The origin story of URL Media – Poynter
S. Mitra Kalita and Sara Lomax-Reese found themselves in the right place at the right time. One was all about business. The other was at an emotional crossroads on the road. Something – perhaps the presence of other people of color in a largely white space, perhaps the shared passion for disruption – brought them together.
Today, Kalita and Lomax-Reese are business partners, an intense relationship they compare to marriage, and an experience they both describe as transformative.
The two women connected throughout the year Media Transformation Challenge Program, who moved to Poynter in early 2020 (it was previously operated under the Punch Sulzberger program name at Columbia). At the time, Kalita was senior vice president of CNN Digital. Lomax-Reese was the President and CEO of Radio WURD, a Black Talk radio station in Philadelphia.
By the end of 2020, Kalita announcement she was changing her career path to focus on community media businesses, starting with her newsletter Epicenter-NYC. Soon after, Kalita and Lomax-Reese launched Media URL, a network to share money, resources and power with black and brown owned media. WURD and Epicenter-NYC are members of the network, as well as Documented, Naughty, the Haitian time, TBN24, Scroll stack, palaver and Sahan’s Journal. URL Media’s initial funding comes from sponsorships, announcements, paid partnerships and grants, with high-profile supporters like Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry’s Archewell Foundation.
In this conversation, edited for length and clarity, we talk about the value of connection at MTC, why they chose a for-profit business model for a mission-driven company, and how all news organizations need to redefine. their value to the public.
Associated training: Apply for the 2022 Media Transformation Challenge (MTC) program
Mel: You first met during MTC, didn’t you?
Mitra: We met in Phoenix at Google Newsgeist. But I feel like it’s overkill of “meeting” because we got closer at MTC. The thing about TCM is you don’t meet people like, âDo you have siblings? Are you married? Do you have a dog? “You meet them like,” What are you doing? What are you trying to do? ” This is where Sara impressed me. In that first breakout session, I vividly remember saying, âOh, wow, that womanâ.
Sara: I don’t remember that breakout, but I do remember that first week. It was special.
For me personally, I was going through a lot that year. And to be honest, just before MTC, I was on the precipice. I couldn’t see doing the hard work at WURD any longer because I was so exhausted. And then (executive director) Charlie (Baum) or (founder) Doug (Smith) calls me up and says, âHey, do you want to be on this program? And I was like, ‘What? And Knight is going to pay for it? I spoke to Charlie and we bonded.
Talk about an energetic shift. It’s not dramatic, but what MTC did for me at that point was put me in an environment of high performing and amazing people in the media world who watched what was doing WURD – which I was doing – and were excited and almost respectful.
I had no context for this before MTC. I was just crushing him, head down, trying to survive. I came out of this first week taller by one meter.
Mel: What about you and Mitra?
Sara: We knew each other at MTC. We connected to the MTC. But when you go into business with someone, it’s like getting married. I remember one of our meetings with Doug and I thought to myself, âI don’t know her! And I’m a little nervous about going into business together. But I’ll tell you, we started this business in January 2021, still in the depths of COVID. And our business partnership has been one of the most affirmative and vital aspects of COVID.
Mel: Mitra, you were at CNN while you were at MTC. Sara, you were focused on the WURD. That was in 2019. What were you hoping to accomplish with MTC back then?
Mitra: I have to admit that I didn’t think I would get much from MTC as a program. It was yet another training I had to take. And I did a lot of training!
An important part was the fusion of vision and execution and then the constant measurement of your results. I think effective leaders know this is the right way to work. But having not only the vocabulary and the lessons, but something that requires discipline – it starts to make you believe that even at this late stage in life you can develop new habits and working methods.
I also think the relationships formed from TCM are invaluable. My other person is Lee Hill, who recently got a big job as editor-in-chief at GBH in Boston.
Mel: How did these relationships evolve after the program? The pandemic came just after You graduated.
Mitra: There was Sara, who was my professional rocker, and then Lee. He and I would alternate between Harlem and Jackson Heights. And before the vaccines, we wore masks and walked around each of our respective neighborhoods together. There were very few people during COVID that I did this with because I was so careful.
Both of those relationships turned out – I think Sara used the phrase âlifelineâ. It’s a bit existential: when we are dealing with a moment of life or death, with whom do we go for a walk? And then in Sara’s case it’s like, who are we going with?
Mel: When did you realize where you were going with Sara?
Mitra: It was in July. There was yet another article about mainstream media and the racism he faced in his senior ranks. I called Sara. We had seen enough this at the moment. I remember one of us saying, âWe have to do something. And the time is now.
Between January and June, I had actually tried to buy old media. And on that phone call with Sara, within seconds it became clear to me that moving forward the answer for both of us was not to buy an old outlet and power some sort. feeling of nostalgia right now in the country. Yet the answer also wasn’t to create something brand new and engage in some form of life-saving work that outlets like WURD have been doing for decades.
You usually don’t get a business model in a matter of minutes. Of course we have been weeks, months and over a year later, we are still working on it. But there was something that crystallized in that conversation: the idea of ââcoming together to achieve scale and power. It was almost not even a choice to do something. I think we felt propelled. And we felt compelled to work together.
Mel: Sara, you said you were a little worried at first. What made you realize that it could be a powerful union?
Sara: We are aligned with fundamental things: community media, serving blacks and browns, disrupting power structures. But we are also aligned with making money! We both knew it would be for profit. It was about creating wealth. We are not greedy. We want to make a lot of money so that we can make a big difference. So that we can have an impact in a capitalist world.
Often times, if you are a benefactor, you will think that making money is betrayal. We are both benefactors who believe in making money.
Mitra: It has allowed us both from a sales and revenue perspective to move, but also to pivot in listening to the market. The combination of idealism and practicality has served us both quite well, in less than a year.
Mel: How do you think your business start-up experience would have been different if your business partner hadn’t gone through MTC?
Mitra: The common approach and vocabulary are important.
Sara: The most powerful thing is that we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other and had the opportunity to see each other in action. This formed the basis of this commercial partnership.
Mitra: Sara’s challenge at MTC actually disrupted the journalistic model in a way everyone is doing now, including Epicenter. She was trying to get jobs for people. It wasn’t, “We’re going to cover jobs or we’re going to have a job fair.” It was “We’re going to find jobs for people,” which wasn’t natural for journalism in 2019.
Fast forward two years. The question that currently arises at so many outlets is: are you serving your communities? What is the thing of value that you are creating for them? This is definitely a question we think about all the time at URL with our partners. This is also the question that even the CNNs and New York Times of the world are asking themselves now.
TCM has also taught us that you can be disruptive, but you need to quantify it. I remember Sara’s first report was for eight jobs, and in the case of Epicenter, the first food bank we mentioned in our newsletter received six large diaper donations. When you come from a large organization like CNN, you might not be celebrating in single digits. But at MTC, you are taught that these figures are in fact a revolution.
Associated training: Apply for the 2022 Media Transformation Challenge (MTC) program