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.
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.