The leaders of the 10 Word in Black collaborative news organizations.
What would happen if 10 legacy Black publishers came together and launched a digital startup focused on racial inequities in the United States?
Local Media Foundation, along with The AFRO American, The Atlanta Voice, Dallas Weekly, Houston Defender Network, Michigan Chronicle, New York Amsterdam News, Sacramento Observer, Seattle Medium, St. Louis American and Washington Informer, decided to find out.
At the Local Media Foundation, we were bullish on the idea, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. We believed such a platform was needed, and it should be powered by the publishers who have been serving Black communities in this country for decades – and in some cases, for more than a century. The vision for this was to be the most trusted news and information source for, about, and by Black people.
The publishers named the site Word In Black.
Local Media Foundation, in partnership with the 10 publishers, applied to the GNI Innovation Challenge in late 2020, and was delighted to be selected. What happened next is the best unintentionally-kept secret in the industry.
The initial funding we received enabled us to launch a website, newsletter and reader revenue strategy through donations in June of last year. From there, foundations started to support our journalism. Today, Word In Black has six full-time journalists, with the business side managed by the Local Media Foundation team. On the website, we publish content from our 10 publishers, the editorial team, and from thought leaders in the community.
An image from one of the Word in Black newsletters.
Word In Black publishes three newsletters — focused on health, education and racial inequities — each week. Total newsletter subscribers are approaching 50,000. Large brands such as AARP, Biogen, McKinsey and Deloitte use Word In Black (and the 10 publishers’ sites) to connect with Black communities on key issues, including early warning signs of memory loss, caregivers and financial security.
Our business plan called for hitting $1.8 million in year one. It seemed ambitious to some, but not to us. We easily exceeded it. Total revenue since the launch has tripled since year one, and is now over $5 million and growing. The revenue mix today is primarily focused on philanthropic funding of journalism and branded content, which together represent 85%. Sponsorships and reader revenue are smaller categories with great growth potential.
Why is Word In Black working? The commitment from the 10 publishers, along with the expertise of the Local Media Foundation staff, has been the secret sauce. The publishers believe in collaboration and they are all active participants in the initiative. It’s a partnership built on trust and respect.
"I'm so proud The Observer is part of the Word In Black collaboration,” said Larry Lee, publisher of The Sacramento Observer. "It's hard to imagine that for more than two years, the 10 of us have been able to work with each other in such a committed fashion — meeting nearly every week, sharing, bouncing ideas off one another, being vulnerable and honest — it is one of the most fulfilling projects I have been a part of in my professional career."
By design, all of their businesses have benefited through this effort, both monetarily with revenue share and through improved content. For example, all of them have established education and health mini-beats they didn’t have before the launch of Word In Black. All of the branded content projects also run on the 10 publishers’ websites.
The lessons we’ve learned from launching Word In Black have also benefited other news organizations. News is Out, a queer media collaborative with six LGBTQ+ publishers, used funding from the GNI to launch earlier this year, using a similar approach for multi-partner working, and already has support from McKinsey and AARP.
Industry collaboration is powerful. Publishers must be willing to trust each other, compromise and think bigger. When that happens, the results are amazing.