The Media

The Rebirth of the Emancipator

A Black woman reads from a script into a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ignatiev/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The Emancipator, an abolitionist newspaper, was born in the 19th century at a time when many Americans were challenging the institution of slavery. Now, the Emancipator is being reborn as a publication that dares to imagine an America without racism. The project is being launched by the Boston Globe and is set to begin publication in the new year. Veteran journalist Amber Payne is co–editor in chief of the Emancipator, along with Deborah Douglas. On Friday’s episode of A Word, Payne spoke with us about the Emancipator’s history and its vision for an anti-racist American future. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: So what is the Emancipator and what’s the history of the original one?

Amber Payne: It’s a collaboration between the Boston Globe’s opinion team and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, which is run by Ibram Kendi, who many know and many read his work, especially in the last year, on how to be anti-racist. So the idea is we’re rebooting this idea of this abolitionist newspaper and taking the best of scholarship, commentary, data journalism, and stories from real lived experiences, from real people, to imagine a way forward. So we’re taking a little bit of a page from the solutions-journalism approach here and reframing this conversation on racial justice and equity.

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And if you look at the original, there were seven editions of the Emancipator that were produced by William Lloyd Garrison. That paper and the other abolitionist newspapers at the time, they were radical. And they were using this format, the newspapers, to get in people’s faces about rejecting these compromises. And these abolitionist newspaper editors, like Garrison, they were actually persecuted for being so bold to imagine this world where slavery just could end like that.

What’s the difference between anti-racist journalism that you’re going to do in the Emancipator and just reporting on race and racism? Because I think that’s a distinction that a lot of people don’t understand. If you simply talk about the injustices from some police department, that ain’t the same thing as being anti-racist. How do you explain that to your readers?

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What we are going to be doing is giving history and context behind something. OK, you want to use the racist police department. Looking at the history of where that comes from, racist policing. You have your straightforward breaking news approach—I worked in breaking news for 10 years—where you’re really giving the facts. And what we’re looking at is giving the facts, giving the context, letting people know if there’s a through line that they might be able to track through history to help them understand someone’s attitude differently or better.

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Part of the anti-racist newsroom and anti-racist journalism approach, we’re really defining this and figuring this out right now. But it is about going beyond just telling people what happened, and that’s why we do have the commentary. We’re calling it commentary instead of opinion, partly because sometimes that evokes –especially to traditional news folks– that it’s a rant that is not evidence-based. So it’s evidence-based opinion and explaining how policies are born, how they thrive, and how they can be deconstructed, if necessary. It does speak to what Dr. Kendi, who is a co-founder of the Emancipator, has been a proponent of. The idea is that it’s not the people, it’s the policies. How do we deconstruct the policies? Let’s take a step further and not just report on them, but talk about how do we break them down and build them back up in a better way.

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Who’s the Emancipator for? Who is the audience that you are targeting, at least initially, with this new outlet?

We’re looking at targeting anyone who was convicted after the George Floyd incident, after his murder. Anyone who has mobilized, wanted to learn more, wanted to do more, wanted to understand and take a deeper look at racial inequality and how that actually does impact not only Black and brown people, but everyone. And so we’re really looking at this 20- to 45-year-old range of people who, yes, there are the Black people… You preach to the choir, so that you can get that refrain. The choir needs to be armed too, with the understandings on the history of inequality in our country. I learn something every day. I have learned so much. And I’m like, “OK. I’ve been covering marginalized communities. I’ve been really a student of this history for a long time.” And I’m still learning things that are helping me to process the world around me, the conversations that I’ve had with friends and family, and feel like, “How do I equip myself to have those conversations instead of just push them to the side?” In the more recent couple years, I felt like, “I’m going to have a perspective. I’m going to take a side on this in some way, take a side for humanity. And if I see that someone’s not on the side of humanity, I’m going to say something.” Now, we can do that with journalism.

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We’re not here to cater to the white gaze in terms of really like, “OK. We’re going to take your hand, and we’re going to really break this down for you and pat you on the back.” It’s like, “Hey, we’re this resource. You said you wanted to learn more and be a better human.”

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It’s partly equipping people. How do you speak up at your PTA meeting when everybody’s up there talking about critical race theory? What do you say? Or the neighbor next to you that you have been avoiding those conversations with, maybe you want to keep avoiding it. But how do you communicate that? And I see it’s a multiracial group of people we’re reaching because there are those people who are not the Black and brown people, who do want to read, learn, and do something. And so while we can equip them with, I keep saying history and context, but I just feel like the context—there is so much reporting that is devoid of context. And that is part of why we are where we are. Because for a while, journalists were dancing around it.

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I remember in 2015, I was still overseeing NBCBLK at NBC Digital. And just the idea of using the word racist in a headline, “Racist incident,” and, “How do we call Trump’s lies?” and “Do we call him racist?” And an executive that I worked with, we were speaking to some UVA students of the media studies persuasion, and someone had a question like, “Well, why aren’t you calling out racism more blatantly?” And this executive actually said, “I’m not in the business of calling people racists.” So that happened. I was taken aback at that, and I’m like, “Well, I am in the business of calling out racist incidents and explaining why they are racist.” And that gets to the path of, how did we get here and where do we go?

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I want to continue with this idea that so much of America’s current racial interest has been sparked by what happened with George Floyd, and that was after years and years of other instances of violence and everything else like that. The pushback sometimes is that that interest is fleeting, right? The Emancipator is also launching at this time where there’s this fear that this was a fad. How does this new outlet play a role in keeping the death of George Floyd from being just a moment to being part of a movement? Because that’s what I think a lot of people are nervous about right now.

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This is what we’re going to do every day. There has been an increase of coverage around racial equity injustice. And every outlet has their racial justice newsletter now. I have signed up for all of them. I enjoy them. And you have your writers, you have your Atlantic pieces, but that’s still not at the focus of what these news outlets are doing. And this is our focus. This is what we are. This is our mission. It’s refreshing to me that we can commit to that because I’ve worked in legacy media companies for a long time where you just wait for those moments like, “All right. Black History Month is coming.”

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And it is fleeting. And there’s a knee-jerk reaction that I am tired of in journalism. And I can’t help but have noticed in March 2020, as the pandemic was hitting, companies were making cuts. And there were some jobs that were geared toward racial equity editors and senior producers and that I took note of. And then those jobs went away because of the pandemic. And then by summer, after the uprisings, those jobs were back. And every Black journalist’s phone was ringing off the hook. There’s the level of news executives and newsrooms who are like, “OK. Now we get it. We do want to cover this. We need to cover it.” Is it for all the right reasons, because they believe in the storytelling? Or is it because they know that they have to do this now?

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Feet have been held to the fire on having this coverage being part of your mission and folded into what you do in the newsroom. If you don’t do that, you’re going to get called out by your employees or by other surrounding networks. So I fully believe that this is needed and that there’s a high interest. Of course, I have that fear that people are going to move on. But it’s about keeping that drum beat. It’s about keeping out there. And so I feel like we’re filling a void and filling a gap, because you can go to different outlets and different writers that you like to read, but having one publication that is really focused on this is going to be hopefully helpful.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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