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The Obama Factor

The Obama Factor

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The nomination of the first African American for President was significant for all ethnic media, but especially big for African American outlets. When asked what the “big story” of the year was for the Black Press, Elinor Tatum of the New York Amsterdam News had two words: “Barack Obama.”

African American media outlets invested heavily in coverage, with the two black-oriented cable channels providing their first gavel-to-gavel coverage of a political party convention and focusing almost solely on news coverage for the convention, election night and  Obama’s inauguration. The major African American magazines- Essence, Ebony and Jet-  all added some form of regular White House coverage to their content.1 Some of the largest African American newspapers saw big increases in subscriptions and sold thousands more copies beyond their average circulations following Election Day.

And black talk radio became so influential during the elections that the New York Times deemed the medium “The Left’s Answer to Limbaugh.”2

The Obama campaign hired a communications strategist “to focus exclusively on black media and help with an intensified effort to take advantage of their excitement about Mr. Obama’s candidacy.”3

In print, Essence’s January 2009 magazine featured two different covers, one with Michelle Obama and the other with Barack Obama. Ebony dedicated its entire January 2009 issue to Obama and named him as the person of the year, a first for the magazine. The magazine also landed Obama’s first post-election interview.4

Afro American newspapers responded to Obama’s candidacy by stepping up their online operations and the New York Amsterdam News reported selling in excess of 200,000 copies of its issue following Obama’s election. The paper also saw an uptick in subscription sales and visitors to its website, according to Elinor Tatum, the paper’s editor in chief and publisher.

Among black television channels, TV One spent $1 million to cover the Democratic National Convention  gavel to gavel and added a talk show to the lineup called TV One Live: DNC Afterparty.5

The effort reaped benefits. Its prime-time coverage reached a total of 2.6 million viewers, 2.2 million of them African American.6

On the night of the convention when Obama made his acceptance speech, TV One was the second-most watched cable network by African Americans, behind only CNN, according to Nielsen Media Research.

On election night, TV One began its comprehensive coverage, “Election Night 08: A Vote for Change,” at 7 p.m. and continued late into the night after Obama’s election. The channel’s team included anchors Arthur Fennell, Joe Madison and Jacque Reid in the studio, with reporters in the field in seven locations. Commentators included Michael Eric Dyson, Tom Joyner and Roland Martin, among others. TV One used Associated Press resources for its information.

And for the inauguration, TV One dedicated 24 hours of programming to the event. Its coverage of the inauguration began at 7 a.m., with live coverage beginning at 10 a.m. The coverage of the day’s events included live reports and interviews from the inauguration ceremony, parade and inaugural balls by TV One commentators and reporters sent to the inauguration, as well as some previously aired documentaries and interviews.

The largest black channel, BET, also took steps to link itself to the presidential elections. During the Democratic convention, BET featured periodic reports and interviews from the floor and carried Obama’s acceptance speech live.

BET discontinued its nightly newscast in 2005 but it presented the debut of a new weekly news program, The Truth With Jeff Johnson, during the Democratic convention.

BET scaled back its coverage significantly for the Republican National Convention, drawing some criticism about the ability of the cable network to remain objective while at the same time covering Obama’s nomination.

On election day, BET offered news updates and extended its coverage of the election all of the next day, featuring a mix of live coverage and airings of Obama speeches, viewer call-ins and celebrity commentators.7 BET began its election night coverage at 6 p.m. with a special edition of 106 & Park, a popular entertainment show normally seen at that time.

The prime-time coverage, “Be Heard Election 2008,” started at 8 p.m. The BET team was led by Jeff Johnson and correspondents in the field and featured political analyst Kevin Boykin, political pundits Jamal Simmons, Keli Goff and Angela McGowan and Marcus Mabry, an editor at the New York Times.8

For the inauguration, BET covered the ceremony and parade from four locations and featured several special reports on topic such as Obama’s international appeal, his security, Michelle Obama a look at individual voters who helped elect Obama.

