My application to study “journalism business models to fuel information in low-wealth communities” at Stanford’s JSK Impact Fellowship

I was so inspired when Lewis Wallace published their application for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. It was transparency in action. I knew if I were ever selected to do something similar, I’d do the same. Well, here I am! I have been chosen as one of JSK’s Impact Fellows. I am honored, excited, and a little scared. All the things that typically let me know I genuinely care about doing something well. There are a couple of reasons why sharing my application is essential to me.

I have the kind of mind that loves to wander. It serves me well. I soak up lots of information and use it to help lead both at work and in my community. Unmanaged, it can lead me to less than 20/20 focus on the most critical tasks in front of me. I like to learn and think about a lot of things, but I also have to remain accountable to the commitments I make. People who think like me know that our minds genuinely need and love variety, but we also often need rigorous plans and tools to stay on the right path. One of the tools that has worked well for me is accountability from my network of peers and friends. You all might only know I was selected (and celebrate with me) but not understand that I have work to accomplish and goals to meet. Now you know. You can inquire about my process and nudge me if when you don’t see updates over the coming months. You have my permission.

The second and most important reason for sharing what I submitted is that the challenge I presented to the JSK selection committee addresses an ecosystem problem that impacts many, has solutions scattered both in and outside of journalism, and is at its heart a collaborative project. In short, it makes no sense to keep my original thesis stored away in a Google drive. The more open I am about the vision, the better I will fare in attracting the needed resources.

My application: A journalism business model that serves and centers low-wealth communities of color

News should never be an upsell. Building business models for community newsrooms that value the direct needs of low wealth consumers is the ethical choice. It is no longer enough to ask traditional newsrooms to pivot their coverage or economic models. -Candice Fortman

Detroit is a city that is flush with media organizations that claim to serve everyone, including two daily papers, two public radio stations, four TV stations, and countless other independent digital and printed outlets. But like much of journalism, many of these institutions are built on ad models that favor audiences with access to wealth. They often serve wealthier suburban communities more directly — they do not serve Detroit. Detroit, where nearly 36% live in poverty according to the most recent Census numbers, is a city where the trends of systemic racism and policies that disenfranchise low-wealth Black communities (Detroit’s population is nearly 80% Black) are coursing through its roots and replicated in its media. Meanwhile, the information many residents need to address policies and practices that have intentionally eroded Black wealth and de-centered low-wealth areas is left inaccessible. When that information is making its way through the outlets I listed above, it goes unutilized because Detroiters, rightly so, do not trust them. So, where does my community go when its institutions are failing to address its core needs? Detroiters go inward. A city that is the home of American innovation, from the advent of the Model-T to the creation of techno music, is never without solutions for solving its more pressing problems and working towards a radically new future. When Detroiters can’t find it, we build it. We create information channels through block clubs, church bulletins, and FB groups. We create organizations like Riverwise Magazine, who work with residents to tell the real story of Detroit. Outlier Media was founded to better inform Detroiters so that they might hold power accountable. Detroit is a place that, despite the odds and systemic disenfranchisement, possesses people who will always work to own their narrative and create access for everyone, not just a few.

How and why are they underserved? (up to 300 words)

Growing up in Detroit-a working-class Black city-I have had a painful front-row seat to the outcomes of newsrooms that center the information needs and loyalty of audiences gained through marketing or fundraising campaigns. This audience is predominantly white, affluent and ironically does not live within Detroit proper. Meanwhile, my neighbors lean on one another for critical information around housing, education, crime/policing, infrastructure, and more because the existing news infrastructure underserved them. News should never have been nor should it be an upsell. Building business models for community newsrooms that value the direct needs of low-wealth consumers is the ethical choice and the only way local news can live up to being a public good. And over the last 15 years, I’ve seen publishers who hope to serve low-wealth communities in Detroit starting at a business disadvantage. They put the work and the community ahead of a business model by trying to fill critical information gaps. They start in survival mode and are rarely given the opportunity to thrive. These leaders face tough business decisions in figuring out the best way to pay for the work they do while remaining deeply committed to serving and working in collaboration with their communities.

