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.
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?