An Oprah for Black Media's Internet Age?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s creating news for Black millennials, by Black millennials.
By Nick Fouriezos
Morgan DeBaun enters our Google Hangout from the Los Angeles headquarters of Blavity, the foundation of the Black media empire the entrepreneur has only just begun to build. A photo of the slain Michael Brown hangs behind her, a reminder of why this all began, and a reminder of St. Louis, the hometown where she was steeped in Black culture from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. to Black Santa and Black Cinderella. Now the 28-year-old talks from a high-rise office about her weekend plans at South by Southwest, where she’ll speak on a panel called Full Color Future. “The future is really bright,” she says, but communities of color remain divided — not just ethnically but also generationally — and it’s up to younger leaders like herself to lead the discussion on “how to bring others along.”
In the four years DeBaun has been co-founder and CEO, Blavity has expanded to include a network of five Black-centric websites — from Travel Noire (products and experiences for “explorers of color”) to the female lifestyle brand 21Ninety — plus conferences such as EmpowerHer and AfroTech. In all, she says they reach an audience of more than 30 million people per month. The company’s fast-paced growth is a lesson to “not sleep on young Black entrepreneurs,” says Jacques Bastien, a Haitian-born Brooklynite who founded SHADE and Nappy.co. With a media company providing a platform for Black creators, DeBaun is building “what essentially will be the market winner and leader,” said Marlon Nichols, an early Blavity investor and managing partner at Cross Culture Ventures, in a February interview.
[Blavity] has raised just over $2 million to date — making DeBaun one of the few Black female founders to break the million mark, and yet that’s a paltry sum by startup standards.
Blavity is counterintuitive on multiple levels. The network has a “website-first model,” DeBaun says: Less than 10 percent of its spending goes to Facebook ads, while other outlets spend millions churning views out of Mark Zuckerberg’s click sausage shop. What’s more, about 40 percent of its articles are user-generated, submitted by unpaid contributors, a bloglike business model that’s helped the rise of sports sites like SB Nation and Bleacher Report. Travel Noire sells travel packages and tips; ticket sales feed revenues from conferences. The point? “We’re not building business on top of other people’s platforms,” she says.
Like many of her startup brethren, DeBaun is disrupting a field dominated by old giants, like Ebony and Jet, Essence and Black Entertainment Television. And 2016 heralded a changing of the guard. That was the year DeBaun was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, the Root 100 and MVMT50 Top 10 Innovators — and The New York Times ran a damning headline aimed at her elders: “Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival.” “There was not this force to innovate,” DeBaun reflects. “If I had done this 10 years ago, maybe they could still exist [as they did]. Now it’s too late.”
Is she a journalist? “Never aspired to write news,” the political science major says. An activist? Maybe, but that doesn’t capture the whole picture. How about the internet age’s version of the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey? She’s a fan, but not an aspirant: “I don’t want to be Oprah, but I do want to embody this world where I’m just going to be Morgan. If that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t matter. I’ll just make the space.”
In high school, she filled plenty of spaces — participating in Model United Nations, chess, field hockey, the diversity club and the Obama ’08 campaign. At Washington University in St. Louis, the overachieving history nerd became student body president as a sophomore, while also exploring her creative side with art classes. In the fall of 2014, she quit her job at Intuit in Silicon Valley after the police shooting of Michael Brown, and teamed up with Jonathan Jackson, Aaron Samuels and Jeff Nelson to launch Blavity; the name comes from the way young Black minds find and attract each other, an idea she calls “Black gravity.” The co-founders’ diverse interests drive the site’s editorial range. “Aaron is Black, Jewish, a poet and a consultant. My CTO wanted to be a rapper, and is a database engineer,” says DeBaun. “Everybody carries all these things with us. We are also all Black.”
DeBaun and Blavity still face an uphill battle toward relevancy. With fewer than 30 employees (but expecting to grow to 50 soon), the company relies heavily on its contributor network. Building content on the back of (mostly) free labor is controversial across the media spectrum, but especially for a website about the African-American experience. “In my perfect world, I prefer everybody gets paid,” says Bastien, whose SHADE management agency represents Black and brown creators.
DeBaun’s youth, an asset so far, will be tested as she seeks to secure larger deals. “If there is a challenge to face, it’s this idea [that Blavity’s founders are] still new and young,” Bastien says. The company is in a Series A funding round but has raised just over $2 million to date — making DeBaun one of the few Black female founders to break the million mark, even though that’s a paltry sum by startup standards.
“I worry that we’re still a small fish,” DeBaun concedes. As for their unpaid contributors, she understands the criticism, but she also believes that volunteerism is what helps keep their news diverse. Blavity should “ebb and flow with where the community is,” she says. “When something like Black Panther comes out, it’s like: How many [articles] can we get? I say, ‘Bring them all. Good. Bad. Evil. Sad. Everything.’ Because that is a reflection of the energy right now.”