The Founder Of America’s Black Millennial Newsroom Speaks Out About Media Diversity
Morgan DeBaun created Blavity in a moment of crisis. It was two months after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Frustrated by the ensuing media coverage, the 30-year-old left a comfortable job in business development at Intuit to start Blavity, America’s first news company for young black people. DeBaun’s goal was to create a platform for the voices and stories she saw were overlooked by traditional newsrooms.
Six years later, her team of 25 journalists — including freelancers — are on the front lines covering the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white cop. And her focus is more relevant than ever. As of 2018, 83% of all journalists were white, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Progressive media tends to pat themselves on the back quite a bit because they are comparing themselves to non-progressive media,” DeBaun says. “We could see in the last few weeks how we still have a lot of work to do as a media industry to ensure that stories are told accurately and with respect.”
The former Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree runs a company with 55 employees that hosts two conferences focused on people of color: Summit21, for women of color, and AfroTech, for black people in technology. The news site had a record 38 million page views in May, up 150% from the month prior, and it’s expecting to top that for June. Blavity, which declined to disclose revenue, is the largest media company aimed at black millennials. After raising a Series A of $6.5 million from the likes of Comcast Ventures, GV and Plexo Capital in 2018 for a total of $11 million raised, the company is valued at more than $30 million.
DeBaun is now considering raising a Series B round that would take advantage of the recent growth and political climate, which has sent shockwaves of change through the media industry. As the George Floyd uprising takes root in the U.S. and abroad, American newsrooms are also being restructured. In the past week, editors from the New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bon Appetit and Refinery29 have been fired after concerns about racist behavior or stories, while Harper’s Bazaar announced its first-ever black editor-in-chief on June 9.
Forbes spoke with DeBaun about leading a black newsroom and what other news organizations can do to create more representative organizations internally and to tell more diverse stories.
How is your newsroom handling this story?
This is a very full circle moment for myself and for the company at large because this is why we were created. Our news team—really the entire company—is feeling motivated and inspired because we have been writing about police brutality since we started, that was the impetus of our beginning. So in some ways it’s motivating that finally there is a sustained moment in which everyone is paying attention. It feels like we have been trained for this and we are ready for it.
What do you suggest mainstream news operations do to cover this story?
Newsrooms run via how their teams are allocated; they should have a beat reporter on police brutality and social justice. Newsrooms and media publications can use their money in a way that will make an impact. If there is somebody whose full time job in the newsroom is to cover social justice and police brutality, and track these cases through to the end, then more people will hear about it and more people will understand the long road that we have ahead of us.
What do you think of the leadership changes that have happened over the past week?
I think there’s a lot of industry changes happening in the media. Some of it seems awkward or opportunistic to some extent as if people needed an excuse to get some of these people out. So I’m still waiting to see what happens next, because to me it’s about who you replace them with. That’s going to be the key indicator of what was the original intent of this person not being here. A newsroom is all dependent on the editors and the leadership that sets the tone for what’s important and what’s not important. If the people at the top do not have a sense of their own limitations in terms of bias and don’t make it a priority to have a diverse set of stories and voices. Making that a leadership priority is critical.
What leadership changes do you think are most critical?
It depends on the publication. If it’s a national publication, such as the New York Times, the replacement should be somebody who is most likely a person of color or someone who has a vision for what, in 10 years, a majority-minority population needs from a news publication. News has never been more important than it is today because of social media; everybody gets all their information from Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s so critical that we all exist with honor and trust and continue to be change agents for truth. So my request to the larger media conglomerates is that they consider someone who has a vision for what new media should look like in the future.
What are some of the media’s institutional problems that need addressing?
How reporters source information and validate their point of view is something that I’ve seen as a huge opportunity for journalists to really take a look at because there’s bias within sourcing of information. Where are we getting these stories and who are we asking these questions? Where’s the root of information that we’re reporting on? And is that a diverse source or are there other places or other groups of people that we should be considering getting stories from or getting information from? It starts with that pipeline of information.
What about outside the newsroom?
The elephant in the room to me actually isn’t necessarily just about expectations from media publications. Part of it is tied to the business. Advertisers and marketers do not want to spend money next to black death and violence. Advertisers are not supportive of this type of journalism and news, which means it is going to be difficult for the media industry to justify it at a global scale, because it’s an expensive business to run. They have paused their campaigns, so I’m essentially running a deficit for covering what’s going on, and I’d imagine that many news organizations are doing the same. People don’t talk about it unless you’re on the business side. I try not to tell our news team too often, because I don’t want them to feel that because a huge auto company doesn’t want to run ads against their work, that their work is not valuable. We have to challenge the corporations and the media agencies that are creating these rules.
What is your advice for companies asking how they can better support their black staff?
My biggest advice to media companies who are doing a bit of soul searching right now is to listen more and to stop making excuses. A lot of times I’ve heard the narrative of people saying, well, you know, five years ago, or 10 years ago, we had a program with an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) or we donated. But what matters is, what are you doing today? If I walked up to a black employee in your company today, would they give you a thumbs up or thumbs down? And if it’s a thumbs down, then there’s no excuse. Let’s create some actions towards making sure that it’s a positive experience for them on a day to day basis. And it’s not easy. It’s not going to be; it’s not something that can just be solved by money.
What is it like for you to cover these killings?
I think over time I’ve become a bit numb, because it does happen so often. I’m a bit ashamed to say it because it is heartbreaking when you really think about it. I remember with Ahmaud (Arbery), my dad FaceTimed me at around seven o’clock at night, which was nine o’clock his time, which is pretty late for my dad. I picked up and said, “Hey, are you all right? What’s up?” He was so sad, and it’s hard to see your dad sad. It was hard for me to feel my father’s pain. … When I saw him so upset, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is horrific.” This man was just going for a run. My dad walks every day, four or five miles a day, and he lives in Nashville where there’s plenty of racist people. He’s a doctor at Vanderbilt, but it doesn’t matter to them what he is. This might sound bad, but we get videos like this every other week, so the surprise was that people cared. I could give you five other stories right now in my inbox that are families advocating for their loved one’s story to make it to the mainstream.
How are you supporting your journalists right now?
First COVID and then this happening, I think has made it certainly exhausting for many. We have a lot of resources for our team; we are intensive, and we have to be because covering stories on violence every day is exhausting, and it’s very damaging to your mental health. We are doing daily meditations in the morning. We did a company town hall that was just about self care. We had different employees read poems, lead prayers, share music. Then we did a second town hall a week later, where we talked about actions that we were going to take as well as celebrating successes. We’ve certainly been a little bit more intentional about making sure that our team knows that they can take days off or half days.
Is there a sense that this could actually be a real moment of change?
I would say our black reporters and editors are cautiously hopeful. We will not feel relieved or a sense of accomplishment until justice is served, which means a conviction, which we have not seen. That is for all three of them: for Breonna, for Ahmaud, for George.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Caption: Blavity CEO Morgan DeBaun has built a company worth over $30 million and raised over $11 million. GETTY IMAGES FOR AFROTECH