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There is a saying in the direct-to-consumer industry: “You may have sales, but you don’t have shelf space.” Now apply these same words to the evolving media industry. The Passion Economy monetized creation, but it has yet to democratize access to respect. As the rise of darlings like Substack and Clubhouse compete with traditional media, the question becomes: if you build a successful media business around your ideas, are you in the club?
Perhaps one day, when there are discussions on the future of newsletters and media, there will be less focus on homogenous voices and linear examination when there are evolved spaces that are examining the under-examined.
These are recent words from my friend Sherrell Dorsey, the trusted and accomplished Founder and CEO of independent publishing company and newsletter The Plug. Dorsey, Trapital’s Dan Runcie, and I met for the first time in April 2019 at a WordPress-hosted panel on the future of newsletter media. The conversation was optimistic and idealistic. At the time, Substack was just a few months old. The platform had yet to disrupt the legacy journalism industry by poaching some of its most marketable, independent talent. Alisha Ramos, who came up in the panel discussion along with Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford, had already built Girls Night In as a side project. It was clear to me that Ramos’s fledgling newsletter would become a serious journalism-driven business. Today, she runs GNI full-time.
Looking back, there was a level of irony that we didn’t consider at the time of the panel. We were in a conference room in Miami discussing the democratization of newsletter media at the 44th meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). In a way, this signaled that very little had changed. To accomplish what the three of us hoped to, we shouldn’t have needed to be there in the first place.
To understand the history of the NABJ is to recognize the 1968 Kerner Commission Report’s impact on today’s traditional media. The report also explains why the NABJ is still relevant. Commissioned by former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner under LBJ, the report cited how small a role people of color held in traditional media environments. The founding NABJ meeting was held seven years later at what is now the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington D.C. The goal of the annual conference was “to increase the presence of Black people in mainstream media”, with its mission statement taken from a jarring section of the report entitled “The Negro in the Media” (Page 212).
Specifically, newspapers should integrate Negroes and Negro activities into all parts of the paper, from the news, society and club pages to the comic strips. […] Any initial surprise at seeing a Negro selling a sponsor’s product will eventually fade into routine acceptance…
At the time, I knew nothing about the historical significance of where we stood or the richness of the NABJ’s history. This, even though the conference’s halls were filled with Jackie Robinson artifacts, callbacks to the era of the Kerner Commission, and living acolytes who bridged the time of then to now. I was just building a newsletter and as a pragmatist, I believed that if you built something well enough, everything else would take care of itself. That isn’t exactly true. The greater media ecosystem benefits from a flywheel of participation, collaboration, and fellowship, requiring a level of respect that, like shelf space, not every DTC brand or publisher has access to. Dorsey continued:
Part of the challenge here is that underrepresented founders and professionals are only asked to be in position to comment on minority status, challenges, and discrimination. And thus we aren’t asked to comment on the industry. Or business models. Or growth.
The passion economy monetized creation but it has not democratized access. This week, at a dinner on Miami Beach just 12 miles from where I first met Dorsey and Runcie two years ago, I sat taking notes as a major tech editor and I discussed the business of journalism. One comment of his stood out:
For the first time in media history, anyone can build their own respected and recognized publishing operation.
I had to object. There is a growing divide between revenue success and the fruits of credibility and recognition in the media industry. Legacy publishers will launch newsletters, digital communities, and other brand activations to compete against insurgent forms of knowledge-sharing while stating that a newsletter’s use of the same mechanisms preclude the industry from serious consideration as an industry peer. Every media company seems to want to build for the future without acknowledging those pioneering at the edges of it.
I too would like to be asked about the future of business, and media.Not just about being Black. Or being a Black woman. Or when there is crisis and trauma in the atmosphere. Like my peers, I too have range.
A media founder can build a business by reporting on a niche without the pedigree of having begun one’s career at The Wall Street Journal or TechCrunch, or without the co-sign of The Chernin Group. But are they really in the Press Club? Dorsey’s efforts have placed her in an objectively elite class of independent creators. Her work is still being overshadowed.
There are a number of minority-led publications that are on-track to become sustainable enterprises with seven figures or more in annual recurring revenue. Based in London, Cryptonary, an independent media company that specializes in paid commentary and data on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, is one of them. I spoke with founder Asad Saddique at length about the challenges that he’s faced, despite the extraordinary operational growth of the business itself. When Saddique explained the depth, quality, and success of his business to me, I was taken back by his following statement:
I just can’t seem to breakthrough, especially in America.
There aren’t many independent publishers with the same momentum and unfulfilled potential as Cryptonary, The Plug, Trapital, and others. And yet in each case these founders still feel the singeing heat of the firewall. Hours after my back-to-back meetings with an admired technology editor and Asad Saddique, I was up drafting thoughts on the evolution of independent media and the “shelf space” analogy that often defines the measure of industry respect one receives. Does Axios cover your work? Does CNBC attribute you? Does Forbes champion your growth? For independent media, this is our proverbial shelf space. And as I was up writing, a shift in thinking occured.
Last night, a great panel of 10 media operators, newsletter founders, and technologists discussed the future of newsletter media, including Ben Thompson, Dan Primack, Jessica Lessin, Polina Marinova, Sam Parr, and Substack’s Chris Best. There were a number of people that I admire who spoke that evening. Noticeably absent from the highly visible panel was Dorsey or any other of her peers of color.
As we close the one month set aside each year to champion the Black experience in America and its history, it is important to recognize that history is still being made. There is still an NABJ conference. And despite being an accomplished media founder and Columbia Journalism grad, Dorsey as well as others like her are reduced to contributing to conversations that should have long ended. It can make you feel like you are in the lagging present while our peers are plotting the future. When I asked Trapital’s Dan Runcie about his thoughts on listening to last night’s panel on the future of newsletters, he replied:
Some people don’t think about how that stage looks from the outside and what perspectives are missing. Especially on Clubhouse, an app that grew in large part thanks to Black creators.
The result will be a high profile call on stage to discuss the importance of respect, attribution, diversity, and belongingness. What this represents is more wasted time; more focus on the history and the present, instead of what’s to come and who will be a part of its fabric. The Kerner Report is 53 years old. The National Association of Black Journalists will be 46. The passion economy monetized creation and it can democratize access. There is room on the shelf; the internet is vast.
What Dorsey really wants to discuss is the future of the newsletter media industry. She has range, you know. So do the rest of us.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM