I’m not a journalist. Instead, I spend my days on the business side of media doing strategy, partnerships and revenue generation for things like Word In Black and the Knight x LMA BloomLab at the Local Media Association. But there’s one fundamental way I relate to my BIPOC colleagues in newsrooms nationwide: I’m usually the lone non-white person in the room.
Much of our industry’s attempts to diversify have focused on hiring and retaining journalists of color. I appreciate that it’s needed, and more needs to be done. But at the same time, I see how little attention has been paid to the diversity of business professionals in journalism and media. This is most evident if you look at the C-suite of any news organization and, in particular, if that role has any responsibility for revenue. It’s a white space.
For most of my career, I have met few people of color with my background or experience. But even more, I have seen little, if any, diversity on the business side. It's only been during my most recent experience with LMA, managing Word In Black, that I've worked with a team that is a majority of people of color, specifically Black people. But outside of affinity or ethnic-owned media, the lack of diversity is stark and often a lonely place for me regarding the actual folks who run the business.
Revenue is the part of media and journalism I am most comfortable with. So while others cringe at the thought of having to generate revenue, I'm the first person to say, “How much?” immediately followed by “Not enough” and, in short succession, “How does this become sustainable?”
But where does my obsession with the money side of journalism come from? You could say it’s the direct result of my experiences as a person of color in the United States.
As the child of immigrant parents from Honduras and Guyana, I grew up with a constant feeling familiar to immigrants of color and, given the racial wealth gap, too many African Americans, as well — that the financial bottom could fall out at any moment. And, during certain times in my life, it did.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, my father lost his job at a home decorating center in New York City. Sadly, he never could rebound from that event. The timing was especially tough for our family because I would be entering college that fall to study cinematography. Thankfully, I had earned several scholarships, but they weren’t enough to fully cover the costs associated with being a film major.
My mother, the foundation of my success, decided to sign for PLUS loans. Thankfully, I also saved some cash because I'd already begun freelancing in production. Yes, I was already freelancing in high school, as most immigrant kids work to support their families, so we made it work. But making it work came with enormous stress that would become my focus: understanding the economics of survival and an even stronger desire to thrive.
While I was enamored with production, being on “set,” and noshing off of craft services early in my career, I couldn't ignore a gnawing question: How was all this paid for?
To find out, I went to Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, looking for every book I could find on the business of entertainment. On the way to a shoot, I can’t remember which book I was reading, but the producer of the series I was working on for A&E said to me, “You should be a producer.” Little did I know that several years later, I would indeed become a producer and executive producer — the money guy.
That first foray into executive producing would have me fundraising for a travel show on PBS. I had never done that before, and what surprised me most was that not one penny for most shows that air on PBS come from PBS. So I went on a fact-finding mission to learn about the PBS model, and it was fascinating but not for the faint of heart.
By the time I had raised all of our production funding, I had spoken to at least 150 people, which yielded the five sponsors we needed. It took me four months to raise that money. As soon as that money hit the account, it instantly began to drain away to fund the production. Immediately I started thinking: How do I make this last?
That turned out to be an experience. On weekends, we were doing barbecue tours with fans of the show, selling merchandise, and booking speaking engagements. Finally, enough revenue from those operations took us onto a path. Although I ended up leaving the show at the end of the seventh season, it is about to enter its 14th season this fall.
A few years ago, at a Public Media Development and Marketing Conference (PMDMC), a gathering for revenue folks for public media, I attended a luncheon for fundraisers of color. It was heartwarming to be in that room, a small room, but room, nonetheless. But I also felt uncomfortable that such a small room even existed.
Part of the lack of diversity on the business side of media is that there are no direct paths for folks to jump from the editorial side to business. Most J-schools offer minimal business curriculum about media and journalism. And it seems ingrained early on in journalists that the business side of journalism is the dark side.
Most DEI initiatives are directed at attracting journalists, and there are few attempts to pull in folks like me who like the business side of journalism. This is a huge miss. Especially when we already know how nuanced conversations can be around editorial. Imagine what it’s like when I have to explain the behaviors around how ethnic audiences consume, engage and pay for content, which is to say those ethnic audiences aren’t monolithic. Within each community and ethnicity comes a specific centricity towards how they consume, engage and pay for content. This growing and evolving population of diverse media consumers are often maligned in attempts to get their business.
During an interaction with a former general manager of a public media entity, the person stated, “They don’t pay for our content.” To which I responded, “Why should they? Their interests aren't represented in our work, nor have we spent any time listening to their needs.” As a representative of that diverse demographic, I was not only speaking for the audience, but I was speaking for myself.
What this leads to and is most unfortunate is the current groupthink — white-cis-male-dominated. This anemia has relegated media and journalism to a limited view at the exclusion of audiences disproportionately impacted by our industry's institutional racism. The abundance of private equity, philanthropy and family-owned media empires dominating the space continue to give way to the same outcomes: primarily white-led organizations reaping all the benefits of capitalism.
What’s needed is a clear shift in focus from whom we exclude to who we intentionally include and how we allow BIPOC people to succeed with the right tools, training and support. In addition, we need to attract and retain executive talent of color to address media and journalism’s most significant and persistent business challenges.
If we want to fix journalism, let’s improve the business by finding diverse people who can make media better with new thoughts and ideas representing audiences we need to engage.
Business folks should get the same attention and support we put into our rallying cry for greater editorial diversity. You can’t have great journalism if you don't have a great business. This isn’t either-or.
Andrew Ramsammy currently serves as the Local Media Association’s chief content and collaboration officer, leads Word In Black, a groundbreaking collaboration of the nation’s leading Black publishers, and co-leads the Knight x LMA BloomLab, a $3.2 million sustainability initiative supporting Black locally owned and operated media.
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