Q&A: Media 2070’s Collette Watson on the movement for media reparations

In 2020, a group of Black staffers at Free Press—a nonprofit that advocates for diverse, independent media ownership and equitable access to technology—arrived at a realization about fixing the media industry. “We just came to understand that the transformation that’s really needed in order to achieve a just media system is grounded in reparations,” Collette Watson, one of the staffers, said. At the time, neither Free Press nor many other media advocacy groups were prescribing such a step. And so the Black caucus, as the group of Black staff at Free Press were known, decided to create a project to familiarize people with the idea. That October, the group formally launched the initiative, called Media 2070, with a collection of essays that charted the American media’s roots in chattel slavery, the technological evolutions––from radio and television to social media––that have been shaped by laws of racial hierarchy, and, most importantly, the ways in which reparations could redress these and other harms. The year 2070 is a deadline, of sorts––the group’s goal is to have completely transformed the media industry by then.

The project launched at a moment when many news organizations were grappling with their own track records around race, CJR included. Since then, representatives of Media 2070 have continued the conversation, speaking at conferences, hosting seminars with universities, and producing a documentary feature, among other engagements. This year, to coincide with Juneteenth, the project launched the Black Future Newsstand, a physical news booth, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, showcasing over a dozen media outlets and projects published by Black journalists, writers, and artists. The newsstand was a collaboration with the Black Thought Project, a collective that creates media installations. The New York Amsterdam News, a Black-owned newspaper founded in 1909, worked with Media 2070 to create a special package for the project, incorporating stories from its archives about both the media (“Television: To build a Black image,” from 1979) and reparations (“Black reparations movement presses on with its demands,” from 1992). The newsstand project also featured newer publications such as Reparations Daily (ish), a newsletter by the journalist Trevor Smith that covers reparative justice.  

Last week, I spoke with Watson, who is now the director of Media 2070, about the Black Future Newsstand, how the project is advocating for media reparations after three years of existence, and how it’s thinking about this moment in the journalism industry. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.      

FM: How has Media 2070’s thinking around interventions, shifting cultural conditions, and dreaming up newsrooms of the future developed since you launched three years ago?

CW: The biggest idea that we have surfaced in this time is the idea of institutional care. We released a pledge in 2021, in which we called on newsrooms and media organizations to intentionally care for Black Journalists and Black communities. We live in a patriarchal society, so the word “care” can feel very soft and intangible, but if you look at the pledge, you’ll see that the ways in which we’re talking about care are very tangible. We are calling on media organizations to, for instance, not use police press releases as the single source on stories regarding our communities. We’re calling on media organizations to avoid adultifying Black children—as they did in this recent story, for example, that criminalized Black children for breaking into a public pool in Baltimore, as opposed to thinking through the lens that white children often do get to benefit from, which is why these pools are not accessible to children in this community during one of the hottest summers on record on earth. In that story, you can see how, when we begin to see the full humanity of Black people, there are so many other issues that we began to understand more fully—issues of climate or public infrastructure, for example.

We created a Media Care Collaborative that is in its infancy, but consists of various groups coming together to really think about what it means to exhibit care within our media system as an act of repair. We understand that the harm that has taken place isn’t just about money—though that’s a huge part of it, because a lot of media profit has been built off of anti-Blackness—but has been spiritual; it’s been generational and cyclical. Our pledge calls for institutions to take up policies, whether it be paid leave, or underwriting mental health support or other ways in which Black Journalists can begin to get the support they need as they undertake reporting on traumatic beats and are called upon regularly to be in situations that subject us to direct harm. It really brings that sort of humaneness and wholeness that is often denied to journalists and media makers.

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This feels very relevant to some of the things that are happening in media now: layoffs, the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, publications shutting down. It all feels connected to the idea of media reparations and creating a more equitable media landscape. What are your thoughts on how media reparations connect to this moment?

