Categorized | OPINION

Too Much Coffee: What’s up with the zebra?

Posted on 01 December 2019 by Tesha Christensen

What’s with the zebra?
Last month you may have noticed a zebra show up on the front page of the Messenger. Maybe you noticed a smaller one at the bottom of page four in our information box with a little notice:
The Messenger is for profit and for a purpose – and we don’t sacrifice one for the other. We consider ourselves a zebra company, one that is both black and white. As a media company, we work to highlight issues, solve real, meaningful problems, and repair existing social systems. We are working with our readers and advertisers to create a more just and responsible society that hears, helps and heals the customers and communities we serve.
Yes, I’ve been binge listening to the podcast ZigZag with journalists-turned-entrepreneurs Manoush Zomorodi (Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business) and Jen Poyant (Executive Producer Note to Self, 2 Dope Queens). This season has hit upon so many of the issues I’m thinking about as a journalist and entrepreneur that I’m glued to the speakers.
I’ve been pondering the distinction of for-profit and non-profit for some time. Here, in the Twin Cities, we have a few non-profit newspapers, such as the Bugle in St. Anthony Park, the Alley in Phillips, the Community Reporter in the West End of St. Paul, and Access Press (statewide). And then we have the neighborhood for-profits including the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger and its sister newspaper the Midway Como Monitor, Greening Frogtown, the Northeaster, North News, the Villager, and Southside Pride.
What is different between us? There’s the obvious distinction that the non-profits have a board of directors who set the direction for the organization, while the for-profits have a single owner or two who make decisions. But aside from that, both structures pay editors, publishers, freelance photographers and writers, and sales staff. Pages are paid for primarily through advertising revenue, of which some is through grants and some via neighborhood groups. And both types of newspapers exist to educate and inform, serving that vital role in our democracy that’s integral to our First Amendment rights as American citizens.
When I set up TMC Publications, I considered going with a new(ish) form of corporation, the B (or benefit) Corp. Locally, Peace Coffee is a certified B Corp. At the end of their 20th year when they switched from non-profit to for-profit status under the helm of new owner Lee Wallace, Peace Coffee began searching for ways to further solidify their mission to creating good by supporting small-scale farmer cooperatives with industry-leading prices and committing to earth-friendly practices along the way (as explained on their web site). They learned about the B Corporation movement, a global initiative of businesses in every industry that see profit as secondary to the importance of people and planet, and they signed up.
However, as TMC Publications is a relatively small company, I wasn’t sure that B Corp really made sense for us, as it would increase our paperwork while not really changing how we do business.
Then I heard about Zebras.
Zebras believe in cooperation versus competition, sharing versus hoarding, mutualism versus parasitism. They are both/and, black and white. The point is to be sustainable, to offer good jobs at living wages, but not to grow so exponentially that we break apart. (Learn more at www.zebrasunite.com.)
According to Zebras United founding members Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams, this alternative model balances profit and purpose, champions democracy, and puts a premium on sharing power and resources. “Companies that create a more just and responsible society will hear, help, and heal the customers and communities they serve,” they explained over at Medium.com. (I resonated so much with that line that I pulled it for our infomational box on page four so that I can continue to be inspired by it.)
Interestingly, zebra companies are often started by women and other underrepresented founders, they point out. The statistics about who gets large, venture funding is terrible but maybe not surprising as we see how sexism nad rascism is still ingrained in our society. Three percent of venture funding goes to women and less than one percent to people of color. Women start 30 percent of businesses, but they receive only 5 percent of small-business loans and 3 percent of venture capital. Yet when surveyed, women say they are in it for the long haul: to build profitable, sustainable companies.
These four women who began Zebras United believe that developing alternative business models to the startup status quo has become a central moral challenge of our time. “Think of our most valuable institutions – journalism, education, healthcare, government, the ‘third sector’ of nonprofits and social enterprises – as houses upon which democracy rests,” they wrote.
Ah, yes. There’s the place for journalism.
That’s where I see this field that is so important to our society.
Here at the Messenger, I’m not planning to make millions as an owner, and I’m content telling the stories of these neighborhoods. I believe it is important to provide connection, battle the anxiety and depression so prevalent today, and educate ourselves on the issues we face.
That requires cooperation. We can’t run quality articles without solid information from residents and organizations. And we can’t print pages, pay workers decent wages, and inform without solid financial backing from local businesses who support our work.
We’re in this together.
I’d love to hear what you think as your wrestle with these ideas. Send in a letter to the editor.
(Psst – Mention this editorial and your support for zebras and get 20% off your next ad purchase.)