One opportunity to change journalism for a hopeful America

Jenny Choi
4 min readSep 25, 2019
Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

I love origin stories. I’m a total sucker for prequels. Exploring the backstory, for example, of a glamorous success story makes a seemingly daunting victory more accessible to someone like me, who has always identified as an underdog.

One recent success story you may have already heard about is the exciting launch of the new Racial Equity in Journalism Fund (REJ — housed at Borealis Philanthropy) to support journalism by and for communities of color. I manage a program called the News Integrity Initiative at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (CUNY), which served as one of the co-founders of the fund, along with our colleagues at the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Google News Initiative.

The truth is, a bunch of us in journalism funding have been at this for a while now, and it’s been gratifying to see how we’ve learned and grown together through this process. We started informally getting to know one another when I was still in Chicago, quietly building stuff like this, this and this.

After I moved out of Chicago, a small group of journalism grantmakers started getting on a regular call specifically to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in journalism, led by Manami Kano — formerly at the Gates Foundation. Manami engaged me even though at the time I’d left philanthropy, navigating my latest existential dilemma in journalism and philanthropy (and then eventually landing back right into journalism and grantmaking, this time at a journalism school).

Our other partner-in-crime at the time was Paul Waters at the Democracy Fund. He was soon joined by a new colleague, Lea Trusty — who with Paul helmed critical research on diversity and journalism funding and other relevant analyses, that laid the foundation of our cohort’s ability to identify gaps and address needs.

We were then joined by Farai Chideya at the Ford Foundation, who upon starting her first foundation job after a rich career in journalism, spoke up courageously in the face of the #MeToo movement about her experiences at WNYC, and more broadly about toxic work culture for women journalists of color. Farai also brought our little cohort together to meet up in Detroit, to discuss with practitioners and other funders what we could do to address the lack of progress around DEI and journalism, 50 years after the Kerner Commission Report.

It was at this Detroit meeting I looked up and noticed a marvelous thing — many new and lovely faces in journalism leadership, including in philanthropy. Sometimes ambitious change is all about timing — and in this room was an amazing mix of the OGs and new perspectives working on DEI and journalism. I was also inspired to leverage the Newmark J-School’s News Integrity Initiative and its cadre of next generation journalism leaders to help evolve the industry and improve community coverage in sustainable ways (more on that in future posts).

The journalism funders cohort continued to connect after the in-person meeting, which was critical. Paul and I then re-engaged Manami, who had since left Gates, to move us collectively along on our goals around DEI. The Fund was then created through many conference calls, e-mails, negotiations, a heartache or two, strategizing — and a couple of additional funders at the 11th hour in time for us to make the announcement at the ONA conference in New Orleans. There’s a cute photo of us here.

I relay this story to communicate three takeaways:

1. The opportunity of the Fund was truly born out of trust building, taking risks and collective support for communities of color — not just from the co-founders of the Fund (and the program officers and directors cheering the effort on), but all those adjacent to this effort who continue to try to bring integrity and rigor to philanthropy around diversity, equity and inclusion in journalism funding; and

2. For all of you who have thought in the past that a journalism grant was “not for you”, this Fund is trying to correct that (not only are nonprofits not all alike but grants are not all alike either — and we don’t want this to be another shitty grant that you regret pursuing/accepting that gets in the way of your good work) — not only should the Fund increase access to capital for media organizations led by people-of-color — but it should introduce constructive ways of respectfully interacting with organizations that funders have traditionally not seen or valued before; and

3. The more funders that adopt equity principles into journalism grantmaking, the more we bring new assets towards innovation for an industry that desperately needs it. We’re all sick of playing the Hunger Games, and creating funds like this remind us that there’s a way for us to bring more opportunities for more people who are doing important work. Why live in dystopic Panem when we can live in Wakanda? (Note: See Field Foundation who is already doing this.)

The Letter of Inquiry for proposals for REJ will open on October 1st, and Borealis will be hosting a webinar on Wednesday, October 2 at 11 am PT/1 pm CT/2 pm ET to share more information about the fund priorities, grantmaking process, and timeline. To join, please RSVP here.

Newsmakers and journalism investors — be a part of the change you want to see and lean into this opportunity. If you are a funder interested in supporting this work, contact Borealis Philanthropy’s Director of Racial Equity Initiatives, Maya Thornell-Sandifor: mtsandifor [at] borealisphilanthropy.org.

--

--

Jenny Choi

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.