals of the journalism business have altered, the nature of distribution and news consumption has changed, how newsrooms connect with audiences must be reimagined. This all presents an opportunity for reinvention, as former Detroit Free Press editor Paul Anger describes:

“It’s the publishing industry. And when you’re in a building that really doesn’t serve your needs anymore — there could be open space, configurations that don’t work for you, equipment or costs that don’t make sense — moving somewhere new is starting fresh.”

An opportunity also exists here for media funders as well: how can diversity, inclusion and connection to communities be baked into this stage of reinvention?

While the business of media has altered, the fundamentals of journalism has not: journalism exists to serve the public. As these grandiose buildings were sold off over the aughts, strong journalism was still produced as technology transformed the spacial needs required to do run a newsroom and cover communities. Media funders can support newsrooms continued retreat from structural barriers between journalists and communities by remixing how philanthropy invests in communities that bridge overlapping ecosystems also in deep transitions.

Philanthropy has long served as a catalyst for community and industry revitalization efforts. This hybrid role as convener, organizer and catalyst is one that is not unfamiliar to many funders. As James M. Ferris writes in Stanford Social Innovation navigating complexity is, in fact, an inherent strength for many community funders:

“… philanthropy is able to lead, not by dollars alone, but by leveraging all of its assets — expertise, reputation, and networks — to address public problems. These foundations purposefully forged relationships and networks with stakeholders in the community. They also consciously developed intellectual capital about programs and places. That latter behavior brings to light another important reason why they have proven effective leaders. In addition to embracing adaptive and distributed leadership, these philanthropies have risked developing and advancing a point of view. Foundations that aspire to be changemakers must be much more than grantmakers. The conventional view that “it is not about us” must give way to the willingness to set a course and stand by it. Foundations can create and maintain a point of view to great effect, as long as they are credible and transparent.”

The key here is for media funders to see themselves as active participants in community ecosystems rather than passive grantmakers. It requires a conscious and continual shift of power dynamics that allows the imposing, structurally cold and physically removed newspaper labyrinths of the past to continue to dispose. In it’s place, media donors can catalyze and pilot fresh systems, practices and mechanisms that allow for deeper integration into communities journalists serve and for closer listening to audiences local media seeks to reach. Through accepting change as a constant, media funders can proactively lead deliberate, continual investments into more resilient newsrooms through funding models for local news to build capacity to adapt to continuously change and newsroom reinvention.

Ariell Johnson owns Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia, the first comic bookstore on the east coast owned by a black woman. Johnson got the idea to create a hybrid community hub when a beloved coffeeshop across the street from a local comic book shop she frequented closed down — she wanted Amalgam to bridge both functional spaces, recreate the inclusive, warm environment she experienced and serve as a gathering space she knew the community needed.

Today, Amalgam describes itself as a “… celebration of geek culture. A place for comic book fans, hardcore gamers, movie addicts, television connoisseurs, and zombie apocalypse survivalists to meet, and with their powers combined, change the world a little bit.”

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. Photo by Sabrina Hersi Issa

In my opinion, Johnson succeeded in her intention to create a warm, inclusive environment. On my visit to Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse for this research, it struck me as an ideal community hub: curious, friendly strangers, plenty of nooks to get lost in conversation or explore new worlds, ample convening and learning space and yes, comic books and coffee. For journalists invested in understanding the pulse of a neighborhood and it’s many varied voices, Amalgam stands out.

In an interview with me, Johnson describes the space as something built with flexibility and change in it’s DNA because community was centered in the intentionality behind Amalgam’s design:

“Community has been the center of this, while designing the shop and everything, it was always the goal to make it be conducive to be a community space. Just from how everything was designed and setup, even how the retail shelves in the back of the store are arranged, it was all done with the understanding that we’d like to be able to build community back here. Things need to be able to be moved, rearranged, to push things out of the way so that we can arrange the floor as we need.”

For media funders invested in reimagining newsgathering truly rooted within local communities, it is worth exploring how donors can create opportunities to support local, diverse entrepreneurs also embarking reimagining possibilities in their communities. In an interview with me, Johnson explains the most straightforward way for funders to accomplish this is to support diverse entrepreneurs in local communities:

Make it a point to try to fund diverse entrepreneurs. I’ve gone into loan meetings when I was applying for loans and I have to meet with the loan committee and I am the only person in that room that looks like me. Not that I didn’t know that that was the case before, but it’s one thing to know it and it’s a very different thing to experience. It is very easy for me to understand why white boys get funded and other people don’t. Because if you walk into a room and you look like everyone in the room then I think there is this kinship that people can feel with you like, ‘I don’t know about what it is about this boy. He just reminds of myself.’ When I’m walking into a meeting I’m not reminding anybody of anybody. All of that works against people who do not fit a mold. So look for diverse products and make sure your decision-maker team is diverse. So you’re not just in a room full of white people when you’re trying to make those financial decisions.

Amalgam owner Ariell Johnson depicted on Marvel cover. Image from Marvel.

In June, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to expand the shop’s community space and programming.

For other media funders seeking to follow suit, Johnson advises: “I think it is not considered sexy to provide support for operations to help businesses stay open but I believe it’s more impactful to support organizations that are already doing the work and just need help to continue doing it.”

Pipeline Philadelphia: Photo by Sabrina Hersi Issa

Tayyib Smith is a Philadelphia based entrepreneur behind several ventures including Little Giant Creative, 215 Magazine and the Institute for Hip Hop Entrepreneurship. He is one of the partners of Pipeline Philly, a collaborative co-working space that overlooks Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Pipeline Philadelphia: Photo by Sabrina Hersi Issa

The space is home to companies and organizations of a range of missions and sizes, including civic organizations and hyperlocal news startups. In an interview with me for this research, Smith observed that Pipeline’s success in supporting diverse and growing organizations is due, in part, because the team of people stewarding the space were made up of individuals who have built diverse businesses and companies. “The thing that separates Pipeline probably from most co-working spaces not just in Philly, but nationally, is that we have a really keen eye for aesthetics and for a concierge level of service. I think being an entrepreneur, you know what other small businesses and moderate sized businesses may want. It probably gave us a bit of an advantage in the marketplace.”

Pipeline Philadelphia: Photo by Sabrina Hersi Issa

The Knight Foundation became Pipeline Philadelphia’s first marquee tenant. On a tour of Pipeline for this research, I observed with Pipeline’s community manager Lindsay Tillery, how programming reinforces collaborative partnerships among companies and organizations hosted at the space. Proximity enriches context and in this context; journalists, makers, developers, strategists, marketers and educators all working in proximity to one another has added dimensions of depth and in most cases, high-levels of growth to their work. For many, the space is not intended as a fixed solution. In our tour Tillery noted many civic media and local news startups seeded at Pipeline eventually grew out of the space as their teams expanded.

The technology sector is no stranger to disruption and flux. Amazon Web Services rendered racked server space unnecessary and distributed agile teams have slowly become more commonplace than fixed, co-located engineering bases. It is an evolution that is not dissimilar to how grandiose newspaper buildings slowly hollowed out as printing presses gave away to digital distribution.

Like the media industry, the cost and infrastructure necessary to build and scale a modern technology company has changed the landscape of possibility and the profile of who can afford to become technology entrepreneurs. Like the media industry, the technology sector is at odds with it’s role and responsibility to confront the structural and systemic conditions that have fueled the industry’s homogeneity; specifically a severe lack of racialethnicgender diversity.

Startups can launch from anywhere and a few Silicon Valley leaders have seized this opportunity to steer the tech sector toward reimagining itself, specifically in regards to improving diversity among its very homogenous talent pools and positioning emerging companies to thrive beyond Silicon Valley.

Leslie Miley is a veteran Silicon Valley engineer, an alum of the engineering teams at Twitter, Apple, Google and most recently, Director of Engineering at Slack. In addition to his roles in engineering leadership, Miley is a longtime outspoken champion for improving diversity and inclusion in the technology sector and has regularly challenged Silicon Valley companies to build products and company culture in accordance with integrity, principles and values.

