Media Briefing: How CRO Gillian White is leading Capital B into expansion mode

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In this week’s Media Briefing, Capital B’s Gillian White discusses the non-profit news publication’s latest expansion into Gary, Indiana.

  • Year 1 catch-up on Capital B
  • Salon is straight shooting on Safari
  • Future plc taps new CEO, Penn Entertainment completes its purchase of Barstool Sports and more

Year 1 catch-up on Capital B

It’s been just over one year since Akoto Ofori-Atta and Lauren Williams co-founded Capital B, a non-profit news organization focused on reporting the stories of Black communities both on a national and local scale. But despite facing a harsh economic climate for most of that time, Capital B is in a period of growth and expansion, according to the newly appointed CRO Gillian White.

Capital B generated an audience of about 600,000 people in its first year and is projected to hit closer to 1 million unique viewers in year two, said White. It has also raised over $12 million to date from a mix of foundations, corporations and donors, according to the Capital B website, and has more than 1,000 paying members who contribute donations on a monthly or annual basis in exchange for exclusive additional content, in addition to advertising on the site and at events.

White joined Capital B in September 2021 as the svp of revenue and programming from The Atlantic to help establish the business-side and would not disclose exact revenue figures, but said funders are backing an expansion into another local newsroom in Gary, Indiana after creating its first local outpost in Atlanta in January 2022.

The new outpost, launched in conjunction with the American Journalism Project (AJP) and as a part of the Indiana Local News Initiative, is expected to add three to five more employees to the Capital B team, adding to the 24 existing staffers on both the business and editorial sides. Capital B received an undisclosed portion of the $10 million raised for the Indiana Local News Initiative to build its newsroom and pay new staff salaries.

“The plan was always for [grants and funding] to be the bulk of our operating income and [cover] our operating expenses. And then over time, that pie [will] get more diverse, just as it would be for any other organization,” said White. By its fifth year, the goal is to make all revenue streams — grants, advertising, memberships, merchandise and events — more equal, she added. 

In a conversation with Digiday, White discusses how she is approaching Capital B’s continued growth, and how her new role will allow her to contribute more to fundraising conversations — the revenue stream that remains the most significant for the news organization as it enters its second year. 

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Why Gary, Indiana to expand your local newsroom strategy?  

AJP is a funder and massive supporter of Capital B, so we were able to get an early inside track on the work they were doing in Indiana, and started talking to them about how we might fit into the puzzle. Gary is a nearly 80% Black city, and is one that has faced tons of economic headwinds, a declining population — a lot of the issues that we see Black people facing around the country. Gary also is a place that doesn’t have the local news presence specifically focused on them that we would like to see for a Black community of that size. It’s 40 minutes outside of Chicago so it can get wrapped into Chicago, but becomes secondary. It just made sense as a mission-driven location for us to go there and try to serve that community with local news.

How are you establishing a presence in Gary? 

We are using our funding right now to start our job search process to find our Gary, Indiana editor. [We’re] looking [for] three to five [editorial staffers] to kick it off. We have a central Capital B business and revenue team that serves both our national operation and all of our local newsrooms.

Part of the Capital B mandate is that people who work in local newsrooms have to live in the city where their local newsroom is located. So our Atlanta reporters and editors live in Atlanta. Our Gary reporters and editors will need to live in Gary. Even if they end up working remotely from their homes. 

You’ve just recently stepped into the role of chief revenue officer. How have your responsibilities changed now that you’re overseeing the whole revenue mix for a non-profit media organization? 

When I initially came on, I was mostly focusing on standing up an events business and [the] earned revenue [business] — so selling newsletters, getting sponsorships for our various projects and events — and I would occasionally help out on the fundraising side because that was something that I used to also do at The Atlantic. And through the course of that first year, [I was] having [more] conversations with Lauren [Williams] and thinking about ways that we could make sure that we shored up our financial footing, I think it became clear to both of us that it might make sense to take on a little bit more and that all of these things really were deeply linked.

Our ability to fundraise effectively influences what we want to do on our earned revenue- and sponsorship-side, influences how we think about our membership goals — all of these things are tied together. So in my new role, it’s basically just an expansion of the svp role that I took on, [but] now instead of just focusing on earned revenue and events, I focus on pretty much anything that we use to derive revenue for Capital B. Fundraising and grants, the financial side of memberships and membership goal setting, merchandise — which we will start building out soon — as well as earned revenue and anything that falls into the corporate sponsorship realm. So it’s just more of a holistic picture of all of those things.

