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Supporting the Critical Role of Journalism in Community Storytelling with Kay Murray

The idea of a free press and protection of investigative journalism is so critical, and Kay Murray’s role ensures that much-needed information is shared within society.

In this episode, Kay talks about the role that journalism plays in ensuring that marginalized voices are heard. She shares her perspective on what’s currently happening in journalism, the impact on small nonprofit news organizations, and changes on the horizon within the sector. She gives advice to nonprofits and funders on how to navigate the uncertainty and unrest that was at play last summer, and, in many ways, is still at issue now.

During our conversation, you’ll hear Kay say that, “There is still room for innovation.” And that is why this conversation is so powerful. It encourages all of us to keep experimenting, to keep building, and to keep supporting nonprofit growth, particularly the growth of news organizations, to become sustainable.

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About Kay Murray

Kay Murray is Vice President, Law, at First Look Media Works, a public charity with programs including the investigative news site The Intercept, the documentary film program Field of Vision, and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, which provides defense support to journalists and whistleblowers.

In that capacity, she provides governance, compliance and operational advice, including advice regarding news gathering and content.

Prior to joining First Look, she was CLO at the Institute of International Education, Assistant GC at Tribune Publishing, and Deputy GC at the Open Society Foundations.

Read podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell:     You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nic Campbell: Hi everyone, this week on the Nonprofit BuildUp, we’re talking with Kay Murray. Kay is Vice-President Law at First Look Media Works, a public charity within the media network, with programs that include the Investigative News Site, the Intercept, the documentary film program Field of Vision, and the Press Freedom Defense Fund – which provides defense support to journalists and whistleblowers. She provides governance, compliance, and operational advice; including advice regarding news gathering and content. Prior to joining First Look, she was Chief Legal Officer at the Institute of International Education, Assistant General Counsel at Tribune Publishing, and Deputy General Counsel at the Open Society Foundations. This episode was recorded last summer and remains incredibly important given the role of journalism and the media in our current environment. The idea of a free press and protection of investigative journalism is so critical, and Kay’s role ensures that much needed information is shared within society.

Nic Campbell: She talks about the role that journalism plays in ensuring that marginalized voices are heard. Kay shares her perspective on what’s currently happening in journalism, the impact on small, nonprofit news organizations, and changes on the horizon within the sector. She gives advice to nonprofits and funders on how to navigate the uncertainty and unrest that was at play last summer, and in many ways, is still at issue now. During our conversation, you’ll hear Kay say that there is still room for innovation, and that is why this conversation is so powerful. It encourages all of us to keep experimenting, to keep building, and to keep supporting nonprofit growth, particularly the growth of news organizations to become sustainable. This conversation made me reflect on what we’re currently seeing in media, whose stories are not being told, and the importance of effective communication to ensure that those often hidden stories are shared. I know it will make you do the same. And with that here is Kay Murray.

Nic Campbell: Hi, Kay, I am so excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series. To get us started, can you tell us about First Look Media Works, your role there, and FLM’s immediate priority?

Kay Murray: Yes, thank you Nic so much for inviting me. It’s really an honor to join you. I do want to start by making clear that the opinions that I’m going to express on this podcast are my own, and I don’t speak on behalf on behalf of FLM, but of course I will be happy to talk about our experience and what we’re doing right now. So First Look Media Works is a public charity established in 2013, spearheaded by Pierre Omidyar. And it is a member of one of the Omidyar Network nonprofit organizations. But it was established by Pierre when he learned that three amazing, award-winning investigative journalists were starting an investigative news platform and a documentary film unit. The journalists are Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, who still are important leaders at one of our programs, the Intercept and Laura Poitras founded Field of Vision, a documentary film unit program that was established to give voices to new filmmakers.

Kay Murray: And it is a really filmmaker driven entity. So those are two of the major programs still of First Look Media Works Soon thereafter, the organization established another program, the Press Freedom Defense Fund, and that was established uniquely to help whistleblowers, and news organizations, and journalists who are facing legal retaliation as a result of their trying to bring important information to the public’s attention. And so those are the three programs. I am Vice President for Law for the organization. So in that capacity, I do work and support our Board of Directors and our leadership on governance and compliance with the not-for-profit and exempt organizations, regulations and law, as well as I’m sort of a newsroom lawyer as well. I provide legal support to the Intercept, which is an investigative news platform. I also review content and do transactional work for Field of Vision, the film unit.

