S. Mitra Kalita and Sara Lomax-Reese found themselves in the right place at the right time. One was all business. The other was at an emotional fork in the road. Something — perhaps the presence of other people of color in a largely white space, perhaps the shared passion for disruption — drew them together.
Today, Kalita and Lomax-Reese are business partners, an intense relationship they compare to marriage and an experience that they both describe as transformative.
The two women connected during the yearlong Media Transformation Challenge Program, which moved to Poynter in early 2020 (it was formerly operated as the Punch Sulzberger Program at Columbia). At the time, Kalita was senior vice president of CNN Digital. Lomax-Reese was the president and CEO of WURD Radio, a Black talk radio station in Philadelphia.
By the end of 2020, Kalita announced she was changing her career path to focus on community media ventures, starting with her newsletter Epicenter-NYC. Shortly afterward, Kalita and Lomax-Reese launched URL Media, a network to share money, resources and power with Black and Brown-owned media outlets. WURD and Epicenter-NYC are network members, along with Documented, Scalawag, the Haitian Times, TBN24, ScrollStack, palabra and Sahan Journal. Initial funding for URL Media comes from sponsorships, ads, paid partnerships and grants, with some big name supporters like Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry’s Archewell Foundation.
In this conversation, edited for length and clarity, we talk about the value of connecting at MTC, why they chose a for-profit business model for a mission-driven company and how all news organizations must redefine their value to the audience.
Mel: You two first met during MTC, correct?
Mitra: We actually met in Phoenix at Google Newsgeist. But it feels like that’s overstating “meeting” because we got close at MTC. The thing about MTC is that you don’t meet people like, “Do you have siblings? Are you married? Do you have a dog?” You meet them like, “What are you all about? What are you trying to do?” That’s where Sara impressed me. In that first breakout session, I remember vividly being like, “Oh, wow, this woman.”
Sara: I don’t remember that breakout, but I do remember that first week. It was special.
For me personally, I was going through a lot that year. And to be frank, right before MTC, I was on the precipice. I couldn’t see doing the hard work at WURD for much longer because I was so burnt out. Out of the blue I received an email from LaSharah Bunting, who was at Knight at the time, inviting me to apply to MTC. And then (executive director) Charlie (Baum) or (founder) Doug (Smith) calls me and says, “Hey, do you want to be in this program?” And I was like, “What? And Knight’s going to pay for it?” I talked to Charlie, and we bonded.
Talk about an energetic shift. Not to be dramatic, but what MTC did for me at that moment was that it put me in an environment of high-achieving, amazing people in the media world who looked at what WURD was doing — what I was doing — and were excited and almost reverent.
I had no context for that prior to MTC. I was just grinding it out, head down, trying to survive. I emerged out of that first week three feet taller.
Mel: So what about you and Mitra?
Sara: We knew each other at MTC. We connected at MTC. But when you go into business with someone, it’s like getting married. I remember one of our meetings with Doug and I was like, “I don’t know her! And I’m a little nervous about going into business together.” But I’ll tell you, we started this business in January of 2021, still in the depths of COVID. And our business partnership was one of the most affirming, life-sustaining aspects of COVID.
Mel: Mitra, you were at CNN during your time in MTC. Sara, you were focused on WURD. This was back in 2019. What were you hoping to accomplish through MTC at the time?
Mitra: I will confess, I didn’t think I would get a lot out of MTC as a program. It was yet another training that I had to go through. And I’ve been through a lot of training!
One piece that was important was the fusion of vision and execution, and then measuring your results constantly. I think effective leaders know that this is the right way to work. But having not just the vocabulary and the lessons, but something that forces discipline — it starts to make you believe that even at this later stage in life, you can develop new habits and ways of working.
I also think relationships formed out of MTC are invaluable. My other person is Lee Hill, who recently got a big job as executive editor at GBH in Boston.
Mel: How did these relationships evolve after the program? The pandemic happened right after you graduated.
Mitra: There was Sara, who was my professional rock, and then Lee. He and I would alternate between Harlem and Jackson Heights. And before vaccines, we would wear masks and walk around each of our respective neighborhoods together. There were very few people during COVID that I did that with because I was so careful.
Those two relationships proved to be — I think Sara used the phrase “lifeline.” It’s kind of existential: When we’re dealing with a moment of life or death, who do we walk around with? And then in Sara’s case, it’s like, who do we walk forward with?
Mel: When did you realize where you were going with Sara?
Mitra: It was July. There was yet another piece about a mainstream news outlet and racism it was contending with in its top ranks. I called Sara. We had seen enough of that at that point. I remember one of us said, “We have to do something. And the moment is now.”
Between January and June, I actually had been trying to buy a legacy media outlet. And in that phone call with Sara, in a matter of seconds, it became clear to me that to move forward, the answer for both of us was not to buy an old outlet and feed into any sense of nostalgia at this moment in the country. Yet the answer was also not to create something brand new, and engage in a form of erasure of the vital work that outlets like WURD had been doing for decades.
You don’t usually get a business model in a few minutes. Of course, we spent weeks, months, and more than a year later, we’re still working on it. But there was something that crystallized in that conversation: The idea of banding together to achieve scale and power. It almost wasn’t even a choice to do something. I think we felt propelled. And we felt propelled to work together.
Mel: Sara, you said you were a little worried in the beginning. What made you realize that this could be a powerful union?
Sara: We’re aligned around fundamental things: community media, serving Black and Brown people, disrupting power structures. But we’re also aligned around making money! We both knew this was going to be for profit. This was going to be about wealth creation. We’re not greedy. We want to make a lot of money so that we can make a lot of difference. So that we can be impactful in a capitalistic world.
A lot of times if you’re a do-gooder, you think making money is a sellout. We’re both do-gooders who believe in making money.
Mitra: It’s allowed us both from a sales and revenue perspective to hustle, but also to pivot as we listen to the market. The combination of idealism with practicality has served both of us, in under a year, pretty well.
Mel: How do you feel your experience founding a company would have been different had your business partner not gone through MTC?
Mitra: The common approach and vocabulary is important.
Sara: The most powerful thing is that we would not have gotten to know each other and had an opportunity to see each other in action. That formed the basis for this business partnership.
Mitra: Sara’s challenge at MTC was actually disruptive to the journalistic model in a way that everybody is doing now, including Epicenter. She was trying to get people jobs. It was not, “We’re going to cover jobs or we’re going to do a job fair.” It was, “We are going to get people jobs,” which was not natural for a journalism outlet in 2019.
Fast forward two years. The question right now for so many outlets is, are you in service to your communities? What is the thing of value you’re creating for them? It’s certainly a question we think about all the time at URL with our partners. That’s also the question that even the CNNs and New York Timeses of the world are asking now.
MTC also taught us you can be disruptive but you have to quantify it. I remember Sara’s first report was eight jobs, and in Epicenter’s case, the first food bank that we mentioned in our newsletter got six donations of large diapers. When you come from a large organization like CNN, you might not celebrate in the single digits. But at MTC, you’re taught that those numbers are actually a revolution.
Related training: Apply for the 2022 Media Transformation Challenge (MTC) Program