Despite a dedication to exposing injustice and holding power to account, newsrooms across the United States consistently fail employees and the public by proclaiming objectivity.
In summer 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and industrywide conversations about a journalism “reckoning”, The Objective was launched to examine the idea of objectivity and its connection to problematic news coverage and business practices.
As it is, many of the same structures and systems that uphold objectivity also make it hard to start a newsroom, from securing donors to establishing an audience — especially when a key component of a newsroom’s mission is exposing and correcting harmful industry standards.
Still, The Objective built relationships with media partners that have a shared interest in bettering journalism, and expanded its capacity with their support. To learn more about the nonprofit newsroom’s entrepreneurial journey and gather tips for other journalism startups, Holly Rosewood, The Objective’s newsletter manager, spoke with co-founder Gabe Schneider.
What did the early months of the Objective look like? What business challenges did you face?
The Objective launched without an organizational structure or sustainability in mind. It started as a continuation of a series of blogs that I was working on that were essentially media criticism and reporting. I wanted a space to talk and write about some of the things that I didn’t feel like I could publish elsewhere, and I think that resonated with some folks. I also had asked a number of people to edit my writing and they did, then some of them came back to me and said, “You know, I’d be interested in writing something,” or, “Would you mind editing my writing?”
That became the initial structure, and it sort of snowballed from there. We have a volunteer collective publication. Ok, let’s figure out a way to pay our writers. Okay, we need an organizational structure. We need an organizational structure? We need a fiscal sponsor. We need a fiscal sponsor? We need lawyers to figure out how to make that happen. And it’s continuing to evolve. It hasn’t stopped.
Some of the challenges on the table now are looking at what level of funding we need to be a sustainable organization. Many of our readers are younger or entry-level journalists that might not have 100 bucks a month to throw at us. It might be five, or it might be nothing, and we don’t paywall anything. So, I think the largest challenge that we face moving forward is sustainability.
How do you think the startup ecosystem could be improved for other people who are trying to launch their own collective or publication?
The gap that I see — and I’m not the only person that talks about this — is grant funders and foundations being more willing to reach out and help with operational support. I think a lot of foundation funding tends to lean on the side of specific programs, which can be helpful. But it would be much more helpful if foundations were more willing to invest in operational budgets for emerging projects, since that’s what you need when you’re trying to build something and you don’t have the connections and resources that publishers and founders that have structural advantages might have.
Throughout our funding journey, what do you see as milestones or turning points in our growth?
For us, fiscal sponsorship was a huge milestone. I mean, the ability to work with INN and take in charitable contributions was huge. That was very apparent to us when we participated in NewsMatch last year, where every single dollar that we raised for our end of the year fundraiser was matched. That allowed us to pay our freelancers, it gave us a budget to work with, and it also meant paying for things like media liability insurance and ensuring that our website is still running.
That amount of money is really helpful and was a milestone for me. I think the next apparent milestone is having staff on contract and then part time and full time, depending on the need. And that’s a much harder plateau to reach. Paying freelancers and having a small freelance budget that we can increase is doable, but I would like to see our editors and contributors be compensated.
All of those things are things constantly on my mind and I think it can be really difficult to make the jump. During NewsMatch we raised a good amount of money, but that in itself is not going to pay for someone’s full time salary.
Could you talk about the work we’ve been doing with Indiegraf?
Indiegraf has been extremely helpful in that they gave us our first large grant. We made around $25,000 from NewsMatch and Indiegraf invested $25,000 in The Objective. For some nonprofits it’s not a huge amount, but for us it’s pretty huge in trying to get The Objective off the ground.
They’ve also taken over management of our website CMS, which can be a small thing if you know what you’re doing but there can still be times where things can go awry. For example, we were having some problems with our security certificate for a while at our last hosting provider, and that’s something that can take up a few hours on a Sunday or after work during the week. Having Indiegraf not only take over the maintenance of our website but help us with the web redesign has been extremely helpful.