Kay Murray: And for the Press Freedom Defense Fund, I am involved largely as a member of the program staff. So that is a great pleasure. We review applications for support, and this is the real grant-making program within First Look Media Works, is the Press Freedom Defense Fund. So I get involved in strategic planning and working with our advisory board and the like for that group. So it’s a really wonderful job because certainly no two days are alike and we get to make media, which I think is very important and impactful right now, particularly during these times. And as far as our priorities right now, each of the programs has different immediate priorities. Obviously the Intercept, it has a Washington Bureau and we have covered Washington with a view really at corruption among the federal government in Washington, since we began. Now, we had always planned to cover the election and what was happening in the election.

Kay Murray: But now we have also had to focus, or to really build up, our reporting capacity in the areas of criminal justice, which we always have had, but now we’re really focusing on it as well as the pandemic, and the way the pandemic is affecting communities and people that the mainstream media hasn’t really focused on. I mean, they’ve looked at what’s going on in prisons. We have a reporter who’s really focused on what’s happening in the halfway houses. A number of prisons have talked about releasing people early because of the pandemic and it’s spreading in prisons, but what’s happening in the halfway houses where people are required to bunk up and then go to work somewhere? So we try at the Intercept…the priority is to focus on stories not being told. For all of the organizations, we had to quickly create capacity in the areas of safe reporting; safely interviewing people that you couldn’t necessarily talk to on zoom, safe filming for the documentary unit, and trying to help the journalists who are covering the protests. And I’m sure you saw, and our listeners will have seen, journalists being beaten up, shot at with rubber bullets, even arrested in some cases for doing their first amendment duty of trying to cover what’s going on in these protests. So we’ve had to shift our focus tremendously to address the multiple crises that we’re dealing in.

Nic Campbell: Kay, it sounds like you have such a rich, diverse portfolio of work that you’re working in the midst of all of this journalism that’s happening, and investigative journalism, and really raising a critical voice and looking at what’s happening and examining. And I like how you said that you were focusing on the stories that are not being told and trying to give voice to the voiceless. Right. So I really appreciate the work that you’re doing. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about, you know…we all know the state of journalism and journalists are coming under attack both physically and just verbally as well, but talk about the role of investigative journalists. Talk about the role of journalism and the United States, and how you view that – particularly given your portfolio of work and the organizations that you’re working with.

Kay Murray: Sure, I’m very happy to do that. We, as part of the Press Freedom Defense Fund, part of our work involves being in touch with other organizations that are either associations of journalism organizations, or of individual photo journalists, and journalists. And so we have a real window into what’s been happening in the arena. And of course, you could probably fill a library shelf of writings about what’s happening in journalism right now. Obviously the sector has been greatly damaged financially for the last 15 years and jobs have gone away; important jobs in investigator journalism in every locality, big cities, small communities, and everything in between. And so it’s really bad. And the rise of social media has, I think, made things much more difficult for conventional journalism. When I say responsible journalism, I mean, fact-based journalism because obviously they relied on advertising and that went away when Google basically made their products available themselves, took the ad revenue from it.

Kay Murray: And yes, granted press organizations, for-profits did not adapt in time, but you see people now expect to be able to get news instantly and for free online, those who have the ability to get online. So it’s been very, very difficult for fact-based journalism. The kind that requires finding out facts, talking to powerful people, talking to members of the government and law enforcement and the like to get correct stories. That’s been really suffering a lot. I will say one of the bright spots, in my view, is the rise of small nonprofit news organizations. And one of the things that I hope that we can talk a little bit more about is an initiative that the Press Freedom Defense Fund began a year ago in partnership with the Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice at the New York City Bar Association to form what we’re calling “Lawyers for Reporters”. Which is a pro bono law firm for public interest reporting.

Kay Murray: And what we’ve been doing, and we’ve done this several times, we have a network of lawyers at firms big and small – and we’re also doing some of this work ourselves – we are helping local recording organizations establish themselves as 501(C)(3) organizations and helping them gain capacity. And I think an organization like BuildUp Advisory could be extremely instrumental in helping these news organizations actually get their feet under them so that they can be sustainable, but we’ve been able to find really good counsel. And this is all across the country. Many of the big law firms, as you know, have offices all over the country in many, many different States and cities. So we’ve helped, for example, an organization in North Carolina and one out in Texas to establish themselves as C3 organizations, get insurance, not just a content liability, but other kinds of insurance and learn how to do FOYA work and the like.

Kay Murray: Help them, even to find lawyers to help them do pre-publication vetting because getting a fact wrong is not good, getting a fact wrong that is a defamatory statement is a lot worse. And so those are the kinds of ways we have been trying to address this problem, but it’s a huge problem. And I will just say this. One of the things that the Press Freedom Defense Fund did and Field Division, the film unit, did with the strong support of our leadership to take a portion of their operational and grantmaking budgets this year, and to set up programs to provide emergency funding to the individuals who have been in these sectors – the documentary film sector and the journalism sector – to get emergency funding just to tide them over. So we did that.

