S. Mitra Kalita — or Mitra, as she’s known — is a force: I know because I used to work with her. She lights up the room when she walks in and quickly charms everyone. I watched with envy as she made front page bylines seem so effortless. (I can assure you that a major journalism outlet, it’s anything but.)
Many reporters get to The Wall Street Journal and stick around. Not Mitra. She went on top roles at the Los Angeles Times and CNN. From there, she stopped working for the big names and started her own operation. She publishes niche newsletters, including Epicenter-NYC and the Escape Home, a subscription product for those who do — and who want to — own second homes. Since early 2021, she’s been CEO and co-founder of URL Media Holdings, which describes itself as a decentralized, multi-platform network of high-performing Black and Brown media organizations. It aims to fix an issue that has long dogged journalism: Community media is often under resourced and understaffed, and mainstream media does not accurately cover or reflect trends and issues affecting Black and Brown communities.
I chatted Mitra about her new ventures, how she knows when to move on and how covering the housing crash affects her views of real estate today.
Dawn Wotapka: Tell me about URL Media. What led to its creation?
Mitra Kalita: In the spring of 2020, as my neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, reeled from Covid-19, my husband and I found ourselves fielding multiple queries for help: ventilators, tests, masks, yeast, day trip ideas, “good” funeral parlors. It felt a mix of tragic and absurd, and we turned to other networks for answers, mostly via email. Eventually, we launched an email newsletter and called it Epicenter-NYC.
What struck me — naively, as I was still working at CNN at the time — was how hard it is to be small, especially on the internet. I had spent the last decade of my career in digital media and knew how to write headlines, game traffic, stoke virality. Those lessons felt integral to Epicenter’s initial success; the people who knew and found our content loved us, trusted us, acted on the information we gave them, and turned to us for more. Case in point: we eventually helped 25,000 New Yorkers get vaccinated! Still, the challenge remained being “discovered” when algorithms are stacked against being small.
The backdrop of Epicenter’s founding [lies in] the racial justice protests of 2020. I’d been turning to my friend Sara Lomax, president of Philadelphia’s Black talk-radio station WURD, to exchange solace and support – and we pondered what we could do, so this moment might not be so fleeting. It dawned on us that there were countless community news outlets in the same predicament and that, together, we might be formidable. We approached a half-dozen others and – with blind faith – they agreed to join us to share content and approach advertisers together. Today, we have 20 partners representing 11 million monthly users. We added a B2B search and recruitment arm into the mix, connecting diverse candidates with employers across industries who need their excellence. We’re profitable and rest on a diversified revenue model: advertising, recruitment and philanthropy.
Dawn: What has been the hardest lesson that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Mitra: I did not set out to run two companies, sit on multiple boards and write a column for Time magazine. I struggled with how to explain myself to the marketplace. About 18 months ago, someone told me I was essentially running a portfolio career and the phrase felt so freeing. I leaned into my ability to do many things – all connected entities yet sharply focused – and I felt such a shift in both how I project myself and how I’m received.
Similarly, I initially felt this need to justify being for-profit. I don’t think anyone would ever ask a white man launching a media company why he’s for-profit. Eventually, I had to learn to stop defending and start defining what I believe, namely that social justice and wealth creation must go hand in hand.
Dawn: What do you believe you’ve done right?
Mitra: I feel so proud of defining our audiences and continuously serving them. At Epicenter, we started off organically with the queries we were receiving and then mushroomed outward from the neighborhoods of Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst. Yet I don’t feel parochial because it’s impossible to cover those neighborhoods and not cover the rest of the borough, the city, the world. I’ve long challenged the idea of “local news” as limiting and uninviting. Epicenter’s growth proves that communities are indeed overlapping circles of geographies, identities and interests who want to be served and connected to news, information and each other.
At URL, I’m really proud of our continuously identifying needs in both the marketplace and among our partners, and innovating ways to serve them. We are disruptive in our collaborative approach. I share pitch decks and sample contracts. I strive to operate from a mindset of abundance and generosity, which may be the opposite of the competitive newsroom or corporate environment many of us have experienced.
Both organizations center people of color, internally (our teams) and externally (our audiences, clients and vendors). It turns out that people of all hues want to work in diverse environments, and folks who come to work with us often breathe a sigh of relief that they can finally be themselves. To me, that also feels like an important differentiator.
Dawn: One of the things I admire about you is how you’ve left amazing roles for new adventures. I can’t take that risk nmyself. How do you know when it’s time to move on?
Mitra: Some of my moves were the only way to advance my career. Looking back, it’s wonderful to say I have had so many homes: Washington, L.A., New Delhi, New York. Rest assured, it was damn scary every time. I suppose the same things that attract me to journalism – the uncertainty of a day’s routine; the exhilaration of news and being in the know; the ability to really impact and improve lives; the ego boost of bylines or a well-constructed Tweet – is what keeps me peering around corners for the next thing. I rarely looked for jobs. Yet I listened when approached and balanced the risk by gauging whether the next place felt somewhere I might make a difference, and – importantly – be empowered to do so.
