by Erin Luhmann
April 2, 2013 – Kelly Virella was born in Alabama in 1975. Her childhood county desegregated schools in 1970. Looking back, Virella, a nationally recognized black journalist now based in New York, considers herself lucky.
Luck, however, had nothing to do with her recent achievement as one of the IWMF’s 2013 Women Entrepreneurs in the Digital News Frontier grantees. Virella’s digital media startup project, Deep End Magazine, is a monthly tablet magazine featuring thoughtful stories on black culture. Set to launch May 1st, Deep End Magazine represents a milestone in Virella’s tireless pursuit of a meaningful career in media.
“It’s hard to get people’s respect and attention when you’re a short five-foot African American women,” said Virella. “But at the same time, when I do the things I’m going to do, people will take notice.”
It took Virella two separate application attempts to get the full attention of the IWMF, but her perseverance paid off. Years of preparation and experimentation secured her a $20,000 grant to help execute her digital media vision. Initially, her professional vision had little to do with online journalism, not to mention tablets. When Virella enrolled in the University of California – Berkeley ‘s Graduate School of Journalism in 2001, she concentrated on print media.
“We knew we were on the verge of dramatic change in the industry,” she reflected. “But the change hadn’t happened yet.”
Immersed in her journalism studies, Virella gave little thought to how her undergraduate ventures in math, computer science, and economics courses might one day come into play. Graduate degree in hand, she struck out on a traditional journalism path covering daily news for a nonprofit paper in Florida.
By 2008, she had landed her dream job as an investigative reporter for The Chicago Reporter. She continued to expand her coverage to issues of corruption and poor governmental policy for publications across the nation. Her professional recognition continued to grow, but this did little to appease her sense of restlessness.
Gearing up for the next thing, Virella began working toward what she joking refers to as her “home MBA.” She brushed up on her HTML skills after work and became more familiar with the latest new media tools and trends. She also took on an editorial role in New York to gain a new set of management skills and began saving startup money. By July 2011, her first digital media venture, Dominion of New York, was up and running.
“Going out and deciding you want to be an entrepreneur is a very difficult decision to make,” said Virella. Explaining her strategy, she continued, “I sort of molded it to the environment and the resources that I had.”
Dominion of New York catered to black readers who were looking for an intelligent take on local food, culture, and creativity. It quickly became apparent that Virella had tapped into a reader market thirsty for this type of well-crafted reporting on areas beyond New York City. She noticed huge swells in traffic to the website and got a boost in confidence when major publications like Mother Jones and The Atlantic began linking to articles from Dominion of New York.
Virella embraced this expanding network, bouncing new ideas off potential donors for a more sustainable version of Dominion of New York. Eleven months in, she felt the strain of tight human and financial resources in a digital media environment that demanded fresh content day in and day out.
“I didn’t see how I could make it smaller and, at the same time, utilize digital media in order to do it,” recalled Virella.
Then Virella realized she could give her readers something that no mobile news feed or hurried news scan on an office computer could contend with: a relaxing, mentally enriching reading experience. Her platform of choice – the iPad – made sense in terms of meeting her readers where they were at, and a digital magazine could easily be converted to an online version as well. Best of all, Virella could utilize free open-source technology to design her own iPad app without having to pay a developer.
Sharing some entrepreneurial insight, Virella said, “Technology is really driving the business. It’s so dynamic that not paying attention to technology can really cost you business opportunities.”
At this convergence of digital ingenuity and a greater appreciation for black media, Virella downsized Dominion of New York and began concentrating on its spin off: Deep End Magazine.
To start out, Virella has identified a diverse pool of 20 talented freelance writers who will produce five to seven long-form articles for Deep End Magazine each month. Looking to round out the two-dimensional portrayal of black culture typically found in mainstream media and black media, Virella says she is looking forward to challenging her writers to report more creatively.
“When it comes down to talking about the black experience, I think a lot of editors have a really hard time understanding that people don’t necessarily want to see all negativity all the time,” said Virella. “There has to be a balance between praise and criticism.”
Content in Deep End Magazine will invite readers to engage in some deep thinking on the dynamics of the black community. Some publications like The Root and Ebony have already begun moving in this direction, but Virella wants to cut out all of the fat – daily news and celebrity gossip – to create a product that is high impact and long lasting.
While Virella’s editorial perspective as a black journalist who has been covering issues of race for more than 13 years will certainly elevate the quality of writing in Deep End Magazine, her role as a digitally savvy female in a male dominated profession makes her startup story all the more remarkable.
The key to her success seems to be her competitive drive. When she attends professional business training events or investigative reporting workshops, Virella refuses to be intimidated by the fact that most of those in the room are white male men.
“All we can do is try to prove ourselves […] and to make inroads, be pioneers for other people,” said Virella. “At the same time, we can work on changing structures and systems so that women of all races can be more competitive and participate in things.”
This assertive attitude helped secure her the $20,00 digital start up grant from the IWMF that will help cover the cost of launching a mini event series in tandem with the publication itself. Virella will bring in outside marketing help to ensure they are getting in front of potential subscribers needed to help sustain her business model.
But the value of receiving recognition from the IWMF comes in the form of more than a lump sum of money, says Virella. She is eager to utilize opportunities through the IWMF to consult with experts on whether or not her pilot is the right size and to discuss new industry trends.
Beyond working out the nuts and bolts with the IWMF’s support, Virella views the network of other female digital media entrepreneur grantees as an invaluable resource.
“There are opportunities for benchmarking and having a support system,” she said.
This support systems and entrepreneurial energy transcends into the work environment Virella has created at Deep End Magazine. She recognizes potential in many of her writers to take what they learn at Deep End Magazine and adopt it to more mainstream publications or digital media startups of their own.
“The goal here is to plant a seed and have it grow in all different types of ways,” said Virella. “You never know exactly where that’s going to go.”
Virella (with her former editor Jarrett Murphy) accepts a 2012 Sigma Delta Chi Award