Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: What drove you to found Black Ballad?

Tobi: I co founded Black Ballad in 2014 with Bola Awoniyi, who is my co-founder and my husband, and was my boyfriend at the time. And it really came from a place of passionate frustration.

I am a journalist, I guess you’d say by trade. I worked at a lot of women’s weeklies and monthlies, and entertainment magazines. And I just realised that black women were just so absent in newsrooms, and even on the pages of publications, we were just neglected by the whole media world, women’s lifestyle world. It was like black women didn’t exist, and if we did, we existed as props in terms of to prop up white women. So you might get one black woman in a photoshoot to make it look diverse, or we were kind of misrepresented.

So I was just kind of like, if no one’s speaking to black woman through women’s media, then there is an opportunity here, and I think I should do it. And I guess, with that frustration, and just being so passionate about the experiences of black women, because I am a black woman, I was also freelancing a lot, and I couldn’t get a permanent job. I’d apply for loads of jobs and I wasn’t getting any.

And I started to do this thing, when you apply for a lot of jobs, you start to see who got the job, you go for the interview, and then you kind of realise who did get the job? And I’d look at who got the jobs – and I think language has come so far in seven years – and every person that got the job was a white woman who’s extremely skinny, early 20s, and kind of looked very similar if I’m honest.

And I didn’t quite have the language to kind of think of why. Why was I not getting the job? But all I knew was, there was sort of a similarity between women that were in these magazines, and I remember thinking about being an intern or being on shift as a freelancer, and these woman looked very similar.

Being completely honest now, I just didn’t fit what a staff writer at a women’s magazine looked like at that time, and not being able to put into language, but knowing there was a barrier that I was up against that I couldn’t quite articulate meant, okay, if no one’s going to give me a job – and not because I’m talented, I think you have to kind of have, I guess, some confidence at one point to move on in terms of, I knew I was talented, I knew I was a great writer, I knew I had great ideas, but yet no one could see it.

And I was kind of like, if no one can see what I’m offering, if I can see that everybody looks alike, and I don’t look like these women who are getting these jobs, I need to change tactics. I need to, a phrase we use in media, I need to pivot. And I decided to start Black Ballad because I wanted to give myself a job. I thought, if no one’s going to take a chance on me, I might as well take a chance on myself.

I also knew there was a gap. Black magazines weren’t talking to black women in the way that I wanted to be spoken to, and black women in my life also echoed this sentiment.

So I guess those three things of being frustrated with what I could see going on women’s lifestyle media, knowing that I wasn’t going to get a job, but not being able to articulate why, and knowing that nothing was out there that was talking to me as a black woman, all kind of came together for Black Ballad to be birthed in 2014.

Was it something you always had in mind that you wanted to grow it to be a mainstream publication, you didn’t want to just write for almost like a blog and then evolve it, you wanted to go straight in as, this is going to be a proper publication?

I did have a blog, actually! I actually had a Tumblr account called Brown Ballad. And I used to blog there and I used to blog on WordPress, as well, so I had a Tumblr account and a WordPress account, Brown Ballad.

The thing is, I realised that my opinions didn’t represent every black woman. And that was why I knew that it needed to be a fully fledged media company. It couldn’t just be based on my opinions and values as a black woman, because all categories of women, or identities, there’s always nuance.

So I was like, it can’t just be me, it just can’t be my thoughts or feelings and opinions. I want it to be a diverse range of black women who are speaking to another diverse range of black women.

And what made you look at membership as a funding option back in 2016, because everybody seems to be doing membership now., but that was a decision that was quite ahead of the curve.

We were very early. The membership, full credit goes to my co founder Bola. So his background actually, while I’m a journalist, he is a digital analyst and then evolved on to being a digital consultant, a very good match! He was specialising in media in his job. He was looking at how media is being changed, and the impact of technology on media. One day we were having a conversation, and he was like, ‘I think we should be a membership.’

And also, it was fuelled by personal ambitions. We had been together for a couple for a very long time, we wanted to take our relationship to the next level, and we were pouring every bit of money into Black Ballad.

But we weren’t getting anything in advertising, because advertising, especially back then was about scale, how big is your audience. Black people make up 3% of the country, if black women make up half of that, that’s 1.5%. And then you’ve got to think about the specific sort of target audience, that Black Ballad is targeting in terms of black women. People didn’t see the scale, they didn’t see the value.

