The Cohort: 'Pick the part of the media world you think most needs to exist and start making it'

Lessons from women who founded their own media organizations, publications and start-ups

The Cohort is a Poynter newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Before we dive in, we have very exciting news for our community. An overwhelming demand for leadership programs for women in media prompted Poynter to hold three academies this year instead of one. It’s such a thrill to include 52 more women, and we are so excited to have them. Read about the women included in the upcoming two academies here.

Now, onto our daydreams. Most people, sanely, dream of buying an island or a boat. I dream of buying a newspaper, which is why I am so inspired by women who found their own companies. This week we’re hearing from 11 female founders, via email interview, on the best and scariest parts of running an organization and what motivated them to take the risk to become a founder. 

What motivated you to found your own thing?

“I founded the Nzinga Effect because the coverage of African and Afro-descendent women in the international media is mostly negative, one-dimensional and not primarily commissioned or created by African women themselves. Having heard the story of [Queen Nzinga], I wondered, how would African women see themselves differently if they knew the varied stories of their experience — and how would the world see and engage with us differently? The other reason I founded Nzinga is because I think we need a new type of media organization. Could a media project not hooked to the news cycle, built on feminist values of collaboration over competition, and not motivated by profit but by social change, survive? Could we even possibly thrive? What would that model look like? Part of the reason we exist is to be that experiment.” — Eliza Anyangwe, founder of Nzinga Effect.

“Two major forces motivated me to start my own company. One was internal: I knew I'd regret not trying far more than I'd regret trying and failing. The other force was external: I knew no one within an existing organization was ever going to 'discover' me and offer me the same opportunities and freedom to do the work I was passionate about. So starting a business didn't happen because I necessarily wanted to, it was just the only way I could square those two forces. Three years in, I can say it's been by far the deepest period of learning and personal growth of my life. And I can't wait to see what more women learn and create when they make that choice for themselves, and for each other, too.” — Jennifer Brandel, founder of Hearken

“A few years ago, I was sitting at an investigative reporting conference talking with three other black investigative journalists, and we were remarking how it felt like the four of us were 99 percent of the black people in attendance. The more we talked, the more we realized that we'd all had similar experiences. Our newsrooms in the past had not seen us as investigative reporters and so did not invest in our training or support our efforts to do project work. We'd had few, if any, models of investigative reporters who looked like us. And we were all tired of waiting for other organizations to address the dearth of investigative reporters of color and the particular obstacles that we face. For decades, news organizations have decried their lack of diversity, but the needle never seemed to move. So, we decided to start our own organization to train reporters to become investigative reporters and we decided to name her after one of the most bad-ass investigative reporters in this nation's history: Ida B. Wells.” — Nikole Hannah-Jones, co-founder of The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting.

“I had always worked for a publishing company and never truly had editorial control. I didn't have a say in the direction and vision of the publications I had worked for, and I found that frustrating. When I would talk to friends and family back home, I would often say, ‘I wish West Virginia had a high caliber magazine that I could work at. I really want to come home.’ So, instead of waiting for the stars to align, I decided to found my own company. I wanted to create magazines that changed perceptions about West Virginia and Appalachia — not just for those who live outside the state, but also for those who live within. I wanted to harness our strong sense of place, of belonging, and of pride with publications that were community builders. And I wanted to create high caliber pieces that featured stunning photography and design.  My first magazine was WV Living, followed by WV Weddings and Morgantown Magazine. I then created a custom publishing side to the business and added several other titles — Explore, The Ultimate Sports and Travel Guide to the Big 12, Wonderful West Virginia, and ID Intel. In 2018, we also became the publisher of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Small Business Magazine.” — Nikki Bowman, founder of New South Media.

What was the scariest part of making something new?

“My own self-doubt. For me, creating a new venture is like trying to sail across the ocean navigating by the stars. Over time, I've learned to embrace my mistakes, the waves of uncertainty, and feel more confident in charting our company's path.” — Yvonne Leow, co-founder of By The Bay.

“The scariest part of all of this was that I met with experts, leaders in the field, and heard again and again that there was no audience for a regional Spanish language podcast like Radio Ambulante. I knew in our heart they were wrong, but each time I heard comments like these, I couldn’t help but doubt myself. Day by day, I had to ask myself — Is this smart? Am I making a mistake? My co-founder and I had taken significant emotional and financial risks to start this project, and it was very hard. The challenge was keeping focused, staying positive and believing in the vision we had for the project.” — Carolina Guerrero, founder of Radio Ambulante.

What do you enjoy most about running an organization?

“I worked in microfinance a decade ago, where I ran the financial model for our business. I learned quickly that our company's social values were immediately evident in how we spent our money. The fuel budget directly determined how far outside town we were willing to go to find customers. The number of chairs determined whether women who would come to repay their loans would sit on the floor or not. And so on. My organization Honeyguide Media produces BRIGHT Magazine, which is reinventing "social issues" journalism — specifically, making it fresher, more vibrant, and more solutions-oriented. I love creating ways for our strong social mission to bleed into the inner-workings of the organization. For example, I worked with a lawyer to make sure our contracts with writers and photographers are fair to all parties, and have worked with our accounting team to streamline our payments process. We routinely think about the demographics of the people we're publishing for, and in our Monday meetings introduce new topics and people we've discovered.” — Sarika Bansal, founder of Honeyguide Media.

