Combining humanitarian and solutions journalism: Q&A with BRIGHT Magazine’s founder

Tom Murphy

February 2, 2018

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By Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave)

A humanitarian-focused online magazine launched in late 2017 and may prove that there is a model for an independent news organization to thrive in a shrinking media landscape.

Bright Magazine got its start as two news verticals for the blogging platform Medium. Founder Sarika Bansal helmed The Development Set, focused on international development, and Bright, focused on education, for Medium. She used a mix of opinion pieces and deeply reported original stories with a deliberate bend towards highlighting solutions rather than problems.

The new magazine brings together the two separate spaces into one news organization based out of Nairobi, Kenya. Bansal brought on a team to expand reporting on humanitarian issues and the magazine is in the midst of its travel themed issue.

We spoke with Bansal about the founding of Bright, how it is funded and what it is doing different than other news outlets.

 

Why the name Bright?

Most importantly, it represents our outlook; even if we’re covering heavy topics, we will often include a solutions-oriented perspective. It’s also easy to pronounce and remember. And it’s a physically beautiful word, with a mix of rounded letters and pointed ones.

 

Bright Magazine is the combination of two prior publications you launched for Medium: Bright and the Development Set. What led you to combine the two into a single publication?

Internally, it was unwieldy and difficult to maintain and grow two publications and everything associated with them. I was editing everything, top to bottom, for The Development Set, and another editor was doing the same for Bright. It was getting exhausting—and a bit lonely. It was difficult too to build three brands from scratch simultaneously: Bright, The Development Set, and Honeyguide Media (the nonprofit I founded that owns these properties). In explaining my work to people, I felt a little like I was operating a shady Mauritius-based shell company.

Externally, we looked at our audience surveys, and realized that people turned to both publications for thoughtful, nuanced stories. Though the publications covered different subject material, they had the same outlook and vision for the future (which makes sense, since I served as founding editor on both).

 

The topics that BRIGHT Magazine covers fall under the large umbrella of humanitarian journalism, why focus on this area?

To me, “humanitarian journalism” is journalism in the public interest, particularly when it sheds light on marginalized communities. I’d say a large portion of our work does this.

Why do we focus on humanitarian journalism? It’s needed. Most existing journalism about social issues is (in my slightly irreverent opinion) jargon-laden, homogenous, and flat. And it turns people off from paying attention to them. I think it’s just as important that people understand advances in women’s health as the latest presidential scandal. Who decided that politics are a matter of national interest, but that social issues are fringe? We’re committed to presenting humanitarian topics in a manner that’s approachable and, well, bright.

There’s a lot of room to innovate in “humanitarian journalism,” which makes our work really fun. We constantly ask ourselves, “How can we present this topic so it emotionally resonates? How do we make this feel necessary? What about this is bold and fresh?”

 

What makes Bright different than others publications focused on these issues?

Our commitment to (1) being a beautiful magazine, with lots of great artwork complementing our words; (2) the range of voices we publish; (3) being “jargon-free since ‘16”; and (4) solutions journalism.

 

Why launch an online magazine at a time when news organizations are struggling?

We had the opportunity to do so from our funder; we saw a white space in the market for “social issues” journalism; we want to prove that people will click on nuanced stories about under-reported issues, if they’re presented in a fresh way that challenges them.

 

How is solutions journalism a key component to Bright?

Solutions journalism is rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. At least one-third of our feature stories explicitly use the solutions approach; a larger share touches on it.

This is the journalistic method in which I was (informally) trained, and it’s what I commit to spending much of my journalistic life propagating. In the context of BRIGHT Magazine, I believe it’s an effective method to report on social issues, as it allows you to get away from damaging tropes about marginalized communities. You’re not saying they’re inherently flawed, and if you follow the “solutions journalism impostors,” you’re also not worshipping a false prophet.

Solutions journalism is also inherently optimistic and forward-looking, which we love.

 

What types of stories fit with Bright’s editorial mission?

The more unconventional, the better! We take all types of written content, from features to opinion pieces to personal essays to short stories to screenplays. We also love photo and illustrations, especially comics. We don’t yet do video or animation (or fancier things like VR), but hope to one day soon.

 

One of the key challenges for media in this field is funding. How are you funded and, to steal some development jargon, what is your sustainability plan?

We’re funded now by the Gates Foundation, and are talking to everyone we can think of in the foundation world to diversify our funding stream. We’re also interested in hosting live storytelling events next year, and will look for corporate partners and others to help us produce them. We also may start crowd-funding campaigns, especially if we decide to publish print magazines.

 

Recognizing that Bright can’t cover everything within the humanitarian sector, what stories do you think are missing that need more attention?

I hope we stick around long enough to cover many topics in the humanitarian sector! I think a bigger issue than under-reported topics is the matter of underused perspectives and formats. On those fronts, we’re hoping to diversify as much as we can—I’d love to eventually launch BRIGHT Magazine in different languages to do this even more.

 

How do you get people who don’t already care about these issues to read about them?

It’s a constant struggle. We publish a lot of first-person stories, which tend to get a stronger reaction than traditional features. We loathe jargon, which means we can theoretically reach a larger number of people. The first few themes we chose—calamity, travel, fashion—were chosen to appeal to the general public.

But there’s no secret code, and we’re always open to suggestions for how we can reach a larger audience.

 

Your personal path took you from journalist focused on global health to now the founder of a news magazine covering health and many more topics. How did you end up here?

When I got the opportunity to found the original Bright Magazine in 2015, I didn’t think it would be a long-term opportunity. I soon realized that I loved editing and helping writers improve their copy—and that I don’t mind being less visible in the public eye if it means that I’m instead able to project my social values more broadly, by building a full publication and brand. Founding Honeyguide gave me the opportunity to use my business skills, build a worldwide community of inspiring people from different backgrounds, and start to engage in thought leadership around social issues journalism.

I also have realized over time that I probably don’t have the composition to be a lifelong freelancer. I hate the constant rejection, the extreme uncertainty, the feeling that I need to change my writing style and topics to conform to editors’ whims.

 

You moved from New York to Nairobi prior to launching Bright. Why?

Most moves this big have a personal and professional component. I knew I wanted to leave the United States for work purposes, as I thought there was a larger opportunity for “social issues journalism” in other parts of the world (given the share of mind space politics comprises in the States). And especially since we cover international development topics, I thought it would be great to do this work from somewhere in the developing world.

If I were on my own, I would have likely moved to India, but my husband needed to be in Nairobi for work (he works in clean energy, and Kenya is his company’s fastest growing market). I started researching the East African media scene, came out here and met some fantastic people, and took an enormous leap of faith.

 

An argument could be made that in a time of increasing insularity and nationalism, launching a global-facing publication is an act of resistance towards those inward pulls. Do you see Bright as something that pushes against these trends?

Absolutely! We love to commission “lessons-based” journalism, wherein you find lessons from one place and apply them to another—which I think helps people see the world as more connected and similar than they may have otherwise thought. And this is also why we love first-person, “as-told-to,” and multimedia pieces; they make stories about faraway struggles feel more immediate and personal.

 

Tom Murphy is an independent journalist investigating the humanitarian/aid/development industry. @viewfromthecave  

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