What is your connection/relationship to the community? (up to 300 words)

Detroit is my hometown. I have spent most of my life in this city working for and with my fellow residents to increase access to information by doing work that reimagines a more equitable future for all. I am a block club kid. I grew up in a family where the community was the center of our lives. We lived in a close-knit working-class neighborhood in Detroit. My mother was the president of the Barton Wetherby Diversey Eagle block club for a decade. My grandmother was the secretary/treasurer. I was raised by a village of mostly Detroiters. My first examples of what it looks like to work in the service of your community came from this place. When you are an only child and grandchild, you go where the adults go. As early as I can remember, I was attending community meetings, learning how to mobilize people around elections and issues, and, most importantly, learning to listen to my neighbors. I will always consider this village to be the first to teach me the values and principles of engagement work. We didn’t have the jargon we now teach in newsrooms, but they were certainly doing the work and teaching me how to incorporate it into every job I’d ever have. In my current role as Executive Director of Outlier Media, my daily charge is to center the needs of Detroit communities like the one I grew up in. A neighborhood that as older residents passed away, and others moved on, began to die a slow death as accountability and information vanished. My connection to Detroit also allows me to see other communities with similar challenges. My colleagues who are building in places that have seen massive divestment are always top of mind because Detroit taught to think about the village.

What is your long-term goal for this project? How would you like to see the community benefit from this work? (up to 100 words)

Detroiters who are currently underserved by traditional outlets cannot afford to lose organizations that center their needs. Detroiters are ready to help build an outlet that does. My long-term goal is to create a model that allows publishers and residents to build a community newsroom that meets the info needs of everyone while reinforcing the flow of trust and revenue through shared ownership. The long-term goal is to redefine what long-term, sustainable success can look like when you unapologetically share power with those plagued by systemic issues.

It’s important to say thank you

So much of my thinking around my area of study is based on the work of others and the support of many. I want to thank a few key people.

I remain in awe of and deeply inspired by my collaborator and friend Sarah Alvarez, who has built an editorial model at Outlier Media that is being used and siphoned from, too often with little credit or additional resources to support her work and time. You fight daily for our organization. You serve our community with every piece of yourself. Thank you for believing in me and my vision for a more equitable business model and for holding my ass to the fire (always with love). I want a world where we don’t always have to give until we are exhausted only to scrape by. Your unmatched dedication is my fuel.

Andrea Hart — you are my editor, counselor, collaborator, and fellow Dolly Pardon, enthusiast. You have helped me find the words to express to the world what I know is the beginning of a model for how to serve the kind of communities we both love, come from, and find all our value inside. Thank you for always taking my calls and deep-diving into my web of Google docs.

Chris Horne! Our entire relationship has was formed via Twitter, a couple of phone calls, and some crowded Zoom rooms. Yet you have given me your time, belief and a head start on the work ahead because you have already bet on a “radical” model. I look forward to continuing to learn from you and with you. Thank you for being one of the many JSK alum who has shown through their actions that brilliance can and should be accessible and generous.

I could write paragraph after paragraph for everyone below, but know that I thank you and I am grateful I get to work with you. Your work in some way informed or will inform this process.

The JSK staff, Michelle Srbinovich, Courtney Hurtt, Wendi Thomas, Deborah Douglas, Martin Reynolds, Darryl Holliday, Bettina Chang, Harry Backlund, Tran Ha, Lewis Wallace, Ashley Alvarado, Jiquanda Johnson, Tasneem Raja, Simon Galperin, Mike Rispoli, Alicia Bell, Cierra Brown Hinton, Emma Carew Grovum, Roxann Stafford, Lashara Bunting, JOC and the SRCCON community.

Finally, my friends — my family. You know all my parts and you love me just as I am. Thank you. I love you.