So we knew that advertising was not going to bring us money, especially at that time, because we had a much smaller community then. So Bola was like, ‘The only way we can make money really, at this point is to have a membership.’

And also, I had sort of like an advertisement, not a deal, but a beauty brand gave us some products, and they weren’t very good for black skin. And I remember writing about it, and the brand has never worked with us again.

I think that really pushed me actually with the membership because it made me see that I don’t have to rely on brands for money to give black women an authentic experience. And I think that’s very important, especially when we were so small, we didn’t really have leverage then to kind of push back with brands.

So the membership gave us a sustainable income that didn’t rely on brands, but actually put black women first in terms of, we have to make the membership the best it is, so black women actually pay us.

And then the flip side of that is by having a paywall, we’re actually protecting black writers, black female writers who don’t get opportunities to write about their stories or interview people that they want. They get to do that in a safe space as well.

And so it was kind of personal again, wanting to have a life that didn’t revolve around Black Ballad financially. It was knowing that this gave us a sustainable income, and not being reliant on brands who wanted to use the platform to advertise products that didn’t even work for the audience that we were engaging with. So that’s why we did it.

We were so early, and if I’m honest, people didn’t think it was going to work. There was a thing of like, this small, independent brand led by a black woman is having the balls to make people pay for content. People did not think it was going to work.

But three years on, we are still standing and the membership has grown so, so much. And it’s so funny, because the people that didn’t think it was going to work, some of members, some of my critics actually love us now.

I think one thing that Bola and I both agreed on, and I have to be honest, I wasn’t keen on the membership at first, actually. We spoke about it for eight months. But I think we both realised it was going to be better to be early than to be late. I think that was it. It was like, if we’re early, we’re early, and we take the criticism, we take the flack.

The criticism came from, I met with one of my greatest media heroes – I’m not going to say who it is – and he said, ‘Don’t do a membership.’ And I was heartbroken because he is my journalist, idol.

And I still had to push against that sort of feeling, even people in our community were like, ‘I don’t think I’ll pay for it if I’m honest’. Other critics in the media were kind of like, ‘Why would you have a membership?’ The criticism for the membership was coming in all directions, thick and fast.

But we just went with our gut. We did some focus groups, we did some phone calls, and we had enough reassurance that there were people that were going to buy, and it was a success, and we’re still standing three years later.

So was it a case that once you launched it, it sort of built slowly or were you actually surprised at the amount of people that straightaway were like, ‘Yeah, we will actually support that’?

So basically, how the membership came about, I should probably go back a few steps. So we launched the membership in, I want to say October 2016 with an event . We just wanted to raise around I think £10,000 was our aim, and we raised about £12.5k when it was all said and done.

We did a crowdfunding campaign and hosted a crowdfund on our own site and it went really slow at first, and I really thought we’d made a mistake. And then it picked up because we kind of changed tactics.

But one thing that happened as well was that a lot of people that kind of joined the membership in the crowdfund, they actually dropped off because they didn’t quite, I guess, I think people bought a membership to support Black Ballad. And they weren’t utilising it. So we had to kind of go back to the drawing board and be like, ‘Okay, what is the content that we’ve got to make to make people see this as an integral part of their daily routine? What are the events that we should be doing? What are the brands that we should be working with?’

So we spent 2017, we’re experimenting with different content ideas, different types of events. We slowly started to build the membership numbers back up over 2017, 2018. And then I think, since 2019, it’s been on a really great trajectory. And Covid, I have to admit, has really helped the membership numbers increase.

You’re not the only one to say that! How does the directory fit alongside that, because I guess if you’re not reliant on advertising, is that a paid for option where people pay to be in it?

Yeah, so brands pay to be in our directory, and then we give our audience, or our paying members I should say, discounts to the brands in the directory. Our directory is very important to us, actually. Because there is this side of media that’s all about the consumer that we talk about, and then we talk about media in terms of who’s actually telling stories.

But media functions as a platform to advertise businesses, and black businesses don’t often get those opportunities to advertise to customers, because they don’t get funding for their businesses to pay the rates that you would have to pay to be a mainstream magazine.