Given that for-profit media companies are having a harder time in this economy to raise investment funds, how has the economy impacted Capital B’s ability to fundraise?

We’re super aware and we’re going to continue to be hyper aware of what’s going on in the economy, or even just what people think might happen in the economy. Having an ear to the ground on that is a huge part of my job [and] a huge part of [Williams’] job, so this is something that we started talking about six-plus months ago, what that could potentially look like. But even before we launched, the conversation that [Williams] and I had – [and] part of the reason that I came on on the business side, as opposed to the journalism side – was thinking about how we maintain our financial stability and how we create that for our journalist and for our readers, in an industry that’s not that stable a lot of the time.

So far, honestly, we’ve still been getting meetings, we’ve still been having really positive conversations with funders — both folks who are existing funders and folks who might be new funders. And we just always have in the back of our heads what their concerns might be and what limitations they might have, and try to factor that into our planning process.

Now that you’re beyond the initial launch period, how have pitches to donors changed?

I’m showing people more of what we can do and we had so much amazing work that we can point to, both with existing funders and with new ones to say, “If you want to know what Capital B is about, just take a look at the site. Just take a look at [our] YouTube and see the events. Take a look at the newsletter, see the impact we’ve had. See the people’s voices that we’ve been able to bring to the public.” So I think having that proof of concept is really, really useful. 

A year ago, we didn’t have anything to show them, and now we can [point to reporting from national health reporter] Margo Snipe, who is going around in Fort Myers after a hurricane, asking residents whether or not they’ve gotten assistance. And [then] reporting out that no one has been by to talk to them, which then garners a response from FEMA. That is what we are doing. That is why we are here. So having that type of proof of concept and the ability to point to that I think is really amazing.

Have you introduced programmatic advertising yet, given how substantial that revenue stream has been for publishers over the past several months?

One of the things that I love about being nonprofit is that we do not have to say yes to every earned revenue strategy, particularly if it doesn’t make sense for us, or if it’s going to cause a lift or issues that we’re not prepared to handle yet. So for us, programmatic is not part of the strategy yet, for a couple of reasons. One, the volume that we would need to be doing consistently and be able to promise, we just didn’t know what we would have in year one. It didn’t make sense for us to put ourselves in that position for what might have been a marginal gain for us. 

And two, we want to know who is advertising with us. We are a mission-driven organization and a values-driven organization, and for us, it is much more important — especially during these early years — to be focused on partnering with businesses and corporations that we know align with those values and can articulate to us why they’re interested in us too. And that they have those shared goals, so that it makes sense for our audience. 

What’s your process for finding and ultimately working with advertisers who align with Capital B on your mission and values?

We do our due diligence in advance to try and understand what commitments [advertisers have] made to the Black community and why we might be an appealing investment for them. We already know when we solicit a meeting what they are about when it comes to the things that we cover and the community that we cover. So for us, it’s really a conversation with them about what their goals are this year? And what commitments are they making this year to this community? And seeing if there’s a way to move forward on that. Having those conversations has actually been really energizing.

We can reasonably make advertising and corporate sponsorships a part of our revenue puzzle without being too dependent on them. We have our foundations and we have our grants, so it’s not like if ad sales take a dive this year that we don’t know where our operating budget is coming from. At this point, it’s really additive.

What we’ve heard

“The dirty secret with YouTube [has always] been that 75% of the platform’s users [are] outside of the U.S. and so when people talk about their view numbers, not only is it bots, but it’s a lot of international audiences.”

A media executive

Salon is straight shooting on Safari

For programmatic-dependent publishers, it matters where a reader enters their ecosystem.

“As of today, Safari earns $1 for every $3 that I earn on Chrome, with the same exact footprint and the same exact demand stack,” said Justin Wohl, CRO of Salon, who has been watching this ratio become more and more dramatic since May 2020 when Apple updated its internet browser (Safari) with full third-party cookie blocking.

Given half of Salon’s readership comes from Safari, Wohl said that the problem has become unsustainable, especially at a time when open programmatic marketplace RPMs are the lowest they’ve been in three years. 

