I wanted to go for something a little less sexy: education.
Specifically, one that tackled big issues while stretching beyond the echo chambers and old debates, and to do so via experimental formats, vibrant art and photography, and a solutions orientation. I reached out to Manami Kano at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in short order we had funding and a strategic partner.
What we didn’t have was an editor.
One of my first calls was to the marvelous Courtney Martin, prolific writer and co-founder of Solutions Journalism, who knew the perfect candidate: Sarika Bansal. Within 24 hours of our telephone conversation, Sarika sent me an epic document outlining potential topics. I hired her immediately, and it all started coming together.
We lined up writers and contributors. We dreamed up new formats for an education publication — photo essays, graphic illustrations and infographics, and correspondence series. Edward Lichty named it. (A group of us at Medium were brainstorming ideas for an hour and were coming up empty-handed. I pulled Edward into the room, and after a five-second pause he declared it, matter-of-factly: Bright.). Indhira Rojas and Karen Jaimes developed a brand, logo, and design language that we all fell in love with. Emily J. Eagon managed the complexities of the financing and accounting.
We launched with a bang. “The Perfect Classroom, According to Science” brought to life what classrooms *should* look like. “Sex Ed That Turns Boys Into Men” was our first bona fide hit with over 100K readers, fueled by deeply evocative art. Pres. Obama published a piece about his fifth grade teacher, thanks to Kate Lee and Saul Carlin’s magical work. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan jumped in. We tried a new correspondence format, Build On This, with leaders like IDEO CEO Sandy Speicher, Richard Culatta, Karen Cator, and more. Entrepreneurs like LearnZillion’s Eric Westendorf found big audiences with pieces like “The Rise of Open Curriculum”. Another series on Sex Ed (brilliant editorial work by Madison Kahn, Erich Nagler, and more), where writers addressed letters to their younger selves, yielded another cavalcade of readers — over a quarter million on one article alone.
We immediately saw impact.
Bright was atop EdWeek’s “must read education publications” just two months after launch. The Build On This series between Sandy and Richard is being taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education to this day. And all this culminated with a live event at Medium HQ with Secretary Duncan and a bevy of education leaders from across the country talking about how to create more dialogue across the sector for the betterment of student outcomes nationally.
While the intent was for Bright to be temporary, demand from the community and funders suggested otherwise: this needed to stay, and grow. We continued Bright, and launched another publication focused on global health and development, again under Sarika’s editorial leadership, called The Development Set. Two pieces in the publication were breakout hits — “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems” by Courtney Martin, and “Silicon Valley’s Unchecked Arrogance” by Ross Baird. Sarika continued to publish solutions-driven stories like “Girls Knit Their Way To A Math Career”, the type that are still lacking in our media today.
As Medium transitioned its publication strategy, Bright and The Development Set kept on going and it was clear that their future should no longer be tied to Medium as a company.
At that point Sarika stepped up and decided to take it all on herself. It was inspirational.
Moving the publication and all its IP from a Medium owned-and-operated pub to one housed under a new legal, non-profit entity was a challenge Sarika took on, head-on (and wouldn’t have been possible without the support and expertise of Alex Feerst) to create a new entity: Honeyguide Media. She eventually consolidated and rebranded it all under Bright Magazine, and did a magnificent job taking it forward and building a team.
I was both proud and humbled to serve on her board and watch her manage it all. Under her leadership, Bright won multiple awards over the past few years, the most recent being an Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Writing for a Small Digital News Organization.
To start something from scratch is easy. For it to endure for years and have an impact is the hard part, especially in today’s brutal media environment. And sometimes even when you can move it forward, doesn’t mean you should.
I’m personally thankful for this experience, and deeply grateful to Sarika for leading Bright as an extraordinary, independent media outlet shining a light overlooked solutions to big problems.