Indiegraf has also been helping with audience development and optimizing our newsletter, ensuring that we have a welcome series built into the newsletter, which is something that we’ve known we had to do for quite a while but we just hadn’t had the capacity to build in addition to all the other things we’re doing. Indiegraf has been extremely helpful, both in terms of funding and in terms of these operational services and support systems and capacity building that we’ve wanted to do, but just haven’t had the time to.
One of the things that we commiserated over in the early days of The Objective were our past experiences in the industry, and that fueled a lot of the work we were doing, especially when we were really low on resources and external support.
Do you think it’s important for someone doing this work to have had similar experiences before starting their own publication? Or is “paying your dues” not worth the lessons learned?
The paying your dues mentality is bullshit. I think the reality is that well-resourced white founders, typically cisgender men, go to their friends in venture capital and then their project is funded. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying it, but after a few weeks or a few months their project is funded, and not to the tune of like $100,000, but often to the tune of a few million dollars.
So, I think the issue is that when you’re looking at who is often under-resourced in journalism, despite having a good product or a good idea, it’s often journalists of color and other folks that have historically been marginalized in legacy newsrooms. And it’s extremely frustrating to see that be the case, not just with us but across the industry. I’ve talked to other founders, even in the process of starting The Objective, who say the exact same thing: It’s not new.
I’ve learned a lot from these folks that I’ve talked to. In many cases, I relate: They’re dealing with not having enough money to deal with bills as they’re trying to build something, and nobody should have to deal with that. They’re trying to build a news publication that serves a need.
I don’t think we’re the last organization that will run into this issue, nor will we be the one to solve it, but have you seen any improvements in that landscape since we started, in terms of the funding landscape, the emergence of other outlets, or even similar coverage?
On the note of reporting on journalism and journalism critique, I don’t think anyone else is doing it the way that we’re doing it. In that I mean, I don’t think any other news publications writing about journalism or critiquing journalism are hyper focused on marginalization, objectivity, and diversity.
I think that there are a few folks doing similar things, and I should mention a newsroom that is doing this in Europe, which is Unbias the News. But, for the most part, we’re pretty much the only folks doing this specific thing in the U.S.
The journalism funding landscape has changed slightly.
So, when I look at these changes, I look at places like the Pivot Fund, which has just invested in a number of new outlets, including seven news outlets in Georgia, and is focusing specifically on founders and editors of color. There are initiatives and there are people working on things like that but I don’t think there’s been an industry-wide push to really reimagine what philanthropy has looked like and should look like.
With that in mind, what should people know about before launching their own independent outlets?
Who is your audience and what are you selling should be your first questions before starting an outlet. Once you have that down (and that can take quite a bit of time and a bit of research), then it’s a question of, what kind of outlet do you want to be? What are your values?
I’m going to get on my soapbox here a little bit, but I think a lot of journalists like to say that they don’t really have frames when thinking about their coverage. They’re “objective” and they’re “seeking the truth” and “holding power to account.” But those are frames. Those are values. I think objectivity is extremely vague and I don’t often know what folks are talking about, but I think they have some sense of values and I think it’s really important to know what your values are when you’re jumping into news coverage. Do you value transparency? I’d say most journalists do. Antiracism? I’d say that’s more contentious among newsrooms. I don’t think it should be, but it is.
The third thing is: What does financial sustainability potentially look like for you? This is very different if you’re a local or national publication, but I think it’s important to look at the kinds of financial sustainability models, whether it be membership program, going to foundations for support, advertising, or sponsorship. You can also get creative, depending on how much capacity you have. Some newsrooms have made escape rooms or cafes to try to fund the journalism that they’re doing. You just have to know how to run that kind of business, which can be difficult if you don’t have the experience.
While there is hopefully a positive outcome of the kind of reporting that you’re doing, it is a business and you need to ensure that you have enough funding to be sustainable and ensure the folks working with you are paid well and have benefits.