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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When it comes to black-oriented news media, we have a mixed bag: There is the kind of buzz that was created in 2007 by college-student blogs, e-mails and text messages alerting the nation to a major injustice in Jena, La., where six black youths faced felony assault charges stemming from a fight with a white student in the midst of escalating racial tension at the local high school. White kids were not similarly charged for their roles in the tit-for-tat confrontations. The Jena Six story grew as syndicated radio hosts like Tom Joyner, National Public Radio and, eventually, national civil rights leaders and the mainstream press picked it up. Some 20,000 protesters from across the nation marched in Jena in September 2007, heeding the media's call.

The work of students from Florida A&M University (FAMU) who participated in coverage of this year's World Cup soccer competition with university students from China, bringing South African and soccer news to audiences in a refreshing way through their blogs, was the kind of real-time energetic reporting not readily seen in the traditional black press or even BET and TV One.

But the black press was not much of a presence in any form on the story that left the Obama administration and media with egg on their faces: the firing of federal agricultural employee Sheryl Sherrod based on misinformation. According to Richard Prince, who produces the column Journal-isms: "Black media have been parties to the Sherrod discussion, but they have not led it." The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) did give Sherrod a forum at its recent convention, and what she said -- including her plans to sue the blogger who started the false story about her -- made national and international headlines.

On another front, the Time Inc.-owned Essence magazine, a must-read for many black women for 40 years, made its biggest news splash in years with the controversial hiring of a white woman to be its fashion director.

That is a thumbnail sketch of what is happening in the topsy-turvy world of the black press -- or, more broadly, black-oriented media. There have indeed been innovations, but technological advances, as well as belt-tightening and desperation, have also led to the loss of many jobs. While the entire news-gathering industry has been hard hit, it seems that journalists of color are being particularly affected. And NABJ is struggling with deficits and declining membership, as its convention publication, The Monitor, has reported.

Add to this air of anxiety the continued speculation that Essence, Ebony and Jet are on their last legs. Journal-isms posted this from a June 17 Folio article: "Ad pages slipped 8.2 percent at Black Enterprise while Johnson Publishing's Ebony and Jet saw dramatic declines of 30.6 percent and 33.1 percent respectively."

Linda Johnson Rice, the chairman of Johnson Publishing Co., countered in an e-mail statement to me: "Both Ebony and JET remain the No. 1 African-American magazines in the marketplace. Yes, times have been challenging as [they have] been for most media companies but keep in mind that we are not alone. If you look in the news lately, many magazines have shut down, but we're still here."

In his 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Gunnar Myrdal described the black press as "the greatest single force in the Negro race." For much of his own historical research, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-founder of The Root and champion of newspapers, has studied the content of black newspapers -- everything from professional advancement to society news to advertisements to obituaries -- and concluded: "It's like the mind of the race is buried in those newspapers."

Paul Delaney, who worked as a reporter and editor at The New York Times for 23 years and received NABJ's 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award, recalls getting his start in black newspapers in the 1950s: "The main source of black-press strength then was availability of black journalists, who were not hired by white media during Jim Crow. The [civil rights] movement changed that abruptly, significantly and permanently. Most talented black journalists were hired by white media, leaving the black press in worse shape than ever." Many of those best and brightest were also left champing at the bit when they were denied choice assignments in the mainstream media.

Today, Delaney says, "the black press is in horrible shape, but it has always been a basket case." Lack of original reporting, a heavy reliance on press releases, and government-mandated ads and poor editing are major problems.

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