NBCBLK Editor Defends New Black Site: ‘It Was Destined to Be Controversial’

Amber Payne, a former “Nightly News” producer, speaks to TheWrap about NBC’s website targeting African-American issues

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NBC News

Just days after NBC News launched its new black-oriented website, NBCBLK, the site is already facing criticism. NBC introduced the website with a soft launch on Jan. 12. While some media analysts and social media users have praised its focus on politics, culture and social issues affecting the black community, others are calling it divisive.

Among the critics, entertainment website The Reel Network, which accused NBCBLK of “widening the chasm that exists between races,” in an editorial published Wednesday. While Richard Prince, diversity issues columnist for the Maynard Institute, expressed concern that the site is starting out too small. “With a heavy reliance on freelancers, it could use more resources,” Prince said.

But NBCBLK editor Amber Payne, a former producer with NBC’s “Nightly News,” is dismissing the criticism.

“Anytime you’re starting something new, there’s always going to be a mixed reaction. It has ‘black’ in the name; it was destined to be controversial, and that’s fine,” Payne told TheWrap, “[But] it could bring more attention or conversation to issues in the black community. What is black? Who is black? and What does that mean? I know that it’s sparking conversation, which I think is good.”

In the time since it has launched, NBCBLK’s content has included an interview with Bill Cosby amid protests of his Denver stand-up show, a conversation with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, and a “Living Color” series that has included fathers speaking to their biracial sons and fathers speaking to their sons about racial profiling.

Payne discussed the site’s goals, and how it fits into the NBC family after the network sold its previous black-oriented website TheGrio.com back to its original owners.

TheWrap: Why did NBC feel the need to launch NBCBLK?
Amber Payne: ‘Black’ means many things. Not everyone identifies as African-American or black. We have a lot of variety and children of immigrants. It’s about stories about the black diaspora nationally and worldwide. One of my contributors lives in Copenhagen, [Denmark]. The pool of journalists we’re pulling from is multicultural and racial. It’s not ‘for us, by us.’ It’s NBC News talent, anchors, correspondents at NBC and CNBC.

What are the goals of NBCBLK?
Tell stories that engage inspire and inform communities of color. That’s part of what I want to showcase here. Have the conversation that no one wants to have or no one wants to go there, from mental health, reparations, the N-word; there’s a lot of things people don’t want to talk about. One thing we’re trying to accomplish, having our subjects own their narrative.

Also, I have the worldwide network of NBC journalists, from correspondents to producers and freelancers as well, to bring a different voice. We’re going to be setting up bringing in voices of HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] students and featuring their writing.

What do you say to critics who believe the name suggests the site is separatist from NBC?
I think the feeling was to have an asset to NBC’s coverage and champion stories from digital and broadcast and bridge the two. I don’t see why there’s no room for NBC News to highlight that work and original voices. We have other sections of the website if you want to read about health, go to health. Or Huffington Post voices, you can go to ‘Black Voices’; we’re not the first to venture into curating a part of a main site. 

Will there be mostly news or entertainment on the site?
We’re news first. I feel we’ll have to pivot on the news. We will have a series showcasing young entrepreneurs called “Young, Gifted & Black,” one featuring Lee Daniels (Fox’s “Empire”).

Will this replace TheGrio?
TheGrio was a stand-alone news site that was part of NBC’s holdings and BLK is integrated more closely with NBC. Owners David Wilson and Dan Woolsey took back control of [TheGrio] as full-time owners. MSNBC and TheGrio will continue to have an editorial relationship covering business, breaking news and politics.

Editors note: A previous version of this article misidentified the title of the series highlighting young entrepreneurs, “Young, Gifted & Black.” TheWrap regrets the error.