Content, community and culture

by Divya Murthy

May 1, 2018

Blavity co-founder discusses making digital space for the expression of black experiences

Blavity co-founder Jonathan Jackson
Blavity co-founder Jonathan Jackson speaks to Newhouse students Photo by Hanna Benavides

Are people getting ownership of what they create? This is the question that drives Jonathan Jackson’s efforts to give black voices a platform.

Jackson is a co-founder of Blavity, a venture-backed technology and media company aimed at building products and experiences for black millennials. During Newhouse’s 17th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media, Jackson sat down with assistant professor of communications  Charisse L’Pree and discussed how identity impacts media platforms like Blavity.

Since its founding in July 2014, Blavity has built up a monthly audience reach of 30 million between its social media presence and website, which publishes what Jackson calls “fairly robust” content about news, finance, music and technology. As head of corporate brand, Jackson meets with agencies and develops partnerships with brands that will benefit Blavity’s audience. Jackson described it as “selling the opportunity to engage with a culture brands don’t generally understand.”

“My work is around content, community and culture,” Jackson said. “I do a lot of thinking about [whether or not] people understand who we are, what we’re doing. Who are we reaching out to? How could we could do a better job?”

Jackson, 28, is the youngest co-founder of Blavity. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013, one of the few schools in the Midwest he felt had a strong historical bent coming out of the Civil Rights movement. In his time there, he remembered a lunch table in the student center that was the “nexus of black life,” a table that could seat only 10 people, but 20 people ended up squeezing in on any given day.

“That table was your place to find whatever you needed from the community,” he said. “The theme was black and gravity: that actual feeling of seeing someone you share something with and the elation you might find. That’s where the term Blavity came from.”

To Jackson, that space was better described as “brave” than “safe” because “you could actually be your full self in an environment that is bringing the best out of you.”

Jackson and the co-founders wanted to expand that space so people could discover different parts of themselves in a digital environment, where they could “create the narrative instead of having it delivered to them.”

“There’s a history of people taking from a culture and not respecting it, who created it and what sustains it,” he said. “It is usually the energy that black people across diasporas create, and the equity is not given back.”

The challenge was creating a profitable platform for black voices. Making sure people had access and ownership to their creations was key, said Jackson. To achieve that, Blavity runs two autonomous businesses: 21Ninety, focused on women of color and Afrotech, a Silicon Valley-based tech conference for black entrepreneurs. 

Given the vast range of black experiences and the complexity of making these stories accessible to an audience, a member of the audience asked Jackson how Blavity does quality control for the platform. Jackson said that when it first started, they were happy to just be getting traction. Now there are editorial standards and assessment of whether content is exactly right for the platform, but a bigger challenge is addressing what L’Pree called “inherently intersectional blackness,” referring to the many different subcultures within the black community.

“I’ve tried to get out the way as much as possible by giving people the ability to take the pen themselves,” he said. “There’s often a limiting to people’s ability to express themselves. There are real conversations that have to exist around what it means to be black here, but also black now.”

Switching to the “now”part of that equation, Jackson also talked about the potential of 21st-century media. He is a Knight Foundation Fellow at Harvard University, where he plans to study what black media looks like in the digital age and with a burgeoning creative class. The 21st century is one in which creativity can start and end with an individual, he said.

“The reality is you can be an independent media company by yourself,” he said, describing how one person could get a camera, shoot, record and quickly create content for an audience, while a company might take months of meetings, projections and planning to do the same thing. Independent creators who have ownership of what they are creating differentiates 21st-century media from 20th-century media.

“We’re going to get where we’re going,” he said. “The question is what burns down and what gets built? How do you navigate noise and build something that can outlast you?”

Divya Murthy is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.