“My favorite thing about running my own news organization is that I get to be the kind of editor I always wish I'd had. Most of the editors I worked with in newsrooms were much more focused on ‘the work’ — the stories and content we were producing — than on me as a person. Maybe that approach works for other reporters, but as one of the few black women and out LGBT folks, I often felt invisible, marginalized and flat-out disrespected. (A white male editor named my magazine, by the way, after he called me ‘Rebellious’ for asking for ‘too many’ weekends off in a row.) As a founder, I get to take the opposite approach. The stories, I know, will happen. I care much more about whether my writers feel heard and supported by me as an editor and that they consider Rebellious a safe space to tell their stories. My goal is for us to be a haven for Rebellious refugees fleeing toxic newsroom environments and editors.” — Karen Hawkins, founder of Rebellious Magazine for Women.

When did you know it was the right time to go for it?

“When it comes to launching startups, the stars and market can align and give you the optimum atmosphere to launch a product. However, it's all still a risk. Nine out of 10 startups fail and when it comes to it being the right time to take the leap from your day job to work for yourself, I'm not sure there's ever the right time. You just have to put yourself in the best position for success and leap with faith and a parachute. You can’t expect to take a leap and not hit a few rocks on the way down. Jumping with a parachute — which includes a team of supportive people and a go-to list of resources — allows you to pull the ripcord if a decision begins to turn into a free-fall of stupidity.” — Natasha Zena, co-founder of Lioness Magazine.

What advice do you have for future female founders? 

“Own the competitive advantage of being a female founder. At first, I spent way too much energy focused on how my gender was holding me back, from raising capital to building partnerships with male-led media outlets to recruiting top talent (a lot of men aren't comfortable working for strong female leaders). Things got a lot easier for me when I stopped focusing on the discrimination and started owning the competitive advantages that come with being a female founder. I now understand that one of the reasons that the journalism industry has struggled to innovate is a function of an unhealthy culture in many newsrooms: things like winner takes all, competition trumps collaboration, lack of safety to acknowledge what we don't know, failure is a sign of weakness. These cultural conditions are the product of male-led environments. At The Discourse, our female-dominated team has enabled us to create a unique culture that facilitates the innovation that is our competitive advantage. (And there's helpful funding opportunities too!)” — Erin Millar, founder and CEO of The Discourse.

“I only recently got comfortable thinking of myself as an entrepreneur. I still prefer to introduce myself as a reporter. And I founded the news organization I lead, Chalkbeat, which now has 40+ employees and a $5 million budget, almost five years ago. What I was comfortable with, from day one, was my mission. I knew the world needed a business model that better matched journalism’s mission, and I knew it needed more reporting boots on the ground covering as many of the country’s 13,000+ public school districts as possible. I didn’t see anyone else stepping up to create that business model and hire those reporters, so I figured I’d better do it myself. Founding Chalkbeat impressed upon me that every newsroom and media entity exists because someone stepped up and made it. Today, in 2018, media has just as many missing pieces as it did in 2013, when my friends and I started Chalkbeat. Really, it has many, many more. Journalist to journalist, woman to woman, my advice to you is: Pick the part of the media world you think most needs to exist and start making it. Don’t worry too much about predicting every single detail in advance; the only hope is to make a decent plan, knowing you'll definitely have to throw a lot of it away as you go. Don’t worry, either, about the forces no doubt stacked against you; think of them, instead, as forces that will one day have to reckon with you — as they should. Remember what I learned myself: Even one new organization can make a really big difference. So start soon, and please, call me if I can help!” —Elizabeth Green, founder of Chalkbeat.

For more amazing female founders, check out this thread


Things worth reading

Best practices for interviewing children. Rethinking work-life balance for women of color. Hearken’s guide to successfully transition projects. This is what an A+ LinkedIn summary looks like. Nikole Hannah-Jones on the importance of moving those in charge of hiring from talking about diversity to actually taking action. Vox’s survey shows that younger women and older women agree on more when it comes to #MeToo than media coverage would lead you to believe. There are a lot of women in COO positions, but is it becoming a glass ceiling? How to negotiate when they want to give you a promotion without a raise. Clue, a media site about periods, wants to be your “empathetic older sister who happens to be an OB-GYN.” WNYC’s Note to Self and the Cut are collaborating on a project to explore the question of what it means to be a woman online. Tips for beating the comparison game.

Do your homework

Do you have work-appropriate clothes hiding in the corners of your closet? I’ll be donating my slacks from two sizes ago to Dress For Success, a nonprofit empowering women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools. I feel so much more confident when I like what I’m wearing. Pass the good vibes on and donate your gently used clothes to local women who really need it.

Focus on the work

WAMU recently published a months-long reporting and photojournalism project exploring the river Washington forgot. Kelsey Proud, the managing editor of digital at WAMU, edited the digital piece and coordinated the digital efforts. WAMU’s digital staff is small, so they don’t often do one-off projects outside of the CMS, but they decided to go for it to showcase the effort and magnitude of the reporting. The result was a well-rounded experience for the user with lots of different multimedia entry points. 


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