So for us, that’s our version of, I guess advertisement in terms of, we create very fair prices for black-owned businesses to be in that directory, and hopefully do some content with them and around their business to advertise to members.

And then it doubles up as a nice lifestyle perk. It’s nice that black women, or whoever’s a member can see this black-owned business and be like, ‘Oh okay, that’s a great product for my hair, or that’s a great service. And I can use my money to pay for a product or service.’

Talking of funding, you’ve recently secured £70,000 worth of funding from the Future of News project. So what are you planning to do with that?

So with the Future of News project, myself, Bola and our head of editorial Jendella Benson, we’ve always been conscious that we’re three Londoners, three black Londoners. And if Black Ballad is going to not just survive but thrive, we need to look outside London.

One thing that I’ve been very clear on to the team is that I’m not going to repeat the mistakes of mainstream media. And what I mean by that is, there’s not going to be one dominant voice in this publication, and that dominant voice is the black female Londoner. I needed to do a lot of work to kind of undo that.

So the £70,000 pounds from the Future of News project, we’ve got the Black woman in Britain project, also known as the Outside London project, where we did a survey where we had 3,500 black women fill in information and answer questions all about their lives up and down the country. And from that data, we have commissioned nine editors across the country to create content about their area.

So for nine weeks later on in the year, we’ll have an editor from a specific region in the country take over Black Ballad with all content from their area. And that is from Scotland, Wales, the North West, East of England, South West, South East. And so we’ve had nine new team members, for the last four to six weeks, and it’s been amazing. And the stories and content that’s being produced, I’m just so excited for it.

I want to be clear, this isn’t just the beginning and the end of us doing content that really puts a spotlight on black women outside London. It’s just the beginning. So that’s what we’re going to be doing with the money.

Tell me about your takeover of HuffPost last month, how did that come about? That looked incredible.

HuffPost came about, in all honesty, there is a fantastic journalist at HuffPost called Nadine White, a black female journalist. And she is a Black Ballad member, a fantastic journalist, we are friends.

She saw an announcement about our black motherhood project that we’re doing on Black Ballad; like the Outside London project, we had done a survey about the habits and I guess the things that black mothers were going through in January, and we want to create content around that. And she saw it in an email and said, ‘I think HuffPost would be interested in this,’ and she connected us to her lifestyle editor Nancy Groves.

We had a conversation, myself, Jenny and Bola with Nancy, – the day before I went into labour actually, which is so funny – about doing a takeover with them on black motherhood because they also know how important this subject is. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth in this country, not America. And they knew that it was a pressing issue, they knew that we’re very passionate about it. They also understand that we have this audience in a way that they don’t.

So we spoke about this project, and then I think over the course of a two month period, Jendella Benson led the charge in terms of commissioning black female writers, black moms, black moms-to-be in creating content that would sit and live on the Huffington Post.

We took over their homepage, their parenting page, their HuffPost UK social channels, their parenting newsletter, and it was an amazing experience to work with the Huffington Post team. It was an amazing experience to have a bigger budget, to commission writers that wouldn’t even get the chance to be on those platforms. So it was great. It was a great experience for us as a small team to work with a much larger team.

But most importantly, it was a great experience to make sure black women’s stories were told on a platform that was bigger than ours. I think Black Ballad by far is the best platform for black women in Britain, I will always say that. Because if I don’t believe it, how can I convince anyone to pay for it, I have to believe it. And I believe that so wholeheartedly that no one can do what we do.

But at the same time, I also have to be realistic in terms of, we don’t have the biggest microphone. And at the end of the day, these are issues that everybody should be talking about. Everybody should be outraged that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth. And media is not doing a good enough job of covering this story.

So to have that story on HuffPost, and to have black women’s experiences as they’re going through pregnancy and childbirth, and really doing some serious journalism on the racist experience that we go through when we’re going through the pregnancy journey was so important.

Do you think that’s something that HuffPost will have had lessons from that they learned as well, or is this just going to be something they did for a couple of months and then will just go back to what they used to do?

No, I don’t think so. I think Huffington Post, one of the things that we all remarked on was that Huffington Post so took a backseat. They wanted to learn from us, they wanted to see how we engage and talk to this audience. They are so passionate about supporting us afterwards.

