By George Curry
WASHINGTON – Sunday’s front-page story on the Black Press failed to accurately portray the accomplishments of and the depth of the problems facing Black-owned media, according to scholars, Black media owners and editors.
The Times story was published under the headline, “Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival.”
Linn Washington, Jr., a professor of journalism at Temple University, said one of the most glaring shortcomings of the article was that of approximately 200 Black-owned newspapers in the United States, no Black editor or publisher was quoted. Nor were any of the leaders of their trade organization, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).
“The failure to note legacies of the historic Black Press in an article purportedly about pillars of Black Media is yet another omission by commission cited as a major failing of mainstream media as far back as the 1968 Kerner Report on race relations in America,” Washington said. “Such omissions perpetuate the misunderstandings underlying the persistence of the ‘race problem’ in America.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., in July 1967 to examine the racial rebellions that erupted in major cities for several years and to make recommendations for improvement.
The commission’s report found, “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes. Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes. Fewer than 1 percent of editors and supervisors are Negroes, and most of them work for Negro-owned organizations. The lines of various news organizations to the militant blacks are, by admission of the newsmen themselves, almost nonexistent.”
The Black Media, on the other hand, is more trusted by African Americans.
“Black newspapers service large numbers of the Black community each week with viable and late breaking news,” said John “Jake” Oliver, publisher of the Baltimore-based Afro Newspapers and a former president of NNPA. “Such service is provided across this country in the latest mediums (electronic etc.) our rapidly changing community can absorb.”
According to Jet magazine [Nov. 2, 1998], a study conducted by Ketchum Public Relations’ African-American Markets Group (AAMG) and Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry found that 87 percent of Blacks place their highest trust in Black magazines, closely followed by Black television news and Black newspapers at 80 percent; Black radio news was trusted by 70 percent of African Americans.
By contrast, Consumer Reports was the only non-Black media resource with a trust level of 81 percent.
A 2012 study by Nielsen found, “The average income for African-American households nationwide is $47,290 with 35% earning $50,000 or more.” Ten percent of Black households earn $100,000 or more each year. The study noted, “The Black population and its aggregate buying power is overall more geographically widespread and more diverse than other ethnic and racial segments.”
The study observed, “Since 2000, the total U.S. population only increased by 11.3%, while the Black population increased by 17.9%, a rate that is 1.6 times the greater overall growth.” The report noted that the U.S. Black population is larger than 163 of the 195 countries in the world, including Argentina, Poland, Canada and Australia.
A 2013 Nielsen study (“Resilient, Receptive and Relevant: The African-American Consumer 2013 Report”) found that although annual Black spending was projected to rise from $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion by 2017, advertisers allot only 3 percent of their $2.2 billion yearly budget to media aimed at Black audiences.
Cloves C. Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant and immediate past chairman of the NNPA, said: “The interesting point to note is that Black media outlets are continuing to be bought up by White media conglomerates. Only then is there advertising support. The White agencies start to show up. When Blacks own the media outlets, as is the case with Black newspapers, White agencies try to dismiss and diminish our value.
Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Crusader newspapers in Chicago and Gary, Ind., argues that Blacks are too accepting of insults from companies they support as consumers.
“As Blacks we have never capitalized on our buying power and the White media has now convinced advertisers they don’t need to advertise in our media and many of our consumers think that there is some prestige in identifying with White,” explained Leavell, a former president of NNPA. “More importantly as a race of people somewhere along the way we have lost the desire to value and strengthen our institutions.”
Brian Townsend, publisher of the Precinct Reporter in San Bernadino, Calif. and former chairman of the NNPA Foundation, said, “The influence of Black media on Black consumers is diminishing solely because of reduced advertising resources, not because of reduced demand. Our readership is still vibrant and appreciative of our efforts.”
Some of the problems facing Black Press, such as dwindling circulation, are industry-wide concerns.
According to the 2015 “State of the News Media” study conducted by the Pew Foundation, Black newspapers “are hard to measure as a group, though, because few have audited audience figures. Among the five larger African-American newspapers that do, four saw sizable declines in total paid circulation (which includes both print and digital) from 2013 to 2014 – ranging from 7% for the New York Amsterdam News to 19% for the Chicago Defender.
“Only one of the five papers examined, The Philadelphia Tribune, saw an overall increase in circulation in 2014. The total growth was 40% – though all but 2% of this is attributed to 5,200 copies of their digital replica edition distributed as a part of the Newspapers in Education Program.”
Pluria Marshall, Jr., who owns both newspapers and television stations, said Black media should become more adept at exploiting social media.
“Advertisers don’t, in large part, respect the general market daily papers,” said Marshall, publisher of the Los Angeles Wave Publications Group. “So we are at a disadvantage when we pitch business. We are no longer in the print business, we are media companies that happen to use print to deliver a message. We have to better embrace the web. Online is just one component that should be incorporated with print, across the board. Clients want it and we have to deliver it.”
Like Marshall, Rev. R. B. Holmes owns a Black newspaper, the Capital Outlook in Tallahassee, Fla., and broadcast properties, including two radio stations.
“I think it is important that Black media must find a better and creative way to survive and thrive in these days,” he stated. “When all Black institutions are struggling for relevance and revenue, including HBCUs, the Black church and our historic civil rights groups, this should be a clear call to find our collective voice. Blacks are great consumers but very few leaders have been able to rally us to overcome the Black economic drought in the Black Press.”
Dorothy Leavell feels some African Americans may have grown too comfortable under a Black president for nearly eight years.
“More than anything many of the Black magazine owners forgot their mission and were too anxious to emulate the White magazines,” she said. “They were and are pretty much like they thought that with the election of Barack Obama that we were living in a post-racial America. Many of the owners were and are too consumed in their personal wealth, so many sold their products and ran to enjoy the good life.”
With dramatic changes in demographics, Black media outlets will be under increasing pressure to sell their businesses to White-owned companies, just as BET and Essence did.
In doing so, they may be giving up the thing that distinguished them from their White competitors – their unique perspectives.
Jake Oliver, publisher of the Afro, is convinced that the digital platform will allow the Black Press to remain vibrant.
“Times are tough, but the changes occurring in the news environment will continue to level the competitive playing field in this industry like never before,” he said. “I’m personally optimistic that, in time, such changes will once again produce positive results to those who have been historically serving our community and who have earned this community’s trust.”