“Excuse me, can I bother you for a second?”
Onscreen is Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Washington Post political reporter turned filmmaker and entrepreneur. He’s holding a poster-sized section from the 2010 census, the page that asks readers to describe their race.
In front of him are White people, pulled aside for interviews on a street in Iowa. Vargas asks: When the census asks you to tick a box, which option do you choose?
“The people who are Hispanic, they have options,” Vargas said. “White people have one box.”
It’s a tricky subject to navigate, and the exchange could easily go sideways. But Vargas steers the interview to productive waters with a laugh, a persistent smile and deftly placed questions.
The result is “What is ‘White’,” a three-minute video on the perks and problems of White racial identity in America. Yes, being White comes with its privileges. But what does it really mean?
That’s one of several questions being raised by Vargas and his just-launched company, #EmergingUS. The media startup, which includes a website hosted on Medium, will tell stories about America’s shifting demographics through a series of short, documentary-style videos, complemented by essays, graphics and other original content.
The idea, Vargas told Poynter, is to examine a big story — the diversification of America and the emergence of White people as a racial minority — from a perspective not often seen in U.S. media.
“The prism by which people of color in this country are seen journalistically has always been the other,” Vargas told Poynter. “We’re the ones that have to be explained — and usually explained to White people. So much of journalism as it relates to people of color is things like, ‘Oh, look at who these other people are.’ That’s not how we’re going to do it at EmergingUS.”
If Vargas sounds familiar, that might be because his name has surfaced in media news many times before. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist made waves five years ago when he disclosed, in a confessional story for The New York Times Magazine, that he’s lived in America since childhood as an undocumented immigrant. Since then, he’s focused extensively on issues of race and immigration in America, launching the nonprofit Define American, and directing films about those issues: “Documented,” a story about his own status in America, and “White People” a movie about Whiteness in the United States.
#EmergingUS has also made headlines in recent years. In February 2015, the Los Angeles Times announced a partnership with Vargas to launch his startup from within the newspaper. That deal ultimately fell through after publisher Austin Beutner was ousted from the Los Angeles Times in a shakeup at Tronc, then known as Tribune Publishing. Later, Vargas tried to raise money for the project on the crowdfunding site Beacon, but ultimately fell well short of the $1 million goal.
This time, Vargas is taking a different tack. The Filipino-American entrepreneur, now 35, is funding the project himself and betting it will become profitable without outside investment. This is partially owing to what he sees as a unique market fit. Unlike other projects examining demographic shifts in America, Vargas said, #EmergingUS won’t focus narrowly on one racial group. It will also feature stories on other minority groups, including LGBTQ Americans.
“I do believe there’s a market where someone wants to see the women of Black Lives Matter next to The Bamboo Ceiling next to White people talking about diversity and inclusivity next to mixed-race people,” Vargas said. “And I’m putting everything on the line to make sure we figure out what that market looks like.”
At launch, Vargas has several money-making strategies in place. Like several other publishers on Medium, #EmergingUS will be part of the platform’s revenue beta, which means the site will benefit from Medium’s native advertising network. #EmergingUS is also soliciting donations, offering fans who donate before Election Day the opportunity to be recognized as “founding supporters.”
Vargas is also counting on another source of funding in the form of partnerships. By working with other news organizations to tell stories about America’s shifting identity, #EmergingUS is hoping to both support itself and amplify its impact. An early example of this model manifested this month when Vargas produced a six-page spread for Los Angeles Magazine.
“This, to me, is an interesting business model,” Vargas said. “We’re actually willing to go to other newsrooms and say, look: You should care about this emerging America, whether you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Lubbock, Texas, or Chicago. Let us help you do this.”
The quality of discourse on Medium was one of the primary factors that drove Vargas to launch #EmergingUS on the platform, Vargas said. Its free technical support, hosting and troubleshooting was another upside — especially because Vargas is operating lean to start, with an initial staff of six.
Today’s launch is also notable because it’s in the vanguard of video-centric publications to launch on Medium. The site will embed an external video player using a tool called Embedly, which Medium purchased in August.
Vargas is aware of the trend toward video journalism pioneered by companies like BuzzFeed and Vice and accelerated by social networks like Facebook. But he thinks there’s a gap in online video where issues of race are concerned.
“Video is the chief currency of the digital world, especially journalism,” Vargas said. “But I think video is lacking when it comes to how journalism tackles issues of identity, race and immigration.”
Even with a small staff and free technical support, Vargas is acutely aware that he’s taking a big risk by going into business for himself. But that’s a worthwhile gamble, he says, because he believes in the subject matter.
“The past six years, for me, has been defined by risk-taking,” Vargas said. “My lawyers were telling me — don’t do this, don’t come out as undocumented in The New York Times. Your career will be over. This is a risk that I’m willing to take.”
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the former Tribune Publishing as “Tribune Company.” A previous version of this story also misquoted Vargas. He said “issues of identity, race and immigration,” not “identity about race and immigration.”