Carlos Watson is the co-founder and CEO of OZY Media, a digital news platform that has achieved 40 million unique monthly viewers since its founding in late 2013. He moderates Third Rail with OZY, a primetime, cross-platform debate program that features experts and celebrity guests weekly on PBS. Previously, he served as a political commentator on CNN and a news anchor on MSNBC.
Harvard Political Review: You launched OZY just over four years ago, in September 2013. What was your vision when you began?
Carlos Watson: I wanted to build a place for the most curious people in the world that would become not the only place where they go for news information but certainly [somewhere] I used to call their ‘first and favorite.’ I had images of what Apple became in the computer and phone space; a bit of what HBO became, at least in the early 2000s, in the television space; or even what Tesla has been trying to do in the car space. That was what was on my mind, on our mind: could we build something magical in the news and information space?
HPR: How do you think OZY fulfills this vision?
CW: Part of what we are doing is not just catching people up on today’s news but [also] regularly vaulting them ahead and helping them discover the new-and-the-next. Whether [that] means rising stars, new trends, provocative ideas, or just cool things to watch or read, I hope OZY has a cutting-edge orientation that makes people feel like [it] is fresh [and] different.
HPR: Has anything about this vision changed in the wake of the most recent presidential election?
CW: I would say three things are true. One, there is even more of a need not just to catch people up or vault them ahead but [also] to go deeper: we are doing more investigative series and pieces because we think the moment calls for that.
Two, at a time of incredible tension, we have further amped up our efforts to shine a spotlight on the most provocative ideas that are out there. We now have launched a primetime television show in partnership with PBS called The Third Rail with OZY. We are tackling the most important and provocative questions, knowing that we are in a moment where nuclear weapons, healthcare, immigration, and [other] fundamental questions are being revisited.
Last but not least, I am proud to say that we have made a determined effort to not just focus on what is happening in Washington but [also] to look broadly across the United States and the world. This last year, as many of our peers in journalism were sending most of their reporting resources to cover what was happening in D.C., we [wanted] to send people out to cover firsthand some of the most important stories from around the country—from Rhode Island to Idaho and back. We launched a series called “States of the Nation” that has gotten a lot of acclaim for covering those hidden-but-important stories that are part of understanding where the world is and where it is going.
HPR: You mentioned that you seek to discuss controversial [issues] on The Third Rail with OZY. How do you think these topics address partisanship in the United States as a whole?
CW: At its best, the way that happens is by inviting people with different opinions to the table and leaning into provocative topics instead of running away from them. It is [about] creating a space in which those conversations can happen with some level of civility, intelligence, and insight, and not just shouting and scratching and clawing.
HPR: What noticeable impact would you say sites like OZY have had on politics and political awareness?
CW: The reality is that 2016 has reset the game for all of us. The realization that fake news, dumbed-down news, and thin news played such a meaningful role has made most thoughtful people—no matter which side of the aisle you are on—look for higher quality offerings. For OZY, it has been a huge opportunity. Many people are looking for high-quality journalism, but do not want to [visit] old incumbents. In OZY, they find the best of both worlds.
HPR: What is next for OZY?
CW: I hope that one is a broader global footprint: today, about three-quarters of OZY’s audience is in the United States. My hope is that over the next two to three years, the majority of OZY’s audience will come from outside the United States. That is probably the biggest thing.
You will see OZY do even more with audio. It is clear to me that we are entering a world of Alexa and Google in-home, and all sorts of ways for people to listen to their information. I hope OZY is going to be at the forefront of that.
HPR: What is next for media as a whole?
CW: We are going to be challenged next year. 2018 is going to be the most tumultuous time in American society since 1968. It will be the most tumultuous year in 50 years. It is a delicious and powerful moment for media to step up and help the smartest and the most curious among us to see the world better and more broadly—and frankly, help us find some ways to work together. Great media can help people figure out how to work together, better. That is a big part of what we need.
Image Credit: Flickr/Intel Capital
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Correction: The Third Rail with OZY airs on PBS, not CBS as originally stated.