The Once and Future Black Press

Job losses. Game-changing technology. Belt tightening. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of black media in 2010.

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For years the term "black press," as award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson noted in Soldiers Without Swords, meant newspapers -- The Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Amsterdam News, Michigan Chronicle, Baltimore Afro-American, Los Angeles Sentinel and so on -- and Ebony and Jet. That was particularly true when John H. Johnson launched Ebony, then Jet, more than 60 years ago.

While the news-gathering goal of the expanded media remains the same, Linda Johnson Rice told me, "Today, outlets are charged with deciding which form of technology best suits the story. For instance, black consumers can now receive stories via iPads, satellite radio and the Web in addition to traditional print." Jet recently rolled out a jazzed-up print edition and a digital version called MyJet247.com. And just this week, Johnson Publishing announced that Desiree Rogers, a well-connected Chicagoan who most recently worked as social director for President Obama, has been brought on board as CEO.

A rather erudite friend of mine in Los Angeles, Karen Farmer, told me that while she still reads the Sentinel for local news, she is much more likely to read the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Time magazine, and to listen to National Public Radio, for news and information that is more global. "Black radio here has fallen into Death Valley." From my East Coast perch, I pretty much agree with her assessment of what is out there, but I pick up some black-oriented talk radio over the Internet when there are hot issues.

These days, a debate swirls over who is a journalist, regardless of race. Is Oprah a journalist by virtue of O The Oprah Magazine? Is Tavis Smiley? What about syndicated radio hosts, who, in addition to entertaining their audience, can bring attention to issues?

While Delaney is willing to admit some bloggers to the circle, "I'd be extremely careful, as the rules are still being written." At present he puts most bloggers "in the same category as PR types, disc jockeys, etc." -- in other words, the kind of people who were pointedly excluded from NABJ upon its founding in 1975. But Gary Pierre-Pierre, founder and publisher of the 11-year-old Haitian Times in Brooklyn, N.Y., sees bloggers as potentially the great equalizers. "As the medium gains more traction, they will become more influential," he says.

He embraces what is happening in community radio and on the Internet as a way to expand the reach of black-oriented newspapers. He has used both of those media in the aftermath of the January earthquake and to connect members of a younger generation, who are no longer "refugees" in the U.S. but "immigrants," as he explained in a recent radio interview at New York University. His strategy, he says, "has been quite effective in that we get a large turnout with a relatively low cost." That may be an answer to competing with mainstream media.

And that's a good thing for journalism, as Gates sees it: "There's such a proliferation of outlets because anybody can blog now." He wants to see represented, especially on The Root, people blogging from the left, right and center and from all age groups, including teenagers. Johnson Rice says that her major challenge is "to stay relevant on the newsstands while establishing a timely and engaging presence on the Web." In that arena, her company faces competition from The Root, the Grio, Black America Web and AOL's Black Voices, among others.

As he looks forward, Gates sees new media reflecting "the diversity, passion and interests of 35 million African-American people," but while this is clearly "an era of transition," Gates vows: "I'm going to be the last man standing reading a newspaper."

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York.

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