In 2020, many heavy issues and events were directly affecting African Americans, and not in a good way. Police or police wannabes killed unarmed Black citizens while a deadly contagion was spreading, disproportionally afflicting Black people. Nonetheless, hundreds of marches against police brutality and nervousness about a consequential presidential election drew scores of people outside, further putting Black Americans, in particular, at risk.
Lauren Williams wasn’t sure African Americans were getting the news they needed. Nor was her friend and former co-worker, Akoto Ofori-Atta. So, the two co-founded Capital B, with Williams as CEO and Ofori-Atta as chief audience officer.
The digital publication focuses coverage on health, criminal justice, environmental justice, politics, education, rural issues and climate change. It’s a mix of topics scarcely or inadequately covered for Black audiences, and “objectively important things that intersect with everyday Black life,” Williams said.
Capital B is funded by foundations, individuals, corporations and memberships. It raised $9 million before launching early last year. A national publication, it also zooms in on local issues, increasingly through local newsrooms it’s establishing across the country. It launched its first local newsroom in Atlanta last year and this spring announced Gary, Indiana, as the second.
In this interview, Williams discusses the founding of Capital B, and its goals and challenges. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
How did Capital B get started?
Akoto and I met as editors at The Root in 2010, and we stayed friends after we left. In June of 2020, I was the editor-in-chief and senior vice president of Vox, and she was the managing editor at The Trace. We were really feeling like our places in leadership at predominantly white organizations just weren’t filling our personal and professional need to serve Black audiences. We were looking at what was happening inside of newsrooms and what was happening all over the country, and we felt that the specific journalism need that wasn’t being met was reaching Black audiences with the news that was most important to them — the people who were most being affected by the stories. We really felt like the time was at that moment to start something new, to take the lead.
What were the early days of planning a journalism startup like?
We talked through all the challenges we were seeing. We talked through a need for more enterprise and in-depth national reporting on Black issues. We talked through the decline in local news and how that affects Black audiences and the reporting on Black stories. We talked through the need for a sustainable business model for local news. And that’s how we came up with the idea for Capital B, a local and national news organization for Black audiences that is nonprofit, that has a centralized model that supports a network of local newsrooms.
What does Capital B offer that existing, Black-focused media — particularly local news outlets — do not provide?
Capital B is building on a wonderful story tradition of Black press, and so much of that Black press still exists. But what is true, also, is that the local commercial news business is a tough one. A lot of these news organizations are small and don’t have as many reporters as they used to. What Capital B wants to bring is more. We want to be additive to the news ecosystems in these communities, not take them over. We want to hopefully partner with legacy Black news organizations. We want to bring original reporting, we want to bring accountability reporting and we want to just bring an additional injection of Black news to communities that have a lot of audience and deserve a lot of news.
How did you come up with the name Capital B?
We were completely spinning on the name. We were calling it Project X forever. At the time, there was a big conversation in newsrooms about whether or not to capitalize the B in Black. At one of our brainstorming sessions, it just hit me that we should call this Capital B. The reasoning behind the push for the capital B is emblematic of what we were trying to do with Capital B — centering Black people in America as this group worthy of this important coverage. If people got it, they would get it. But if people didn’t get it, it still sounded good, and it would still work.
What is the most pivotal experience earlier in your career that prepared you for this?
I had no idea I was a builder until I went to Vox. I started there when it was a couple months old, as managing editor, and helped to build it into what it became. I had no idea I had the stomach for that and that I was good at that. It gave me the confidence to leave and start my own thing and to understand how to do it — the things to do, the things not to do, the things to repeat, the things not to repeat.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with our journalists, an absolutely amazing group of people who are mission-oriented, ambitious and I think motivated to come to a startup and do this kind of work and do really excellent work every day. It’s also rewarding to know they’re here because of an idea that Akoto and I had and that they have made it a reality with their work and dedication. It just surprises me every day that it’s all real.
And the most challenging?
Recruiting. The group of journalists and business professionals we have on staff are amazing. It was hard to find them, to get them in the door. I think recruiting for a startup in a remote environment, when you’re so serious about your mission and hiring local … it’s just really difficult in this industry. Additionally, growing audience is difficult. The platforms are rapidly changing. Facebook is a complete non-entity to news publishers at this point. Whatever is going on with Twitter is going on with Twitter. It’s hard enough for the big, established news organizations to keep up. For a news organization starting with no audience, it is really, really hard to build up that audience.
In what cities might we see local Capital B newsrooms in the future?
As we know from the local news crisis, there’s a need pretty much everywhere. But there’s particular need in the Southeast, so that’s one of the places where we have our eye.
How do you feel about the long-term future of Capital B?
I am a very cautious and careful CEO. I left Vox in February of 2021, and the reason we didn’t launch Capital B until the following year is because we needed to make sure we had raised the money to last us a couple of years and that we have an apparatus in place to raise the money we need responsibly. That’s why we’re growing slowly, why we’re being responsible about the livelihoods of the Black journalists we’ve hired, about the promises we’re making to the communities we enter. We want to build this thing to last, and we want to build out diverse revenue to support it.
I read that you feel very strongly about maintaining a good work-home balance. Have you been able to achieve that with this job?
I try really hard. But in the first year, it’s kind of understood for the CEO that maybe it’s going to be a little bit more difficult. For me, with the amount of work I have, the amount of time I’m able to spend with my family is much more than it would have been at a different kind of startup. I try to set strong boundaries for myself and my staff so we’re able to put our families first.
Feature photo by Melissa Alexander