“The ‘no silver bullet’ sentiment is still felt really strongly here,” said Wohl, given that a lot of proposed solutions require a universally accepted way of authenticating, validating or identifying audiences, but none have been dubbed the “winning solution.”

In the meantime, Wohl’s team is working on a makeshift solution that will address Salon’s audience on Safari with the problem at hand. Rolling out over the next six weeks, unfilled ad inventory will feature messages from Salon, loosely stating: “Our independent journalism is supported primarily by advertising, and if you are willing to volunteer your email address to us, you’ll be passively supporting us in that we will be able to yield more valuable ad results when you visit us.”

At that point, Safari users will also be prompted to either authenticate themselves by registering with their email address, signing up for a newsletter, becoming a paid subscriber or changing their browser. Alternately — they can just stay on Safari and go unpunished.

At the very least, “I still do better if I can move someone from Safari to Chrome, where I’ll get 3X the CPM on them [that I’m] currently [getting],” he said. 

Numbers to know

$388 Million: The amount Penn Entertainment paid to buy the remaining stake of Barstool Sports, which the gambling operator now fully owns. In total, Penn Entertainment spent $551 million on the digital media company.

10%: The percentage of NPR’s 1,100 staffers that will be impacted by layoffs.

$11.99: The starting price for Meta’s new monthly subscription business, which takes a page from Twitter, and gives paying users a verification badge and tools to monitor their identity. According to a Bank of America research note, the subscription business could earn $1.7 billion in 2024, CNBC reported.

What we’ve covered

ChatGPT’s arrival accelerates lifestyle publishers’ move away from SEO-driven content: 

  • The arrival of generative AI chatbots brings with it a unique threat to publishers that produce online content to answer the simple questions readers enter into search engines. 
  • As a result, lifestyle publishers like Bustle Digital Group and Leaf Group are moving resources away from SEO-driven content and into original stories and personal takes.

Learn more about how lifestyle publishers are shifting their SEO strategies here.

What do creators really want from TikTok?

  • As central as creators have been to the short-form video’s app’s success over the last two years, they don’t necessarily feel like they’ve been compensated for it. 
  • They’re no longer seeing the platform through the rose tinted glasses they once did.

Read more about what creators desire from TikTok here

How Reset Digital’s new programmatic marketplace aims to help Black-owned newspapers sustainably grow:

  • At the beginning of February, advertising agency Reset Digital launched a new programmatic marketplace for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).
  • On the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast, Reset Digital’s CEO Charles Cantu said that this collaboration with the NNPA went beyond the creation of a marketplace, to provide these news publications with the tech stacks necessary to run ads, as well as teach them how to sustainably build their online audiences.

Listen to the interview with Cantu here

How will ChatGPT change freelancing? 5 publishers weigh in:

  • Given how easy it is to access and use ChatGPT, what’s stopping a writer from putting an assignment brief into the chatbot, waiting for a story to generate and then submitting that to an editor?
  • When that question was posed to heads of editorial teams at five different publishers, the simple answer was nothing. At Least not yet. 

Learn more about how publishers are updating their freelance contracts here.

What we’re reading

Some NYT journalists disagree with staff union’s approach to the paper’s latest controversy:

Dozens of reporters from The New York Times signed a letter to the NewsGuild of New York, objecting to how the union responded to the paper’s leadership, arguing that it was the journalists’ right to criticize the paper to address workplace conditions, according to Vanity Fair. This stemmed from a dispute over the Times’ coverage of transgender issues.

Artificial intelligence and chatbots might not change journalism:

Because AI systems like ChatGBT are language models, they’re not built to perform tasks that require fact finding, verification or math, ultimately making them terrible at performing basic journalism skills, according to Semafor.

Overtime launches a boxing franchise:

After identifying its audience’s strong interest in boxing, sports media and league operator Overtime created a new boxing league and franchise that will give male and female boxers the opportunity to compete in summertime matches, according to Adweek. Coverage from the franchise will then be distributed across Overtime’s platforms, creating advertising opportunities.

Future plc taps Jon Steinberg as its new CEO: 

This April, U.K.-based publisher Future will appoint Jon Steinberg as its new CEO, replacing  Zillah Byng-Thorne who held the role since 2014, according to the PressGazette. Steinberg previously served as CEO of Mail Online in North America, and before that as BuzzFeed’s president and COO.

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