At the beginning of the 2017, Miley announced he was taking a leave from his role at Slack to join Venture for America (VFA), a nonprofit that works with recent grads who want to work in startups and create jobs in American cities. Miley will be working to launch VFA’s Executive-in-Residence (EIR) program that will embed senior-level Silicon Valley talent with VFA companies in cities around the country with emerging, diverse startup ecosystems.

Image from Venture for America

The technology industry shares the media industry’s well-documented challenges with diversity, inclusion, fostering leadership opportunities for leaders from underrepresented and nontraditional backgrounds against ever-changing business constraints. The tech sector also holds tremendous, outsized influence to shape of local economiesdominant culture and civic lifeFor philanthropy, it is worth observing how senior leaders within the technology sector are building solutions designed to integrate diversity and inclusion as an imperative and prerequisite for continued industry growth.

Miley wrote on Medium in a post announcing his role, “I listened to the frustrations of countless founders of all races and genders on how hard it is to raise funds, to find and retain good talent, and grow their companies in their communities due to the scarcity of what we take for granted in Silicon Valley. It is painfully obvious that this very talent is being systematically drained from most of America’s hardest hit cities. A large percentage of this entrepreneurial talent ends up in New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Denying these communities the talent and resources they need to create and grow their start-up communities. By encouraging and enabling a population of non-diverse entrepreneurs to relocate to Silicon Valley, and disrupt and innovate in the technology space with little thought to the scope or impact of their platforms, we have successfully created the means to disrupt not only industries but also communities, and countries. And we do this with little, if any, empathy when it comes to the impact on the well being of people, particularly women and people of color.”

In an interview with me for this research, Miley describes how community shifts the nature of the innovation VFA startups and other tech companies based beyond Silicon Valley drives, “The problems that are going to be solved in Cleveland, Philly, Detroit are going to be different than the problems that we will solve here [in Silicon Valley]. Where the pain point in the community is going to be different so the problem space is going to be different. Innovation isn’t about getting two guys together and giving them a bunch of money and hoping they change the world. It is sometimes just solving a problem that impacts a large group of people and that problem space is different from community to community. Community is based upon a lot of different things.”

The community dynamic Miley speaks to points to an opportunity for media funders seeking to support stronger local journalism.

Community drives context. It changes the nature of place and for journalists, the stories we tell about innovation.

The resilience and future relevance of the technology sector relies upon the industry growing, evolving and meaningfully supporting diversity and inclusion. What are the narratives media funders can support from local community industries actively attempting to revitalize itself?

Miley explains in an interview with me,
“I intimately understand, based on where my parents lived and where a lot of my friends lived in other parts of the United States, what happens when you don’t have economic opportunities. What happens to communities that don’t have economic opportunities? One of the things that happens to communities that don’t have economic opportunities for a prolong periods of time is that they become extremely desperate. They are desperate for jobs. They are desperate for anything that’s going to change the decline of their communities, of their friends of the family and their loved ones…We have such an amazing economic engine in Silicon Valley. How can we export that to parts of the United States that aren’t partaking in the economic resurgence that we are experiencing so vividly here.”

Accelerating the nature of this change through seeding experienced senior-level Silicon Valley talent in an EIR program will ramp up the speed and maturation of startup ecosystems around the country. It will present different and diverse innovation narratives and it will develop, as Miley explains, companies trying to solve different problems, serve diverse communities and surface more expansive stories.

“You are seeding an ecosystem to grow. The story I’d like to see is the ability to be a part of an ecosystem that is not just changing the economic activities in an area but is actually changing people’s lives,” Miley explains.

Change is constant and for media funders, so are the opportunities to invest new stories, storytellers and communities living through flux. In order to meet this moment, the stories we tell about change within our industry and communities we cover must also shift.

These shifts present opportunities to reimagine media within communities as vehicle for co-investment in community.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is an award-winning human rights technologist and leads global research and analysis for philanthropy. She organizes Rights x Tech, a gathering for technologists and activists and runs Survivor Fund, a political fund dedicated to championing the rights of survivors of sexual violence.