And I think that’s the one thing that I’ve been really touched by, that Nancy Groves, Head of Life and their acting Editor in Chief, Harry Slater have been so passionate and so committed to supporting Black Ballad after this collaboration. And that’s why I think that this isn’t just a vanity project for them.

Also, some of the content that they put out through Nadine White, who is one of my favourite journalists, reassured me that I’d be walking into a partnership that felt like a partnership and not a diversity project for them.

So if there’s one publication that I’m very confident in, in terms of making sure that black voices are heard, it is the Huffington Post.

I assume there have been benefits for you in terms of sort of audience, hopefully, some memberships?

Yep. There was memberships, there was [a thousand memberships], which is always great, it accounted for about 75% of that week’s memberships through Huffington Post. And obviously, great awareness for us.

But the thing I think I didn’t take into consideration if I’m honest, which it did, it validated us to a lot of people in media. And when you’re doing these collaborations, especially because it’s such a serious topic, you don’t think about other people’s opinions, and with media it has always been centred on the opinions of white people.

I created a media platform to be the complete opposite to that. And Huffington Post gave us validation within an industry that is dominated by white people. And I guess that’s great, it’s great for us.

I’d be interested to see those who loved it and gave validation on social media, follow it up, if I’m honest, but it gave us validation, which I guess is never a bad thing.

And more widely have you found since founding it, that British media, or media more widely, has it got better at serving black communities? Or is the change a bit more superficial?

I think it’s got better, but I don’t think it’s anywhere where it should be. For a long time, I was a freelancer, even when I was doing Black Ballad and people loved my work, I still couldn’t get a full time job in the office. And I’m going to be honest, I think that says a lot. It says a lot that you can create a whole platform a whole membership, and people still see you just as a freelancer that they can wheel out when they want.

And I know that this whole idea of being a freelancer that kind of gets called for the black issue is very common among black journalists in the UK, black female journalists. It’s not just a me issue. It’s not just a me sort of , I guess people might say a thing in my head. There is a conversation amongst black female journalists in particular, that publications only reach out to them when they want a race issue. And not nearly as many that need to be are in the offices. And that is why I don’t think it is where it needs to be.

I also think the fact that we are still doing diversity schemes, it just is so telling. It just is so telling, that we’re still having to do diversity schemes to get black and brown people through the door of newsrooms is, in 2020 as an industry, we should feel a lot of shame about it. We should. How many black editors do we have in the country?

The ones we do have still get profiled by security at the door!

Yeah, Edward Enninful is like, the black editor that everybody knows and loves. And you know, it’s great that we have him. But I think many of us would struggle to go to double digits, I think you really would. And again, in 2020 it’s pretty pitiful.

The fact that the statistic that media is 94% white has been around for years, and we’re still doing diversity schemes, we’re still treating black female writers as disposable freelancers, yeah I don’t think it’s anywhere where it needs to be.

But as I said, I think there are some publications that are trying to do a much better job of incorporating black writers and race issues into their content.

And when you’re looking at the next five years in media, I know it’s difficult for anybody to think of past the end of this year, but what are your plans for Black Ballad for the next five years?

I’ll be honest, the first thing is keeping it afloat during COVID and such uncertain economic times. My first thought for the next five years of Black Ballad, that is my first thought.

I think any business owner that’s not thinking about how to navigate their business and pivot their business to survive in COVID should not be a business owner!

Because the content is still vitally important, isn’t it? Because if you look at the statistics of black people and Coronavirus in this country, then they need specific and dedicated information, right?

They do. You know, a great example is pre existing conditions that the media was talking about, like if you have this condition, don’t go out. Nobody was talking about sickle cell, which is a health crisis that affects black people. So we do need that content more than ever, because mainstream media is not putting out that content. And that’s just one tiny example. So navigating the choppy waters of COVID is my first port of call.

And I think after that it will be the regional expansion, keeping the regional content and engagement from black women outside London. 50% of our membership actually are not in London. So I’m really dedicated to making sure we keep that relationship with black women outside London engaged and deep, and also grow it.

Of course, in the next five years, of course I’m thinking about international expansion. In Europe alone , what publications are there for black women? There’s hardly anything. And I think Black Ballad has a real shot of dominating black media in Europe. I believe that we’re best placed to.

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