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Free Press is celebrating its 20th anniversary — and reflecting back on two decades of wins over foes like AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Sinclair and Verizon.

To mark this moment, we’re unveiling a timeline that captures key moments in our history.

Of course, Free Press’ history isn’t just about defeating villains. It’s also about reimagining what’s possible — and making it happen.

Here’s a look back at three victories that capture how we’ve done just that.

Free Press fights for — and wins — real Net Neutrality

In Free Press’ earliest years, we put the fight for Net Neutrality on the map. And from the beginning we’ve pushed the Federal Communications Commission to adopt Net Neutrality rules based in Title II of the Communications Act. Title II provides the strongest protections possible — which is why the big broadband providers have always used all of their lobbying power to sway the FCC in the other direction. So it was a sweet moment when the agency voted in February 2015 to approve Title II Net Neutrality rules. This victory was one of the biggest milestones in the FCC’s history.

Even a year before, this win seemed unlikely. In January 2014, a federal appeals court rejected the flimsy legal framework the agency had used for its previous Net Neutrality rules. In the wake of this decision, Free Press and others urged the FCC to adopt rules based in Title II — the correct legal foundation. But Chairman Tom Wheeler initially ignored the overwhelming public outcry. Instead, he released a proposal that would have allowed broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to destroy the internet’s level playing field and charge for speedier access online.

Free Press helped mobilize millions of people across the country to fight back, building a movement that united grassroots activists, racial-justice leaders, technologists, students, artists and millions of internet users. Responding to months of pressure — including two protests we organized outside presidential fundraisers in California — President Obama released a video in late 2014 that called on the FCC to enact Title II Net Neutrality protections. That was the turning point that helped get our campaign across the finish line. Wheeler reversed course and called the day of the FCC vote the proudest in his public-policy life.

The Trump FCC overturned these rules in 2017, but we put up a huge fight, organizing hundreds of protests nationwide in 2017. The agency has been deadlocked since the beginning of the Biden administration — but once a new commissioner is finally confirmed, the FCC should have the votes to reinstate Title II Net Neutrality. An added benefit: Restoring Title II will once again give the agency the tools to guard against ISP abuses.

Passing the Civic Info Bill — and transforming local news

Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost more than half the newspaper reporters covering state and local beats. With an average of two local newspapers shutting down each week, a growing number of communities have no access to the information they need.

The situation has been especially dire in New Jersey. Free Press has been organizing in the state since 2015 via our News Voices local-journalism project and we’ve seen the impacts of this crisis up close. In 2017, we launched a campaign urging the statehouse to create a publicly funded nonprofit to give people the news and information they need. 

No state had ever done something like this before. To build support, we held listening sessions throughout the state and drew on this feedback from community members to inform legislation — the Civic Info Bill — to create a state consortium. The two statehouse leaders introduced the bill in 2017 and championed it, but many lawmakers were initially skeptical about the bill’s prospects.

As we mobilized thousands of residents, held lobby days in the statehouse and testified before lawmakers, the concept gained traction. The legislation passed in 2018 with strong bipartisan support — and was a direct result of Free Press Action’s grassroots campaign. The bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law, is the first major public investment in local journalism our country has seen in the past decade.

The nonprofit has been up and running since 2021. Since then, it’s awarded grants to some 30 organizations focusing on diversifying journalism, improving government transparency, providing community-health news and better serving communities of color and immigrant communities.

Fighting for media reparations

In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Black caucus at Free Press launched the Media 2070 project, releasing a visionary 100-page essay that documents how the media have harmed Black communities for centuries. The piece, which The Columbia Journalism Review named one of the top-10 pieces of racial-justice coverage of 2020, traces this history of harm to colonial times, when profits from the trafficking of enslaved people kept the nation’s earliest newspapers afloat.

Over the course of nearly three years, Media 2070 has fought for media reparations to repair these harms — and has also uplifted Black joy and resistance. A few highlights capture the huge impact the project has already made:

  • In 2021 — in response to Media 2070’s advocacy — Rep. Jamaal Bowman and 24 House colleagues called on the FCC to examine how its policy choices have harmed Black people and other communities of color. 
  • In 2022, the team co-hosted a two-day conference on race, racism and American media and released an award-winning documentary, Black in the Newsroom, which explores a young journalist’s experience with low pay and systemic racism at The Arizona Republic
  • In 2023, Media 2070 and the Black Thought Project launched the Black Future Newsstand — a custom-built art installation — at a series of public events in Harlem. The installation invited people to consider the question “What does a media that loves Black people look, feel and sound like in a future where reparations are real?”
  • This same year, the team debuted its first-ever college course, “Diagnosing the Media System,” at Colorado College. The school has invited Media 2070 to return to teach the class in 2024, and the team is hoping to take this course to other college campuses, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
  • Perhaps most significantly, Media 2070 has helped reshape the national debate over the need for media reparations. And by building a culture of care for Black journalists and communities, it’s showing newsrooms a new way of doing their work.

These are just a few standout moments from the last two decades. Check out our timeline to learn about more victories, and donate to help power more wins in the years to come.

Check out the other posts in our 20th-anniversary blog series.

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