Dawn: I chuckled at the L.A. Times section on your LinkedIn profile. You had to “figure out ways to make money” while telling stories. What does print journalism get wrong about business and can it be fixed?
Mitra: We need to strive to create products of value. Do our products literally help, delight, serve, enhance our users? That should be at the core of our work. I also took heart from something the media consultant, Tim Griggs, once said about not building a newsroom split into different “sides.” Can everyone who works for a media outlet get behind creating something of value to the end user? I truly feel both the teams I manage do precisely this.
Dawn: Do you think that teaching emotional intelligence and other leadership traits to journalists – something that I never heard mentioned during my time as a journalist – would help or hinder news gathering?
Mitra: Yes, it helps. I realize now that my vulnerability played a massive role in the stories I chose to write and edit, the jobs I’ve taken, and the teams I’ve led. I think the challenge comes with HOW we teach emotional intelligence and the two-way trust you need to set up ways to mutually improve relationships in the newsroom. I don’t really know that emotional intelligence can come from an outside trainer in an hour-long Zoom session. As managers, we need to weave it into the day to day.
I look back on some nontraditional things I have done: Sending the more privileged interns out to report on the hottest days of the year, letting unsuccessful job candidates know their references sucked, holding meetings among BIPOC staff to plot comeback lines to microaggressions. None of those actions would be in a management manual and yet none would surprise anyone who has worked closely with me. Sometimes, it feels you have to be robotic and dispassionate in order to ascend. I fret quite a bit over mediocre managers who rise to be publishers but never learned to be their authentic selves. I don’t see how their products are going to be innovative or emotionally resonant, for example. Their failure to manage has a spillover effect on the rest of us – the so-called invisible labor – and I think it’s time we start calling that out.
Dawn: Tell me about your mentors. What have they taught you?
Mitra: One of the differences in a startup is that you have to be so much more willing to be mentored by your team, especially as you grow, maybe in order to grow. So I am going to flip the script a bit here and say that the people who look to me for mentorship are actually the ones mentoring me right now.
A generation behind us is rightfully demanding better, and forces me to rethink so much of how we worked — often dysfunctionally — in mainstream newsrooms. So far, I’ve learned that the pandemic affected Gen Z very profoundly and I might spend the rest of my life discovering the myriad ways, and accommodating them. I have learned that not only loud, charismatic stars should get flexible schedules or healthy compensation, but also that the stable workhorses of a company go too often unsung. I’m also learning that people are good at different things and that my job is to find those things and support, enhance and celebrate them. There’s nothing like entrepreneurship to also see your own shortcomings with a magnifying glass of sorts, so I look to my mentors to teach me up and fill my own gaps.
Dawn: What advice do you give younger journalists today?
Mitra: If you can, try to work in an office a few days a week and eavesdrop on people. Soak up and emulate the techniques they use to identify news, find sources, interview and get information.
Be willing to move.
Figure out what you stand for.
Get a life. My friend Billy Gorta used to say that your colleagues aren’t going to be pushing your wheelchair around when you’re 85. (Mine might since my husband is also my co-founder, but that’s beside the point…)
Dawn: You wrote front-page stories for the WSJ during an epic housing crash. Does that have any impact on your opinions of real estate today?
Mitra: Most definitely. I pay attention to micro-trends closely. So for example, we did about a dozen stories on the demands at food pantries last year. It was a sign of the pain that many more New Yorkers are facing this year but also when our reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado asked why folks were in line, they answered: “rising rent.” This has really made me think about how community media can offer more context to stories of the moment. Put another way: Our action when reading about food insecurity is to donate more food, not necessarily lobby for affordable housing. It’s all connected, though.
Also: One of our newsletters is The Escape Home, which serves second homeowners and those who want to be. We chronicle the collision of travel, hospitality and real estate — think Airbnb, partial ownership, etc. — and have grown 140% over the last year in subscribers. I rely on my real-estate lessons pretty regularly to gauge where we are in the U.S. economy.
Dawn: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Mitra: I wish I’d had more kids (I have two) and lived in London or Europe at some point. Even without that, I’ve had a pretty perfect life.
Dawn: Do you have another book in you? If so, what would it be about?
Mitra: It’s been a dozen years since my last one! I’m tinkering with something on community building, immigration; the generation of folks who came to the U.S. post-1965, like my parents; a how-to manual for work and parenting and having a life. I might combine them all.
Dawn: What do you do when you’re not reshaping journalism?
Mitra: So much. I have a close family and great neighbors. We spend a lot of time trying new restaurants in Queens, at the theater (I just saw Elyria off-Broadway), traveling (just did a road trip to DC and Pittsburgh). I make random phone calls for fun; just spent 40 minutes laughing with my cousin in Dallas. I try to stay connected.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who simply loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at email@example.com. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.