Amber Payne is the publisher of The Emancipator, a digital news collaboration between The Boston Globe and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, that “centers critical voices, debates, and evidence-based opinion to reframe the national conversation on racial equity and hasten a more racially just society.” Payne joined the operation in June 2021, soon after its launch, as Editor-in-Chief, fresh from a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and on the heels of a successful media career that took her from NBC News to Teen Vogue, BET, and Tilt Shift Media. The Emancipator recently spun off from The Boston Globe but remains housed at Boston University.
Payne will join the April 13 Lexington Lyceum spring conversation, “How do we reinvent local news for civic health?” She spoke to the Lexington Observer from the BU offices earlier this week. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Were you a news consumer as a child?
I grew up in Maryland and I remember we got the weekend papers and I would flip through and find the kids’ section of The Washington Post, and we would watch the evening news. By high school, I knew I wanted to be part of my school paper. I remember editing the opinion pages during the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. I was writing pieces that our principal had to review and approve before printing. I don’t even know what I had to say on the matter at that time, but I remember going through that process. Whatever my Monica Lewinsky opinion piece was maybe had too many clever references. I just remember there were some red lines that went through that piece.
I thought it was exciting and important to be able to guide the perspective and priorities of our paper, and I wanted to make my mark and make it different than previous editors. I remember having that feeling that I wanted to change things and do things distinctively, whatever that meant to my 17-year-old self.
What was the thinking behind the founding of The Emancipator?
The Emancipator was named for the first abolitionist newspaper in the United States. At that time, the abolitionist papers were radical. They were not compromising and not wavering. They were calling for something in a society, in a world that nobody could imagine possible. I think the same principle applies to the modern-day Emancipator. We are talking about re-imagining equity, and what does that world look like where structural racism is dismantled, if not in full, in part? How do we start to dismantle it? What kind of solutions are necessary, and how do we even explain it? What is the history and context of how we got here? Because we all know that not enough of the history and context of racism in our country has been taught to the fullest.
I was talking about redlining to my brother-in-law, and I had to really explain it to him. He’s a very educated person. And you know what? People don’t know. So, I think there’s an element of making this history accessible and relevant to the public. Our goal is to explain and share solutions to structural racism. We amplify new voices, we identify solutions, and we convene communities.
Do you think of The Emancipator as local news, community news?
While we are a national outlet, Boston is our home, and Boston has its own incredible history — the foundation of democracy and in many ways of rebellion.
Boston is a microcosm for many of these issues. So, we will do some stories that are Boston-area centric. As a matter of fact, we have a series coming up involving environmental justice in the Dorchester neighborhood, working with Boston University journalism students.
We can be not only a place for amplification of certain ideas but also be an organization — a newsroom — that convenes conversations and reflects back to the community.
How do you reach your community? And how do you make sure that your conversation is accessible to the public at large?
We’ve done a few different events. We had a Juneteenth party where we brought together Congresswoman Cori Bush and author Ibram Kendi during Banned Books Week. And we’re moving into trying something new that is really what I would call these community convenings. We are planning one in Roxbury that’s for breastfeeding mothers and new mothers in partnership with doctors from BMC (Boston Medical Center) and their breastfeeding equity center, capping off some work we did in the last year around health equity.
The event is not just me and the doctors sitting up there talking about our work and journalism. It will have an element of support for these women — maybe that’s lactation consultants who answer any questions, or someone demonstrating breastfeeding holds. Something that people can take away. We may have some small items that we give out, and gift bags. We can also hear from this community, because the doctors have ongoing research on racism in healthcare and racism in the hospital and delivery room, and how women are treated. This is kind of real-time qualitative information.
We also had a conversation on cryptocurrency and the question “is cryptocurrency a solution for racial equity?” We had a couple experts who said yes, and one who said no. It was very, very interesting. It was a very good debate. And it was very well shared and attended. We’ve done some virtual conversations, too, like one with Representative Ayanna Presley and Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr about student debt.
What is the value of news in terms of providing information on these topics?
We don’t want to just preach to the choir, but the choir does need to be motivated and informed and rallied around. There is a built-in group of folks who are part of this movement for equity and there are those who are on the fringes, who are getting more interested in seeking information and community and connection. For those who are opposed, or just not interested, I mean, we’re not trying to track them down.
We are trying to equip people with information so that — you can have that conversation with your neighbor, you can speak up at that PTO meeting where somebody else is talking about how this book should be banned, where you can talk to your family member.
My own father has conservative viewpoints but he’s my dad, so he takes an interest in what I do. Still, we definitely are not on the same page on many things. My hope for him is that we can have conversations, that he can keep open-minded, that I can share something and he will listen. He may not agree. I’m starting there. There are many people who have personal situations like that.
It’s all in the approach. I have friends who don’t talk to their parents about politics, or they don’t talk to their sister about politics. I don’t want to spin my wheels and spend energy if it’s not productive. I think we need to spend our energy on people who want to have those conversations.
Given your experience in media across so many different platforms, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of news and journalism — especially at a local level?
Rampant disinformation and misinformation have scarred and destroyed trust in the news. Some folks I have talked to say they still trust their local news because these are the people they see in the grocery store and at school drop off. They are reachable. They respond and engage with their readers. More journalists need to engage and become more service oriented, having a 2-way conversation with the public so we can cover the issues people care about most and build trust.
It’s hard but I’m hopeful. I like where I see these other nonprofit newsrooms are going, because there’s some that are popping up to address very specific niches. The 19th News for instance focuses on gender and politics. That’s a very specific lens and beat that’s needed. Or newsletters. The idea of newsletters as a way of sharing information and being informed. I’m thinking of Reckon, which covers news in the South with a particular lens. When I see people going out with the attitude of “if you don’t see it, build it”, I think that’s amazing. And I’m hopeful about other local news collaborations that maybe we would be able to do at some point. We’re doing these collaborations with students now and I think that’s also important because that’s the future of journalism, to train and equip them. And it does keep me more hopeful to work with the students and see their enthusiasm and interest and passion, because that’s the future.