The interest in the election was also evident on African American radio.

Black talk radio hosts Bev Smith, Tom Joyner, Warren Ballentine, Michael Baisden, Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton were vocal during the primary season. Many were in high demand to offer perspectives on mainstream cable channels.

Obama’s candidacy also prompted all the presidential candidates to make more use of black talk radio as a way of reaching out to the African American community.9

During the primary campaign, Obama appeared for interviews on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, the Michael Basiden Show and the Steve Harvey Morning Show.10

Radio One stations conducted a one-day voter registration drive that enrolled 30,000 new voters.11

Online, the coverage of Obama’s candidacy was plentiful as well. and blogged from the Democratic convention.

There were celebrity webisodes and news feeds from TV One and during the event. The site also interviewed Michelle Obama and featured live interactive forums during the convention.12

The convention granted unprecedented access to bloggers. However, the party came under fire from African American bloggers.

Francis L. Holland, of the Afrosphere Action Coalition, complained to Black Enterprise magazine that black blogs only made up slightly more than 7% of the bloggers credentialed for the convention.13

Notable credentialed African American blogs included: African American Political Pundit, Jack and Jill Politics, Pam’s House Blend, Dallas South, What About Our Daughters, Culture Kitchen and Georgia Politics Unfiltered.14

Leading up to and on Election Day, featured comprehensive coverage “intended to represent a multifaceted multigenerational view of the African American experience around Election Day.”15

The website used its base of writers and also allowed the public to submit personal stories and photos that helped convey individual African American experiences during the election. Features on the website included a piece on the Internet’s impact on the election, a story on Michelle Obama as the First Lady and the evolution of American identity by prominent Root writers.16

The Obama candidacy seemed to push many outlets to include more news in their regular mix of programming and printing than in previous years, even in a worsening economy. One thing to watch for is if these trends continue through Obama’s term as President.


1. Nia-Malika Henderson,“Obama Brings firsts for Black Press,” Politico. January 3, 2009.

2. Jim Rutenberg, “Black Radio on Obama Is Left’s Answer to Limbaugh, New York Times. July 27, 2008.

3. Jim Rutenberg, “Black Radio on Obama Is Left’s Answer to Limbaugh, New York Times. July 27, 2008.

4. Nia-Malika Henderson,  “Obama Brings Firsts for Black Press,” Politico, January 3, 2009.

5. Greg Braxton,  “Will Obama Reports Be Fair?” Los Angeles Times,  August 23, 2008.,0,5934044.story

6. Press release, “TV One’s Democratic Convention Coverage Reaches 2.6 Million Viewers, Including 2.2 Million African American Viewers,” TV One, September 3, 2008.

7. BET press release, “BET News Provides Extensive, Up-to-the-Minute Election Coverage,” October 31, 2008.

8. BET press release, “BET News Provides Extensive, Up-to-the-Minute Election Coverage,” October 31, 2008.

9. Chandra R. Thomas, “How Black Radio Found Its Voice” Time magazine, April 5, 2008.,8599,1728240,00.html

10. Jim Rutenberg, “Black Radio on Obama Is Left’s Answer to Limbaugh, New York Times. July 27, 2008.

11. Press Release, “Hip Hop Caucus. Respect My Vote Campaign Reaches Thousands During Nationwide One-Day Voter Registration Drive.”

12. Press Release, “Radio One’s Interactive Unit to Offer Exclusive Content Covering the Democratic National Convention on and,” August 26, 2008.

13. Ann Brown. New Media Dilemma for the Democratic Convention. Black Enterprise Magazine. July 18, 2008.

14. Democratic National Convention Website. Credentialed Blogs.

15. Press Release. The Root Captures African-American Experience Around U.S. Presidential Race. October 30, 2008.

16. press release, “The Root Captures African-American Experience Around U.S. Presidential Race,” October 30, 2008.