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Using startups to improve media diversity
Aug 5, 2020

Using startups to improve media diversity

Google is hoping to train journalists from underrepresented groups to start and run their own digital media companies.

With popular attention focused, at least for now, on racial justice, a new initiative wants to put more people of color in newsroom leadership by helping them start their own media companies.

Erika Alexander is co-founder and chief creative officer of Color Farm Media. Many will know her as the character Maxine Shaw from the ’90s sitcom “Living Single.” Color Farm Media is partnering with Google to launch a boot camp for entrepreneurs who want to launch digital news startups. 

And this is at a time when many media companies are struggling or even shutting down. The boot camp is a free program focused on local news, prioritizing founders of color and those from other underrepresented groups. The following is an edited transcript of my conversation with Alexander.

Erika Alexander (Lars Niki/Getty Images for Hulu)

Erika Alexander: We are living in a time where people think that any information is fake news, or trying to push conspiracy theories, and there’s certainly some of that. But for Black people and for people of color, and for women and for the most marginalized communities, we need more sources to talk about the things that are important to us, that affect us and that concern all our lives. This is a very important program, and we hope prioritizing founders of color from other communities that have been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in media will help us really put into action those words that we speak when we say, “Black Lives Matter.”

Kimberly Adams: This is a partnership with Google and their journalism outreach. But in many ways, these big tech firms have been part of some of these issues that you’re talking about: the misinformation and the under-representation in the tech industry itself of women and people of color. Why this partnership now?

Alexander: That’s very true, and you have to start somewhere. I mean, that’s real. We need somebody, people, who are passionate and driven to serve their community and will get that substantive news and information to people. That will help, so the next person who has a Google idea can move forward to get funding and all those other things. We have plenty of fantastic Black women out there doing amazing reporting work, and they’re not supported. We need to help them tell their stories. So you’re absolutely right to call that out, and we need to make sure that we are also taking advantage of the things that do come from this new awakening that America is having.

Adams: Do you think this model, this sort of local startup model of journalism, is what’s going to survive?

Alexander: Yes, I do. I think actually, that’s the thing that’s going to thrive. If we’re going to bring systemic change in this democracy and talk about things like voting and ballots, we know that all politics [are] local. But if you don’t know how these things are locally adding up for you, because you’re so looking at the national play, then you don’t really participate in the democracy that’s built around you as a full citizen. But also, if they’re able to tell their stories, then the national media sources end up getting a better version, and more importantly, a more complete version of what’s happening in the world.

Adams: I can’t move on from this without bringing up a “Living Single” reference, because one of the things that really was impactful to me from that show is seeing a Black woman who ran her own magazine and was a journalist, who hired one of her friends as a journalist working at that news organization. And I was struck when you said that this program might create the next media mogul. It feels a little bit like a cycle. 

Alexander: It sure does. How about that? I didn’t put two and two together, but I love that you said that. I mean, I truly do appreciate the years I spent on “Living Single.” [Show creator] Yvette Lee Bowser was putting forward the types of people and persons that she knew and grew up with and wanted to honor. And certainly Queen Latifah, at the time, had a great amplification of women-powered, centered presences. We also got that from “A Different World.” So “Flavor Unit,” you’re right, we need more “Flavor Units.” We need women and men.

Adams: [Flavor] was the name of the magazine in “Living Single” that Queen Latifah’s character ran.

Alexander: Yes, Flavor magazine. Flavor Unit is her [real-life] production company and record company, but you’re right, Flavor magazine. And I love that you mentioned that. We get ideas about how we see ourselves from seeing other people do it, whether it’s in fiction or nonfiction. And I know a lot of people came up to me talking about [how] they were in politics because of Maxine Shaw.

Adams: Maxine was your character in “Living Single.”

Alexander: There you go. That’s right. Thank you for giving people the background. Yeah, Maxine Shaw was the lawyer in “Living Single,” and people like Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Ayanna Pressley, who’s the congresswoman of Boston, and even [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio have told me that mattered. So of course Flavor matters. And seeing ourselves in a position of power to communicate and tell our stories is the most powerful thing and subversive thing we can do.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

It’s a tough time in the news business to start something new, or even to keep your job. The Columbia Journalism Review has a “Journalism Crisis Project” to track what’s happening, and maybe come up with some solutions. Axios also has a roundup of women-focused nonprofit newsrooms that debuted this year.

Erika Alexander has spoken and written about her work on “Living Single” and how that show, compared to the sitcom “Friends,” which came out a year later, tells a story about media, diversity and money.

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Molly Wood Host
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