Nic Campbell: That’s so much innovation. To think about, you’re seeing a situation, you’re seeing a crisis and saying, “How do we step in? How do we help? And creating this model of a pro bono law firm that steps in and provides free legal support to journalists who need it. And then on top of that, helping nonprofit news organizations that need capacity building support, also helping them that way. So really just stepping into the gaps and saying, “What kind of support do you need?” Real help. Right. So I think that is so innovative. And it’s something that nonprofits…what strikes me about what you said, Kay, is that even in this moment of crisis, of uncertainty, of unrest, that there’s still room for innovation. And the organizations that you’re talking about, particularly the smaller nonprofits or grassroots organizations, they’re in this moment, just like everyone else and probably feeling it a lot worse. And so I’d love to hear your advice that you would give to nonprofit organizations, smaller news organizations, the grassroots organizations, that are in the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of our social unrest. What do you say to them when they’re trying to raise the money in this environment, and we know that there’s innovation out there, what’s your advice?

Kay Murray: I have been thinking about this a lot because it’s very off out there. I have been looking at what some of the larger funders have been messaging to their grantees and to the sector in general. And I’ll be honest. It really will…for organizations, nonprofits, who are trying to raise money, I think it really depends on what their mission is. If their mission is something that, where there will be a direct response to the crisis, a direct response to the constituencies who are feeling this the worst – immigrants, people of color, people in cities, people without health insurance, people who have essential workers in the family but no way to self-isolate and the like, people who are facing food insecurity right now, shelter insecurity and the like. If that’s your mission, then I think that you may need help. You may need advice, a consultant, BuildUp Advisory or others to help you get to the funders, the community foundations or the large philanthropies. But you have a real story to tell and a really important mission that will speak to them right now.

Kay Murray: I’m sure you saw, Nic, that Open Society Foundations just dedicated $130 million this year to help those most vulnerable entities or people, the most vulnerable in society. And I believe the Ford Foundation is doing similar work. I know the Omidyar network is and Gates. And so if you are that sort of organization, if that’s your constituency, then I think that you do have an important, compelling reason to make the ask. I have heard other philanthropy officers discuss whether or not other organizations, those that rely on audiences…arts and cultural organizations right now, their hands are tied because of the lockdowns. I don’t know if this is the time for them to ask for grant funds, obviously for programs, but I think that they need to take a really hard look at how they can build sustainability now and in such a way that they can be prepared for crises that may shut them down in the future. Because who knows how long this pandemic is going to go on and how often they’ll be able to be in a position to reopen and then have to reclose again.

Kay Murray: So I would say that they really need to think hard about the future, but I think it would be a hard ask right now to make. Having said that, a piece of advice I would give to any nonprofit that relies on fundraising or not is to follow the lead of the 200 art and culture organizations in New York City. Groups of organizations that are giving emergency funding to writers and artists. There are a whole bunch of groups, that I know of, that are having regular meetings; weekly, one or two hour zoom meetings in which they’re incredibly practical and helpful. They provide emotional support, but also operational advice. You know, they can talk about how do you apply for stimulus funding if that is available again, which I hope it will be soon. How do you get out of a contract for a conference that you planned because you can’t have the conference now?

Kay Murray: I think these are extremely, extremely helpful to do. And the advice I would give to funders is that one thing they can do is to help create these convenings; provide the capacity, you know, the practical, operational capacity for these organization leaders and their staffs to get on, and really share information, ideas, support right now. Because I think the worst part of this is the isolation. And I know from experience that when the Press Freedom Defense Fund was trying to figure out how we could establish this emergency assistance program, which is not something we’ve ever done before. We joined a weekly call of writers groups that do this, and we learned so much from them. It allowed us to do this. And we were able to understand that we could fill a gap. There was a gap among these 12 or so organizations funding writers, where we could fit in.

Kay Murray: So you get intelligence, you know: what’s happening on the ground. You get advice, you get emotional support, even get help. So practical help. Pooling resources is very important. And one last thing in that regard, a friend of mine is a consultant for a group of educational institutions with a focus on international exchange programs. And she was saying…she’s part of a weekly group with university provosts and others. And she has said, there’s a lot of despair and worry, but there’s also some exhilaration in understanding that the sector is going to change dramatically. It’s in the midst of a revolution and it’s exciting and scary, but if you’re in it together and you’re sharing your best ideas, your best practices, the resources that you have, I think that is my best piece of advice.

