Like many others in the media business, I couldn’t look away from the drama that unfolded last week around Carlos Watson and his company Ozy Media. Once a Black-run media darling among investors and advertisers, it’s now at least temporarily shuttered after a New York Times column exposed its inflated audience metrics, a fraud allegation and other concerning business practices.
For a lot of observers, the Ozy saga is just another too-wild-to-be-true scammer story that entertains and disgusts in equal measure. For me, a Black media entrepreneur, it’s a little more meaningful than that — a stark reminder of the type of company and content that attracts the big money and how few profitable paths exist for serious Black news.
When I left my position as the top editor at Vox to build Capital B, a nonprofit news organization for Black audiences, my co-founder, Akoto Ofori-Atta, and I were sure of two things.
The first is that we would be uncompromising in our mission to prioritize deep original reporting on the serious topics that affect Black lives across America — public health, education, politics, criminal justice, the environment and housing.
The second was that there was absolutely no way we could do the first as a for-profit, Black-run media company.
The work we plan to publish is important, and the audience we plan to serve deserves it. But outside of a subscription model, which few new players can pull off, the business imperatives often point in the opposite direction. Safe, innocuous content is what attracts advertisers, if not audience. Advertisers want to say they support Black-run media, but they’re terrified of the topics and stories that a lot of Black-run media companies might be most mission-driven to publish and audiences might be most attracted to.
Mr. Watson’s ability to raise millions and generate ad revenue for a breezy journalistic product focused on the “new and the next” — which from what we can tell hardly any real audience consumed — should not be taken as a positive sign that it can be done (with a few ethics tweaks). It’s another discouraging datapoint in an industry full of them.
Too many of the people responsible for doling out the dollars that keep the industry afloat would prefer to give money to a company like Ozy, with an Ivy League-educated pitch man selling a shiny, controversy-free vision of news and opinion, with none of the real-world stuff. Ozy was the white whale — the perfect, brand-safe opportunity for folks to say they were supporting a Black media company, even if the only Black person being supported in the process was Mr. Watson.
Earlier this year, Byron Allen, whose company, Entertainment Studios, owns the Weather Channel, the Grio and several other media and news properties, led a group of fellow Black media entrepreneurs in publicly pressuring the advertising industry to funnel more money into Black-owned media. The results were uneven. Roland Martin told The Times’s Ben Smith that his Black Star Network didn’t see an uptick in ad revenue. In the end, as Todd Brown, owner of Urban Edge Networks and a part of that group, told Mr. Smith, advertisers “had found a safe Black space, a comfortable medium — and we were shocked that it was Ozy.”
Advertisers want to reach the masses with their ads but do not want their ads connected to anything with even a whiff of controversy. This is very apparent when it comes to stories about race and racism. Vice Media Group found last June that its content about the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter was monetized at a 57 percent lower rate than other news content because of keyword blocking — when advertisers block their ads from appearing on articles that have certain words or phrases.
Marsha Cooke, Vice Media senior vice president of global news and special projects (and a Capital B board member), said in a presentation last year that an agency representing a large entertainment company sent Vice a keyword blocklist that included “Black people.” Try monetizing that as a Black publication.
In the case of YouTube, even if advertisers wanted to support this content, they couldn’t: An April investigation in the Markup uncovered Google’s curious practice of blocking advertisers from targeting social justice keywords and phrases, effectively preventing untold numbers of Black creators’ videos and channels from being discovered for monetization.
Most journalists I know didn’t get into the business to make a lot of money. We want to uncover truths and share them. We’re curious and tenacious. Ask many Black journalists why they’ve chosen this frustrating profession, and we’ll say that we want to tell the stories that wouldn’t get told if we weren’t there to tell them. This is one of the most important catalysts for change in America — people with this kind of drive wanting to do this kind of work.
This work requires serious investment. When Capital B launches in January, it won’t be ad free. We’re building an ad and sponsorship business with partners that are forward-thinking enough to understand that it’s meaningless to support Black-led media if you’re not willing to support journalism that moves the needle for Black people and that people want and need.
But there is no world in which we could finance an editorial vision like ours through advertising alone. We chose the nonprofit model because we know that the bulk of our revenue has to come from philanthropists, foundations and members who are interested in aligning their investments with their institutional and personal values, not brand safety.
Now that Ozy has proved to be too good to be true, marketers and investors should look around. To make an actual commitment to the cause they say they support, credible opportunities abound, such as Soledad O’Brien Productions, Sara Lomax-Reese and Mitra Kalita’s URL Media, Sherrell Dorsey’s The Plug and Word in Black, a coalition of Black newspapers. But this is America, which means it will never be 100 percent “safe” to support Black-led efforts to meaningfully inform and educate.
So maybe they’ll just wait for the next Ozy.
Lauren Williams is the CEO and a co-founder of Capital B and the former editor in chief of Vox.
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