Tracie Powell is an innovator, journalist and leader with a broad background across the media industry and philanthropic community. Powell most recently launched The Pivot Fund, which seeks to invest $500 million into BIPOCTM (Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and traditionally marginalized)-led news organizations that serve communities of color. She is also the founder of AllDigitocracy.org.
She previously was the founding fund manager of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. She also was a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund, where she worked on the Public Square initiative that seeks to support informed dialogue through nonprofit journalism investments. Powell was a JSK (Knight) Fellow at Stanford University in 2016, and has her written work published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and Poynter Online. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and The University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
We wanted to learn more about Powell’s work and what she has planned for the future.
First, let’s talk about the work you just wrapped up at Borealis Philanthropy for the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. What was the impact the fund had in the nearly two years you spent there?
Beyond funding and supporting nearly 30 independent community news outlets, under my leadership, REJ set the standards which other organizations now seek to duplicate, including providing unrestricted, general operating dollars to news outlets as well as providing capacity-building and technical support to these organizations. The industry now appears to have a deeper and better understanding that providing guidance, coaching, and other types of capacity-building assistance to grantees doesn’t mean a funder is being “prescriptive.” It means the funder is being a true partner to the grantee in meeting the same goals and mission in serving communities. I’m happy to have been a part of leading the way in forging new approaches to grantmaking, specifically in meeting community information needs and more broadly in disrupting philanthropy.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and other people of color] publishers? How can traditional news organizations and larger news organizations support their work?
The best answer is BIPOC publishers face the same or similar challenges that non-BIPOC publishers face. I’m not trying to be facetious, it’s just that the journalism industry often tries to paint communities of color with broad strokes; the same is true when it comes to publishers of color. At the same time, no two publishers are the same. Overall challenges may be the same or similar, but cookie-cutter approaches to help address these challenges won’t work. BIPOC news outlets require customized support to help them address the challenges they face. The good answer is, it depends. All BIPOC publishers are not the same. While at REJ, the pattern I spotted is that BIPOC publishers tend to fall into one of four categories or straddle two of the four categories. What category the outlet falls in determines the type of support it will require. For many new or newer digital startups, support around culture building is critical to creating sustainability. On the flip side, legacy (or legacy-plus) outlets require support around culture change, even before providing support for digital transformation. Where traditional funders and organizations have fallen short is assuming a one-size-fits-all approach. They’ve also been mistaken about the need for digital transformation without first addressing organizational culture for BIPOC news outlets. Changing these mindsets will go a long way in course correction in how we support BIPOC news outlets.
On the flip side of that, what do you think is the biggest challenge for the industry as a whole?
See what just happened to Nikole Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina. That type of racist, antiquated, status-quo thinking is the biggest challenge this industry faces. But Nikole is a “star journalist,” and she’ll be all right. Those who aren’t stars continue to be negatively impacted by discriminatory and racist practices in this industry, and they don’t have the platforms, privilege, or leverage that Nikole Hannah-Jones has. This is as true for publishers of color as it is for journalists who work for corporate media organizations.
There have been a lot of discussions and pushes in the industry around diverse hiring. What advice do you have to news organizations that are taking a closer look at their hiring practices?
I just spoke to The Wall Street Journal about this within the context of board recruitment and development. Hiring managers too often take shortcuts when it comes to diversity. It’s lazy and ineffective. They interview a couple of “acceptable” BIPOC candidates who are referred to them, perhaps, by another acceptable person of color, and they check it off their list, not really taking the BIPOC candidates as serious considerations. It’s past time to treat hiring, recruitment and retention more seriously. Hiring managers know what to do; we’ve been telling them for decades: Expand your network, build relationships with key associations like the National Association of Black Journalists and others, and put in the hard work of being intentional and making sure your organizations are anti-racist because when you go through the time-consuming and expensive process of hiring people, you’ll want them to stay. Retention is just as important, even more so, than recruitment.
What initiatives in the industry inspire you the most?
I’m most inspired, at the moment, by what Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-nehisi Coates just did. The pair took their expertise and $15 million to Howard University where they plan to establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy after Hannah-Jones was spurned by UNC. That’s a real power play that should be instructive, not just for academia, but the journalism industry. People, particularly people of color, don’t want to occupy spaces where they are barely tolerated or just tolerated; they want to feel truly welcomed and valued for the expertise they bring to the table. I’m most inspired, generally, by BIPOC publishers who are making these kinds of moves as well. They are leaving or have left corporate media organizations, and are creating their own spaces where their expertise is valued and appreciated by the communities they serve.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I’m launching a new fund! It’s called The Pivot Fund. The Pivot Fund differs from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund in terms of structure: Not only will we provide general operating support, but we will also offer project support in order to deliver more customized technical and capacity-building assistance to these news outlets. The Pivot Fund also has deeper expertise, knowledge, and relationships with these outlets and communities than other funds and initiatives.
The official launch is planned for January, but we’re already engaged in delivering technical services and capacity-building support to BIPOC community news outlets. On July 20, we hosted a lunch ‘n’ learn on fundraising moderated by Mazin Sidahmed, publisher of Documented NY, which just hired its first development director. We’re really excited about this lunch ‘n’ learn series which will also explore various strategies in audience, organizational, and content development plus a few other topics.
I’m taking the next six months thanks to generous support from a donor to focus on building The Pivot Fund and researching how we can better support legacy BIPOCTM news organizations. These outlets, as you know, are deeply immersed in and trusted by their communities, but continue to struggle with adopting innovative digital news frameworks and strategies.