Nic Campbell: I like both of those, Kay, you know, we were talking about the advice that you would provide to non-profits and it’s really about telling a story. Telling a compelling story so that donors, funders, they can hear your why, and they know that you should still be around. So when your programs are not able to run them, you’re not able to hold in-person events, for example, you still need to sustain yourself. And then the question is why, and that’s your compelling story. And then on the flip side to funders, when you’re saying, “Get everyone in the room. Encourage collaboration, encourage resource sharing.” Because out of that, I’m sure there’s innovation that can come out of that conversation. Right. And so just creating that environment and that space for innovation to happen, I think…in a time when you’re thinking, “Well, what else can I do? I’m just going to get on this call.”

Nic Campbell: But you know, one, like you said, it’s about taking care of yourself particularly as a leader; taking care of your mental health and making sure that you can touch base with everyone else. But then also having those strategic conversations and thinking about what’s the next big idea. And maybe it could come from one of those calls. So just having the ability to create that space for others, I think is so incredibly important. And I want to go back to something you said, though, Kay. You talked about the transformation of the sector. So I want to hear, how are you thinking about this transformation? What do you see changing?

Kay Murray: In the nonprofit sector, generally?

Nic Campbell: Yes.

Kay Murray: Right. And this will go into the question of, what do I wish we did less of and more of, perhaps. Listen , Nic, you and I have experienced how some organizations that are private philanthropies are very shy about talking about advocacy or funding direct advocacy. And I think that that has got to change. I believe it was…Warren Buffet is credited with saying something like, “When the tide goes out, that’s when you see who’s actually wearing a bathing suit and who’s not.” Our society has been revealed, through these multiple crises, as being in sore need of utter transformation. And I think that funders need to realize that they have to understand the gloves have to come off. And we need to look at the organizations and the voices that are speaking to changing our system of governance, even our capitalist system.

Kay Murray: And so I hope that funders will no longer treat the word advocacy as something to be avoided or talked around, in terms of their funding priorities and their support priorities. We have to figure out a way to insulate the constituencies that have suffered so much, not just this crisis but in the decades leading up to it, from what has been revealed about the failings of our governments, our community infrastructures, you know, the safety net, et cetera. And I know journalism has a great role to play in that as well. And, you know, there is a debate going on, or has been going on in journalism for a long time, about whether…I mean, it sounds rather quaint now, I suppose. But do we just give the facts or do we say, you know, “X, Y, and Z facts equals ABC result, outcome, necessity. Who’s really hurting?” And so I think the sector needs to be, I think, much more assertive if not aggressive, in saying what is necessary to really create a more…whatever it is the missions are. I think the only way to do that is to really be very loud about what’s wrong, what has to change

Nic Campbell: And the way you put that, Kay,, where you’re talking about, “stop saying no to advocacy”.” Right? This idea that now we’re looking to the voices that are saying, “I want to dismantle these oppressive systems.” And those are the voices that need to be amplified. And so, you know, having that transformation and then saying, “Actually, now’s the time. Right? Now is the time that we amplify these voices that need to be heard.” So I like just the context that you put that in. We’ve talked about what the sector should be doing more of and less of, and talked through advice to fundraising nonprofits, as well as funders. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on capacity building, particularly around infrastructure. And we talked about it when we were talking about the smaller nonprofit news organizations, the grassroots organizations, that are getting that kind of capacity building support. But as you think about building infrastructure within FLM, the programs that you’re working with; how are you all thinking about capacity building? How are you looking at governance during this time? We, you know, again, we’re in such a huge crisis. Are those things still on your mind? Are you thinking about how you’re structured internally, externally? I’d love to hear how you all are thinking about all of those things.

Kay Murray: Yes. Well, I have to say, we are very lucky because we have leadership within the Omidyar network that is very understanding about the challenges that the staff is experiencing right now. We’re all working from home. We’re extremely fortunate to have income, to have the capacity, if somebody needs a monitor so they can work from home more comfortably, they can get it, that sort of thing. But they have, also at the same time, understood how difficult this is for people, particularly if they have kids at home and other family at home. And so in terms of governance, we have actually had shorter board meetings and have curtailed to some degree the board meetings. Because, I think it’s probably true for most organizations, board meetings require a lot of work, thought, presentation. Now that’s not to say that the board’s not still very involved, because leadership has continued to have regular conversations with the board.

