By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The Black Press plays a unique role in the ethnic media landscape. While many ethnic outlets thrive as primary news sources for immigrants who speak foreign languages, the Black Press exists alongside mainstream outlets serving an audience that reads and speaks English.
The majority of the Black Press audience probably reads a mainstream English- language news source at least occasionally, if not more often. For instance, a 2005 study from New California Media found that African-Americans relied most on mainstream outlets for news on politics and government (66%), and that they were also the group that relied on the ethnic media least for that kind of news (21%).1
The Black Press gained particular force in the U.S. during the 1960’s civil rights struggles. As coverage matured to include African-American perspectives – and major media outlets hired more minority staff – Black readership grew. Meanwhile, the audience of black newspapers declined.
But, as many Black Press editors point out, discrimination did not end after the 1960s. Racial issues still simmer beneath the surface, and African-American communities have been vocal in their belief that the mainstream press does not always get the full story when covering them. In 2007, that disconnect was spelled out in the Jena 6 story.
The small town of Jena, La., drew attention in mainstream media throughout 2007, following the December 2006 arrest of 16-year-old Mychal Bell, one of six black students initially charged as an adult with attempted murder in the beating of a white student.
The fight came after an autumn filled with racial tension at Jena High School. A group of white students hung nooses from a shade tree on school grounds – an attempt to intimidate black students who sat under the tree, a common resting area for white students. The tensions erupted in a fight and the violent beating of a white student by the group of black students, which included Bell.
As word spread, the African-American community became increasingly troubled about the charges. In June, Bell went before an all-white jury that delivered a guilty verdict after less than three hours of deliberations. Leaders were incensed that Bell faced up to 22 years in prison despite the fact that the white student he had beaten was treated and released from the hospital the same day of the fight .
For the Black Press, the story’s range and impact, particularly on younger, desirable readers, was something of a shock. Jake Oliver, editor and publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American, said in an interview with PEJ, “We started to pick up some buzz about Jena from the students at Howard [University in Washington] and Morgan State [University in Baltimore] in mid-September, and then there were these massive rallies and vigils at each.”
Word of the Louisiana incident spread over the Internet, Oliver said, and it presented young people with a new reality. “It was about them for the first time,” Oliver said. “For the first time in their lives they were realizing that something could be taken away from them.” The Afro-American sent reporter Valencia Mohammed to Jena to cover the September 20 March for Justice protest and her reports “just blew the top off the Web site” in terms of visits, Oliver said.
In part because of the Black Press coverage, the Jena story eventually caught the attention of the mainstream press. CNN covered the protect marches, and the New Yorker magazine published a Comment piece about Jena in its October 8 issue. The activity in the blogosphere surrounding Jena was a favorite topic on National Public Radio’s Black Bloggers’ Roundtable, a popular weekly dissection of minority issues led by News and Notes host Farai Chideya.
On September 26, a state appeals court threw out the original verdict and announced that Bell would be tried as a juvenile for second-degree battery. In December, Bell pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-month sentence a juvenile facility, with 10 months already served. Felony charges against the other students are pending.
That outcome – and the concerted campaign that drew in readers – suggests the Black Press, with the help of the Web, can use its audience and voice to spotlight under-reported stories. The case, Oliver said, also created an opening for his paper – and, he believes, other Black Press – to reach out to younger readers. As the Jena story broke, the Afro-American created an e-mail report called “degree” that it now sends to students at Morgan State, Howard and other historically Black schools .
While stories like Jena underscore the opportunities for the Black Press, particularly online, challenges remain. Circulation for some is essentially flat, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.
For this report, we compare three well-known papers in cities with large African-American populations, as audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations – the New York Amsterdam News, the Philadelphia Tribune and the Baltimore Afro-American. All three saw a mixed 2007.
In Baltimore, the weekly Afro-American increased its circulation to 11,853 from 11,224 – a jump of about 6%. The weekly Amsterdam News saw the slightest bump in its circulation, which climbed to 13,380 from 13,180 in 2006. And in Philadelphia, the Tribune, which publishes three times a week, saw a drop in its Sunday circulation, to 10,122 from 11,559 in 2006, a 12% decline.
