Q&A with Scalawag’s Cierra Hinton on the future of funding for journalism nonprofits

Cierra Hinton, executive director-publisher of Scalawag

By Erica Beshears Perel

In September, Scalawag announced a $350,000 investment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place Program. The two-year grant will fund Scalawag’s Race and Place vertical for two years, as well as an ambitious community engagement effort that includes hiring a community engagement manager and four state organizers. CISLM Director Erica Beshears Perel recently spoke with Cierra Hinton, executive director-publisher of Scalawag, for a wide-ranging conversation about the new grant, nonprofit journalism funding, the difference between community and audience and what it means to pursue journalism described as “reparative, just and equitable.”

Of note: Scalawag was one of the first news organizations to go through UNC-Knight Table Stakes through the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, and Cierra recently wrapped up a year coaching in the program.

This is part of our News Makers series, in which CISLM Director Erica Perel interviews innovators who are changing the local news field. Read more from this series on our blog.

Erica Beshears Perel: As a former director of a news nonprofit, I was really struck by the size and the timeline of the investment. We’ve all applied for grants that had a long application and then maybe you got $10,000, very specific deliverables and a whole bunch of reporting to do at the end. Of course it’s helpful, but it doesn’t give you space to breathe. Why do you think a larger investment that gives you some space to breathe or think about strategy is important?

Cierra Hinton: Oh my gosh, yes. So, not to get on my soapbox about capitalism, while I get on my soapbox about capitalism… The systems that we exist in are really designed for us to always be moving in urgency, and always reacting and not thinking. Being able to take the time to actually think, and not just be reacting, it’s just so important for ensuring strategic alignment, for making sure that you’re actually moving toward your vision. I think this gives us a pause, not to be caught up in this hamster wheel that I think a lot of nonprofits are caught on, where they’re just trying to do the things that need to get done to bring the money in to survive another year.

Perel: Right. And you get two years to see if what you’re hoping to do works.

Hinton: Also that, also that! I would say not even two years to see if what we’re planning to do works. It’s more like, we’ll get one year to see if what we’re planning to do works. And we’ll get six months to prepare for what we’re planning to do, which is crucial. That’s the period that we’re walking into right now. What are those gaps that we need to close before we can meaningfully execute on that plan? And then after we do that, taking time to be able to reflect and adjust and make changes before we move into the next iteration.

Perel: If funders were to ask you how to improve the grant-making process for news nonprofits, what would your answer be?

Hinton: I think the first thing is just how you get access to a program officer. … There’s just too much luck and magic in the whole thing. And you have to have some knowledge of where to even begin to start. … A lot of these grants, somebody reaches out to you, or you happen to know somebody who can introduce you. … And especially for smaller teams, what is the burden of proof? What does the reporting look like on the back end? I know it’s an investment, I know it’s a lot of money, but are the mechanisms that you’re putting in place for accountability really getting you accountability, or is it just more barriers to access?

Perel: One thing I know that y’all have tried to do in the last couple of years is realigned your work towards the communities that you want to serve, versus who your paying readership was. So much of journalism strategy lately has been about the readers who pay you — give them more of what they want. Y’all are doing something that’s a little bit different from that. I saw a tweet of yours recently about how listening to your audience is not the same thing as listening to your community, especially if your audience doesn’t reflect your community. Can you, can you tell me a little bit more about why you think that’s important, and why that has been Scalawag’s direction recently?

Hinton: Yeah, so not to whip out my funnel, but the way that I’ve been thinking about it lately is listening to community is sort of the pre-work to bringing a community into your audience. So the very top of the funnel, when we talk about awareness, is getting people to know who we are. A really great way to do that is to actually start by creating a preceding funnel focused on community, meaning that when you’re able to build with community, it will be easier to bring communities into your audience.

Our theory of change at Scalawag, the first step in our theory of change, is right relationship, which is reciprocal and generative. We also talk about centering communities in our storytelling first before we target them as our audiences. Just understanding that because media has ignored particular groups of people in particular communities because it has done harm, and there’s some reparative work to be done, but we really have got to focus on building those relationships first before we are talking about trying to get more diverse audiences. Often, you’ll hear, “you know Black people don’t read news,” or “they won’t pay for it,” and that is not true. But when you have spent so long being ignored by platforms, I think it’s super-unrealistic to expect for people to all of a sudden, just because you decide to publish some content that they might care about, will want to pay you for that content or engage with you in any meaningful way. So how are we actually taking the time, which goes back to your earlier question around having the space to think.

The 24/7 news cycle and the pace at which news moves is not conducive to relationship-building. I think and believe that the pace that’s required for us to build really meaningful relationships with community such that we can move them to being audiences and move them into being paid supporters, that’s going to require us to slow down. One of the tenets of white dominant culture and capitalism is urgency, so it is thinking about how we how our media and journalism practices divest from that culture, and start to move in a different direction.

Perel: You came to Scalawag from outside of journalism, if I remember that correctly, and you have very much been immersed in kind of the transformation world with Table Stakes and the accelerators. How has that affected the way you think about what’s possible for your news organization, or what’s possible for journalism?

Hinton: Yeah. Before I was working in journalism, I was working in education, but my background is in nonprofit fundraising.

I like being able to understand impact, the necessity of a theory of change, and knowing that your work should lead to something. And I think that’s why like Table Stakes and a lot of the programs that I’ve both participated in and now I’m coaching in that are focused on outcome-driven work. Repeated outcomes lead to impact, and impact is the actual transformation.

Journalism is just so interesting because it’s like, yes, we do our work in service of communities, like we’re the voice of people, but it in some ways is mission-driven and in some ways, is not mission-driven. I think that’s why I think nonprofit news gets a little closer to being able to actually follow that model because most nonprofit newsrooms do have a mission and are working toward some type of impact. And so their starting point is a little different. They get to ask, okay, are we are we driving towards impact for the whole of our community, or just certain people? Versus, are we even trying to create a transformational change?

For Scalawag, is our starting point was: Yes, we’re working towards some type of impact. Yes, we’re trying to serve the whole South, and we’re in particularly trying to do it in a way that is equitable, and so we understand that we need to be disproportionately focused on oppressed people because of the history of this country and of this region. The question for us that we’ve been trying to figure out is, how do we do that and how do we operationalize that. We think we have figured out a how, and now we’re trying to see if it actually works.