One thing that I find comforting about the reparations framework is that it grounds us in the knowledge that nothing is new. We have been here—we have been in times of pain and hopelessness and fear over and over again in this society. When you look at the state of the journalism industry, you have to understand that it’s built on toxic soil. The earliest media in this country were the colonial newspapers, and they stayed afloat on revenues from advertisements for the sale of enslaved African people. That is how those newsletters, as they were called, were able to stay afloat to circulate the ideas of the American Revolution. 

Fast forward to the next great media innovation, which was radio and then television. The Federal Radio Commission, which later was superseded by the Federal Communications Commission, issued the first broadcasting licenses to white men under Jim Crow. And so the wealth of NBC, CBS, ABC stems from those roots. When you know that, from the beginning, racial hierarchy was baked in—and that an understanding that some humans’ labor could be stolen and exploited has always been a part of the business model—it’s not hard to get to a time when everybody’s labor is exploited and stolen. So we understand media reparations as an invitation to a completely new and sustainable media ecosystem—one that has moved away from racial capitalism and is defined by new economic models, besides just being a good old, for-profit corporation. There are co-ops and other types of collaborative models; there’s community ownership. All of these, though, need to be grounded in direct processes of repair, and in local communities. 

When you look at the closure of newsrooms—when you look at hedge funds buying up local papers, leaving entire geographical areas with no local journalists holding power to account—you understand that this current mass media system is not concerned with localism, and how directionally oppositional it is to the true purpose of journalism as a service which is supposed to inform people. 

Does Media 2070 have ideas for how to advance media reparations at the federal level?

I’ll give you a state-level example. The state of New Jersey created a Civic Information Consortium using revenues from the sale of broadcast spectrum, which is public property. Hundreds of millions of dollars came from that auction; public funding was then dedicated to a consortium led by universities. It was an initiative that was public in nature, but one that located the importance of race-specific, equitable disbursement of those funds to local media and projects. Now, that project does not describe itself as reparative and is not a response to the harms of chattel slavery and racial discrimination, but it’s an example of what happens when people in a community demand that the public sector invest in quality local news and information: the public sector responds and does actually invest those resources.

We have called on the FCC to investigate its history of racism and policymaking. Our hope is that, through that investigation, the need will emerge for Congress to get behind this type of fund and make it a reality. We also have called on media philanthropy to increase its funding of black and indigenous POC media by tenfold because, right now, Democracy Fund studies  show that only a very small percentage of philanthropic funding toward journalism and media is dedicated to so-called “ethnic media.”

How did the Black Future Newsstand come about?

People often think of reparations as pie in the sky. But we know that reparations have happened for many communities, including Japanese communities, Jewish communities, and Indigenous communities—like the Land Back movement, which is growing every day. So we know that we’re next; we’re in line, too. Reparations are inevitable, but how do we live into that? What does it look and feel and sound and taste like? 

We know that media is the site of so much cultural generation—media is how we figure out what’s cool; what’s true and what’s not. So we realize that, in order to understand a future where reparations are real, we need to understand the media of that time. And in order to truly understand it, we need to be able to walk inside it, put our hands on it, feel it. So out of that conversation—of What would a future media that we deserve look like?—came the idea: let’s do a custom installation. And from directly naming it on the nose, Black Future Newsstand, the idea just kept growing. 

What are some of the different publications that were included in this?

We had the Jackson Advocate, Umber and Slumber out of Oakland. We had CRWN MAG representing Black women’s perspectives through the lens of our hair; really broad perspectives on lifestyle and politics and everything in between. It was really important to include New York Amsterdam News, which is the nation’s oldest currently operating Black newspaper. We were able to collaborate with them on a special insert for Juneteenth called Black Future News, which has archival pieces, alongside what we call speculative journalism pieces, in which members of the Media 2070 co-creator team actually wrote journalism from the future, from a time where reparations are real. So you can see a piece from 1920, a piece from 1990, and a piece from 2070 all together in conversation on the printed page of the New York Amsterdam News.

Other notable stories:

 ICYMI: The American soldiers who made movies in Pyongyang

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

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