It should be noted that at a time when most newspapers are losing circulation, simply holding the line is often viewed as something of a victory. And many of these papers, which are not audited by the ABC, still saw good circulation numbers according to other auditing companies, particularly the Circulation Verification Council.
But retaining readers at a smaller circulation paper can present more complicated challenges than at larger outlets.
As with other ethnic and alternative newspapers, African-American newspapers generally rely more on local ads from small businesses and classifieds – areas that are becoming harder to mine because of the rise of “big box” stores and the Web. An aging audience also cuts into the numbers. Black Press readers are older than the desired 18-to-34-year-old demographic – and getting older.2 That is one reason the publishers were pleased at the interest in Jena and the power of the Internet for the younger audience.
As is the case with other ethnic papers, the publications hold an advantage: devoted readers who trust them above other outlets.
“African-American media is still one of the most integral components in the African-American social structure, and it’s one of the most influential entities in the African-American segment,” Latraviette Smith, national vice president in the multicultural practice at Edelman, told PR Week. “It’s really capable of lending that credibility and validity to brands across industries.
“There’s a trust African-American media has with the community,” she said. “It goes back to that credibility. They’re still very much a voice within the community. They [provide] a forum for issues of concern that other media still aren’t [covering].”
The question for the Black Press is how to capitalize on that credibility in a time when print media across the board are struggling.
One venture to watch is a free online-only magazine, the Root (www.theroot.com), introduced by the Washington Post in January 2008. Led by the author and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the magazine bypasses entertainment and lifestyle content in favor of news and commentary on black politics and culture, with a focus on helping users research family histories, according to the New York Times. It joins what is becoming the Post’s small stable of e-magazines; the first, Slate, was purchased in 2005. Advising The Root is Slate editor Jacob Weisberg.
According to the Times, The Root aims to be a “more high-brow, political alternative to established magazines like Ebony and sites like BlackAmericaWeb.com and BlackVoices.com.” “We didn’t feel there is a place right now where right-wing and left-wing and centrist black commentators can get together in one space,” Gates told the Times, adding he sees the site filling the role of disappearing black newspapers in major cities.
While the online-only approach cuts printing and delivery costs, it also pulls in less advertising and circulation revenue. Washington Post Chief Executive Donald E. Graham was making no predictions about the project’s financial prospects, “but, obviously,” he said, “we intend to make money eventually.”
An offshoot of the largest organization of African-American publishers in the U.S. is trying to help bring its papers into the digital age.
The organization, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, also known as the Black Press of America, represents more than 200 Black community newspapers of all sizes around the country. The association provides a digital home for, among others, the Precinct Reporter Group, a set of small papers in San Bernadino, Calif., without Web sites. Its membership also includes papers such as the New York’s Amsterdam News, which uses an NNPA template to get itself online.
Because the Black Press is such a diverse universe, some of the best-known publications joined to found a smaller group within NNPA, the African American News and Information Consortium. This group includes the Indianapolis Recorder, the Amsterdam News, the Afro-American, the Dallas Weekly, the Atlanta Voice, the St. Louis American and the Chicago Citizen. Aside from progress on the digital front, its goal is to see that all print circulations are audited, according to members.
The Afro-American is one of several Black Press Web sites that feature an e-edition that mimics the look of the print version – a user clicks on pages to “turn” them and sees an image of the print product, articles and ads. Its editor, Jake Oliver, says his paper is re-imagining its content, in part with the Web in mind, going with shorter, digest-sized articles from around the country and the world.
As of 2007, the Web site drew 29,000 visits a week and more than 250,000 page views. “The electronic edition is just a bridge. We know that,” Oliver said. “We are going to change the design of our site. We have to. We know everything is moving online.”
The papers know they are behind in the online game and catching up is a major goal.
1. The Ethnic Media in America: The Giant Hidden in Plain Sight, question “Which media do African Americans Rely on More Heavily for News on Politics and Government?” New California Media, June 6, 2005.
2. Erica Iacono. “African-American Press Retains Influence,” PRWeek, March 14, 2007: http://www.prweekus.com/African-Am erican-press-retains-influence/article/56625/.