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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor
Alicia Benjamin had a vision — to give marginalized people the power to enhance their lives and change their communities, by offering them the most effective tool: information.
Her idea, which earned a place in the second annual Google News Initiative Startups Boot Camp last fall, now lives and breathes — a news outlet called The Charlotte Voice, which has launched on social media.
Benjamin is also a mom, a freelance writer and the editor of Pride Magazine, a bimonthly business and lifestyle publication serving the Black community in Charlotte. Her new solo project is more basic, and more transformational.
“I think I’m different from other news organizations in Charlotte because I want to serve marginalized people,” she told me the other day. “And I’m really invested in the community and the struggles and the hopes of the everyday people in the community. I would be part of the target audience. And yeah, I think I know what their needs and desires are, what resources they would need, and information they would need to make their lives better and make the community better.”
When I had the pleasure of talking with Benjamin about her project, the tips for startups that I heard boiled down to this:
- Know your community and what it needs, and keep learning.
- Have a good idea how you’ll pay the bills.
- Start small and level up.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
What’s the unmet need you’re trying to fill with The Charlotte Voice?
I wanted to provide a news outlet that would give marginalized people in Charlotte information and resources that they could use that would enhance their lives, and information that I hope will inspire them to become more active in the community.
Give me an example.
Say if someone wanted to put a stoplight in their community in a dangerous intersection, they would know where to go, who to reach out to, what action to take to make that happen. Or maybe they have a child in CMS, the local school district, and the child tested positive for COVID. How long would their child have to stay home? How would they get their lessons?
Where can families get free food resources when they’re needed, and where can they turn to access mental health services? Where can families get free school supplies? Information about community events, especially for children. Contact information for local, state and national representatives. The ever-changing information about COVID vaccination and testing sites. Information about CMS magnet school programs.
Where are the school board meetings held? Where are City Council meetings held? What time? What’s the process for speaking before the City Council? You know, what issues should they be aware of that may impact them? That type of thing.
Tell me about the GNI boot camp.
It was great. Of course, it’s virtual meetings. We all met weekly with Phillip Smith (founder and director of the camp) and a couple of mentors. And he just had readings and assignments for us to do each week. So we learned how to tackle our ideas for our project, starting with focusing on specific customer segments that we wanted to serve. And we completed a Lean Canvas for our projects. Are you familiar with Lean Canvas?
Tell me about it.
It’s a one-page business plan template, and it helps you break down your idea into the key assumptions that you have about your audience and how to serve them. They told us to interview people in the community. We did that. We all created mini-surveys and we interviewed people in the community to gauge what their needs are, what issues they’re concerned about, what news coverage they’d like to see.
We researched the other news services in the community. They gave us ideas on ways to bring in revenue — you know, how to get funders or ways to get subscribers.
And the big thing for me was that some of us came into the process with a plan but hadn’t really done much with it. Some people had already started, they may have had a digital news outlet already, but they’re in the early stages. So, they just let us know that we could start small — which was important for me. We don’t have to start with the digital news outlet, because that’s what I thought I would start with, a website. But they just stressed the importance of doing something initially. So what I decided to do was just start with the social media news project, and that’s how I’m disseminating news and information.
You get some continuing support from GNI, right?
We will have quarterly sessions with mentors, and they’ll help us with our plans. And we’re supposed to get a small amount of funding.
I know you’re posting to Twitter and Instagram. How’s the reaction?
It’s been good! I’ve engaged with some people in the community online, and I’m getting some feedback on ways that I can better serve the community, and I’m getting some information from nonprofits that I can push out on social media.
Talk about your business model. How will you sustain this?
Well, I plan to get paid subscribers. I have a landing page, and I’m collecting information from people so that I can ask for people to subscribe when I get, you know, an actual digital site. And I’ll seek funders and advertisers.
Any timetable for launching the website?
I don’t have one right now. I’m just taking it one step at a time and engaging with the community and growing my audience, which is the first thing that I need. That’s what I learned — that I need to grow my audience and let people know what The Charlotte Voice is, and how it can serve them, and why they’ll want to support it.
Advice for anybody who might want to start a news organization?
I would say do the research on the customers that they think they want to serve. Have a clear idea of what service they want to provide for the community. Have some ideas about how they can bring in revenue. And, you know, engage in the community. Get to know the people, get to know organizations. And start small.