January 5, 2022

Conventional wisdom in the Western literary tradition holds that character determines plot. A protagonist possesses a fatal flaw that dashes his otherwise charming character and sets him on a path to slay the dragon, save the world, and get the girl — all while resolving the problem of this fatal flaw. Captain America saves the day.

But that definition of plot presumes the existence of a world of background characters whose entire lives are shaped by one hero’s fatal flaw.

“What about all these people who die in the background of these stories because of this guy’s fatal flaw?” Matthew Salesses, a novelist and author of “Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping,” asked in The Maris Review. “For them, it’s not their fatal flaw that’s causing all these problems, it’s just kind of living in a world where some people’s fatal flaws have vast and deep consequences and other people’s fatal flaws are that they live in the world.”

This is a question of focus, and who we writers and readers have decided are worthy subjects of our attention and money.

I thought about this question of who is considered worthy of our money and attention when news broke that New York Times media columnist Ben Smith and Bloomberg Media chief executive Justin Smith (no relation) are starting a new media organization aimed at serving the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience.”

Ben Smith was BuzzFeed News’s editor-in-chief when I was laid off in 2018, along with the rest of the company’s award-winning, in-house audio team. Which is to say that I have been indirectly managed by Smith and materially affected by his business decisions, as well as his opinions about which audiences are valuable (and which aren’t). It was a hero’s story, the reporter-turned-editor who built a small and mighty newsroom based on his obsession with scoops. I was part of that newsroom until it became clear my team’s work didn’t align with his vision. I — with dozens of other laid-off BuzzFeed News reporters — was rendered a bystander in this hero’s story.

This is not to cast too much judgment on my former boss’s new venture; in fact, he has a proven great eye for talent and I’m sure this new publication will be a perfectly fine, scoop-driven, personality-centered addition to the internet’s content miasma.

This is about the response I saw across the internet when the announcement was made — the eye-rolling and lack of surprise that two well-resourced journalists plan to start a media company, and specifically at the audience they’ve decided to serve.

It’s already been said: College-educated English readers are not a particularly underserved demographic. Unless the description is a euphemism for another type of audience, it’s a strange but illuminating detail to present in a first announcement.

Gabe Schneider, the editor and co-founder of The Objective, a nonprofit newsroom focused on media reporting and criticism that holds the industry accountable for systemic biases (Ben Smith is a founding supporter of The Objective), expressed similar frustration with the way the Smiths’ new enterprise was announced. He pointed to other new news organizations like Capital B and The Markup, which launched with clear value propositions and points of differentiation.

“In order to get something like that off the ground,” Schneider said, “you actually have to have that framework ready to go and then be able to hustle and be able to talk to potential donors and foundations. And it just doesn’t really feel like (the Smiths) needed that sort of framework or that they thought they needed that sort of framework to proceed.”

In 2021, just 2.2% of all venture funding went to companies with female founders and 1.2% went to Black founders, Crunchbase reports. In the first half of the year, just .34% of venture funding went to companies with Black female founders. It’s not because these founders are any less worth investing in.

“I wonder if (Ben Smith) thought about the power dynamics at play when he decided to announce it in this way, without a concept in mind,” Schneider said. “It’s not about them. It’s about the systemic barriers in place when you’re trying to build a news outlet, particularly when you’re from a background that you might not look like other news founders.”

Snigdha Sur is the founder and CEO of The Juggernaut, a publication creating “smart journalism for the South Asian diaspora.” Though the company is backed by Y Combinator and Precursor Ventures, Sur faced barriers in establishing The Juggernaut as a founder from a marginalized background. She referred to a 2017 study that found that potential investors asked women preventative questions like, “What are the risks?” and, “Why won’t this work?” while the questions asked of men tended to be more rooted in potential, like, “How big can this be?”

“They kind of already assume they’re going to succeed,” Sur said.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Mainstream media has always had a diversity problem. That’s why I run my own newsroom.

Smith and Smith have strong resumes, which make them an easy bet for investors. But, “on the flip side, I bet not many people are asking them questions about their business model or their target audience, or what makes this company different because they’re just betting on their potential,” Sur said.

We live in a world where Captain Americas exist. The chosen few, the square-jawed, those plucked from obscurity by a mix of talent and luck and the fact that those in power see something of themselves in them.

I identify more with the bystander whose car had been smashed by Captain America. Looking at the Smiths’ new media venture, I see the audiences not considered valuable enough to prioritize, the founders serving untapped, undervalued audiences who couldn’t convince investors to pay up. I see those media workers who were overextended, underpaid and eventually laid off from companies run by this industry’s so-called heroes.

I wonder what it would look like if they took a moment to look around at the people who’ve been left behind, and extended a hand.

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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