Does it really have to be this hard?

We could ditch the platitudes for meaningful action, now.

Does it really have to be this hard?
(Photo by Alice Dreger)

By Dana Amihere

This is how I’m feeling on the day we all dread as local news publishers: the day you can’t make payroll.

I founded AfroLA as a nonprofit digital local news outlet in order to provide solutions-focused, data-driven and community-centered journalism for Los Angeles told through the lens of the Black community. We’ve focused our work on how issues disparately impact L.A.’s most vulnerable groups and communities of color. 

From the very beginning, AfroLA has been grounded in transparency and accountability. One of the things that I knew that I wanted to do as I started this nonprofit news organization is to be honest and upfront about what it takes, to tell what's happening behind the scenes to make the operation run. 

To that end, I started documenting the process of building AfroLA on Medium. “We want our audience to understand why we’re doing things the way we’re choosing to do them. This [Medium journal] will open us up to scrutiny, criticism and feedback that may be uncomfortable,” I wrote in 2022. “But, it will keep us honest, which matters more.”

Well, I’m being honest here: Friday was a hard day for me as a founder. We'd come perilously close to this day before but never had the coffers been quite this low. Friday was the day I had to call all the freelancers and contractors currently working with AfroLA and tell them I couldn't make all of payroll this month. 

I made sure I took care of the people who can’t pay rent or buy food without this freelancing income. Those who said they could afford to wait agreed to be paid in April after some scheduled deposits come in.

Ironically, last week was also the week I signed onto the letter to Press Forward from ANNO (the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets) asking that operations like mine receive emergency cash infusions for general operating expenses. Why did I sign it, besides obviously needing the money? 

I'm angry that local news publishers like me are put in a position where we have to choose between paying ourselves and paying our teams.We are all dedicated to serving our communities through news, but we still personally have bills. I still have a mortgage to pay. I still have prescriptions to pick up. I still have groceries to buy. I know that making ends meet through cobbling AfroLA together with other freelance gigs and teaching isn't sustainable, physically or emotionally. 

I'm angry because a few weeks ago, I reviewed our finances with our board of directors and explained (while holding back tears) that, while we netted $7,000 in revenue over the first year, my nearly $10,000 loan to the company still needed to be repaid. And to get to where we are now, I have averaged 55 hours a week working for AfroLA on top of my two other jobs. I think even more than being physically tired, I’m tired of being broke and burnt out.

I hear the big players shouting from the rooftops that they want to save local news. But to me it feels half-hearted and, quite honestly, half-assed, because if you truly meant it, you would give us what we actually need. And you would give it to more organizations than a chosen few. Not that the chosen few, who are awarded five and six figures in funding are not worthy. But their worthiness does not diminish our worthiness. It does not diminish my worthiness as a local news provider. Our work may not be comparable in size or scale, but how am I supposed to reach that level subsisting on $5,000 microgrants?

In case you think I’m not “accessing resources” available to me, I apply for multiple grants a month, applications that often take hours. I’m currently participating in two journalism cohorts, including the Google News Initiative (GNI) sustainability cohort run out of INN. Looking forward to staying open into 2025, I just applied for another cohort and two fellowships. While some of these programs do have helpful resources, on the whole, sadly, I feel as though I'm in them for the money.

And I'm so tired of being told that, to have any hope of funding, I have to sit in cohorts and endless PowerPoints of principles and practices that I am literally paid to teach myself. I'm a solutions journalism trainer, but I'm now in a cohort to teach me about solutions journalism to get funds for my work. I’m a web developer and designer by profession, but I’m stuck sitting in the GNI webinars teaching me website “best practices” to get that $20,000 in funds from INN. 

Keep in mind, I have to sit through these programs while I’m also wearing a closetful of hats for AfroLA: bookkeeper, web producer, data visualist, editor, social media manager, internship coordinator, and reporter. I’m tired of being asked to do more training to get funds for work I know how to do. I’m tired of being talked down to and condescended, treated like I’m somehow not smart enough or good enough when I’m doing all of these jobs already.

Most of all, I'm angry at a news industry that claims it wants to save itself yet doesn’t understand the call is coming from inside. Our so-called philanthropic saviors aren't doing a whole lot to throw us a line – at least not most of us. 

As I see it, local journalism today is the Titanic. Only a chosen few are making it to the lifeboats. The rest of us feel like we’re being left to drown.

Dana Amihere is a journalist, journalism educator, and the owner of Code Black Media, a digital media consultancy that lives at the intersection of data, design and equity. She is also the founder and director of AfroLA, a nonprofit newsroom covering Los Angeles through the lens of the Black community. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.