Kay Murray: And we have been asked recently to provide our three-year strategic plans to the board, but that too is not nearly as extensive as they have been in the past. So I think that they’re both continuing to exercise governance as well as they can with a real empathy and understanding about what everybody is trying to do. I will say, as far as capacity building, we’re still sort of a startup. And so it wasn’t until last year that we began to publish an annual report to our communities. That’s really exciting exercise. I’m involved in doing that. And it’s fun. It also requires us to really be accountable to ourselves because we are trying to put into a document, our raison d’être, at least for the last year. So I think that’s a piece of capacity building, because it will be a document that we can share with potential donors when the time comes, but also with our constituency.

Kay Murray: And it will allow us to do more outreach. I cannot emphasize enough how important having great expertise is. We recently, six months ago or so, at the beginning of the year, hired a membership coordinator because we do rely on memberships as part of our operating income. And this person is fabulous. In fact, a friend of mine once said, if you go to read the Intercept, you will get a pop-up. We had decided we’re going to do a pop-up saying, “Will you join us?” But he also sends out membership appeals. So that’s what we’ve been doing. Also, we have a few working groups. For long time, we’ve had a diversity and inclusion working group, which is meeting frequently. We have a union, the newsroom is organized. And so the bargaining unit has its own diversity and inclusion committee. And so we work together to ensure that everybody feels safe and respected and included, and we’re working very hard on making hires and making sure that people of color are given, you know, huge consideration; we’re working on that, hard. We have a working group on reopening the office. You know, I would recommend that for other organizations, when the time comes, to be able to get back together, it’s important. And for us, we also are implementing a new sort of financial system, which will help us a lot because we’re a small organization. And so we’ve been just keeping the financial systems has been a bit of a challenge. So it really…one does reach a new level when one implements a new financial system, by graduating. So those are the things that we’re doing.

Nic Campbell: Again, you are definitely busy, Kay. I think they’re all critical. Everything that you name, though particularly with the communications piece and being able to tell your story well. So it’s not just about seeing things, it’s about putting together a compelling story and being able to tell that story well to different audiences. So I think all of the things you hit on are so critical to sustainability and to building out infrastructure. You know, your responses have just been so thoughtful and practical and just have made me think about innovation and where you can find it in unexpected places. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close this out. What book do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Kay Murray: Well, I’m going to give a shameless plug for a couple of things that First Look Media has recently produced. But first I want to talk about an amazing book that I am about two-thirds of the way through. And it’s by the last year’s the Booker Prize winner; the first woman of African descent to win it, it’s called ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo And it tells the interlocking stories of about 15 women who are really represent the African diaspora in London. And I’ve learned so much about…because it spans 30 years or maybe even more from the seventies to the present. So that’s 50 years. I have learned so much about Africa, African lives, how immigrants who come to London, you know, had to live the terrible racism and prejudice that they experienced there, but also their wonderful family stories. It’s great book, really like it. For me, it was educational as well as it’s really fun and funny. And it’s pretty compulsively readable.

Kay Murray: I would recommend the podcast that we produced with iHeart Media at the beginning of the year called ‘Somebody’. And the reason I recommend it is because, first of all, it’s an amazing story about our criminal justice system. And it’s about a woman named Shapearl Wells, who was living her life and one night got a call from the hospital saying, your son is in the hospital. Courtney is in the hospital. So she rushed over there. She was afraid he’d wrecked his new car or something. No, he had a bullet in his back and he died. And he was found in front of the Chicago police precinct. And they just said, you know, drive by shooting, no information. And she was wholly unsatisfied with that explanation. And so she began investigating on her own what happened to her son and she partnered with the Invisible Institute, which is a nonprofit investigative news organization out of Chicago.

Kay Murray: And what she learned is incredible. And it’s really about her, it’s her voice. And it’s based on Jesse Jackson’s famous line, “I am somebody.” And she was like, my son was somebody. Why are they treating him like he’s a statistic? He is somebody. And he was an amazing person and he was in his twenties. So it’s a great podcast. And then the other thing it’s going to be released in two days, it’s a documentary that our affiliated organization, First Look Productions has produced. It’s a documentary film called ‘The Fight’. And it’s about how the ACLU in four lawsuits has fought from the very beginning, some of the worst violations of civil rights that the Trump administration has engaged in since it took office. And if you’re interested in how lawyers and litigation can really protect our system of justice and the rule of law in this country, I recommend it.

Nic Campbell: Those are great recommendations, Kay. And I’m going to put them all in the show notes so people will be able to access all of them. Thank you so much again, Kay. You have shared such knowledge and insights that I really think that leaders will be able to practically use in their own organizations to help them to build bravely. And I think that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. So thank you again for joining us.

Kay Murray: My great pleasure, Nic. Thank you for inviting me.

Nic Campbell

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Nic Campbell:     Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.