Black Press Blues

The black press has had a unique role in American history. Something to do with ex-slave Frederick Douglass, sitting at the desk of his Rochester, N.Y., home, composing fiery editorials for the famed "North Star". Something to do with Marcus Garvey's "Negro World" proclaiming black pride, and W.E.B. DuBois' "Crisis" delineating the color line. Something to do with those outdated, flatbed presses and AP machines clacking away, while underpaid editors and janitors -- who were often the same person -- toiled diligently in an eloquent fight for human dignity.That something? No need to spell it out, really -- why, even the paint peeling off the walls of the black newsroom screams "character." But now, decades after its heyday, the black press is fighting for its life -- and for its feisty character. It's a fight that matters deeply to the African-American community, says UNC journalism professor Chuck Stone. "With the rollback in affirmative action and voices out there like Shelby Steele and Clarence Thomas," Stone says, "it is the black press that carries the fight forward."If the black press doesn't carry the fight forward, you have to wonder who will. Black-owned newspapers far outnumber black-owned radio and television stations, a situation that's unlikely to change in the near future. The Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Clinton last year, placed new barriers in the way of black radio-station ownership, encouraging buyouts by large media conglomerates and removing tax advantages for companies that sold stations to minority buyers. And while Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson was recently featured on the front cover of "Fortune" magazine, he is joined by only a handful of black TV-station owners around the country.The umbrella organization of the Black Press, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), boasts far more impressive numbers: more than 230 newspapers and 15 million readers. But despite those healthy-sounding figures, black papers are in trouble. On Feb. 7 of last year, Richmond's "Afro-American Planet" -- the nation's oldest continuously run black newspaper, founded in 1883 -- went out of business. For the black press, that was an unmistakable sign of hard times. But there were already plenty of other reasons to worry. Declining circulation, for one: According to the NNPA, 90 percent of the black community subscribed to a black newspaper in the 1950s; today, less than one in three subscribe.Meanwhile, newspaper printing costs have skyrocketed -- 83 percent. just since 1994. As Frederick McKissack recently wrote in "New Progressive" magazine, "This combination of falling circulation and rising print costs could be the death blow for more newspapers."In the fight to save the black press, the Triangle could soon become an important battlefield. Early next year, the owners of the "Charlotte Post" and "Winston-Salem Chronicle" -- examples of the slicker, more profit-conscious "new black press" -- plan to launch a paper that will compete with the Triangle's two more traditional black papers, "The Carolinian" and the "Carolina Times". What happens then will offer some clues about the future -- and the future character -- of America's black press.Beginning in 1827 with the first black-owned paper in America, "Freedom's Journal", the black press has always been a champion of protest and reform, a forum for political ideas and positive images ignored by the mainstream press. That tradition lives on in papers like the Durham-based "Carolina Times", which routinely devotes its front page to African-Americans voices that are rarely heard in the mainstream. It's also alive and kicking in the Raleigh-based "Carolinian". "Pick up "The Carolinian", says Chuck Stone. "That's the black press I grew up with."There's no doubting "The Carolinian's" sense of mission. After two weeks of front-page stories examining the dogfight that's brewing between the NAACP's two candidates for state president, "The Carolinian's latest cover reads, in big 60-point print, "A Prostitution of the Church of God." Beneath that headline is a tough story about the Baptist Convention's recent reaffirmation of its scandal-ridden president, the Rev. Henry Lyons.North Carolina's black press has been known for gutsy journalism like that. At UNC's Friday Center last month, the N.C. Black Press Association held its first annual awards banquet, paying homage to this history by honoring pioneers like "The Carolinian's" Paul Jervay and Louis Austin, who started the "Carolina Times" in 1922.Austin's motto was simple and profound: "Do not equivocate on principle, nor compromise out of fear." In 1933, he was the driving force behind Raymond Hocutt's important legal challenge to the University of North Carolina's segregation policy. Austin also fought to establish a law school N.C. Central University, while championing the hiring of black city employees and leading crusades for equal pay for black teachers and for paved streets and streetlights in black communities.Like "The Carolinian's current managing editor, Cash Michaels, Austin was not afraid to criticize black leaders in his "Carolina Times" Take the case of Alfonso Elder, president of the North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central). In 1950, Elder spoke to the General Assembly's budget committee, declaring that "Negroes are proud of the college and want to maintain it on a segregated, but more equal basis with the State University."To which Austin replied: "When a Negro educator in this day and time is so dishonest as to misinform white people as to the desire of Negroes for FULL EQUALITY in education and in every walk of life, we must doubt his ability to administer the affairs of an educational system the size of NCC."Like other pioneering black publishers, Austin ran a small, family-owned paper that had a clear mission: leading the fight for social equality and equal treatment. Owners like Austin enjoyed a modicum of success that enabled them to raise families, build homes and have a few long-term employees. But their financial goals were modest; success was not measured in dollars and cents.Integration brought a new set of challenges to the newspapers that had crusaded for black civil rights. "In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the white media did not print any news about African Americans unless it was patronizing or racist," says Cash Michaels. "The black paper became a tool for liberation. Now the community has more choices, and we're no longer the primary choice." That means that the black press, now more than ever, lacks both the technological and human resources to keep up with the mainstream press. "I'm doing the work of five people," Michaels says.Ernie Pitt, who founded the "Winston-Salem Chronicle" in 1974, agrees that it hasn't gotten any easier. "We have just as big of a challenge as the old guys did back in the day," he says. But he frames the challenge in a way that might make an old-school black publisher cringe: "Black publishers have to be businessmen as opposed to crusaders," Pitt says. While the black press must still provide a forum for voices ignored in the mainstream, he says, "the principal charge is how to run a good, solid, solvent business."As much as any black publisher in the country, Pitt is in the vanguard of the new black press. The "Chronicle" has twice been voted the best black paper in the country. In 1986, Pitt purchased a $300,000 press and established a separate company that prints "Black College Sports Review", distributing more than 100,000 copies as inserts in 15 black newspapers.Now Pitt, along with his partners at the "Charlotte Post", plans to bring the new black press to the Triangle. His strategy for the "Triangle Tribune" is to use the same formula that's worked at his other publications: "We look at other paper's weaknesses and try to cover what they aren't covering."For the "Chronicle", this strategy has led to increased coverage of junior-varsity sports. "If your child is in the paper you're going to buy it whether it's black- or white-owned," says Pitt. And soon the paper will begin running stock listings for all publicly held black corporations. "Black stock brokers want our people to invest," Pitt says. "Most of our community isn't even aware of blacks being on the stock market."Can the Triangle's traditional black papers compete with Pitt's bottom-line approach? Some observers believe the "Carolina Times", with its smaller staff and circulation, might take a bigger hit than "The Carolinian". But Kenneth Edmonds, general manager of the "Carolina Times", says he believes that the pie is big enough for everyone. And Cash Michaels says "The Carolinian" relishes the competition. "I'm not concerned," he says."We have an open secret at 'The Carolinian': Folks know to expect the unexpected. Pitt has to meet that challenge. I can't wait."Michaels views the future with optimism, expressing a hope that by expanding "the black-paper universe, you will bring more attention, more viability and more force for positive change." But he also issues a challenge: "If they coming, tell them to come on with it, because this is our house."UNC professor Harry Amana wonders whether the "Tribune" will be ready to compete in an already-saturated local market. "I know this is a big market," he says, "but you already have weeklies, there's the mainstream press, and then you have a number of community papers. You have to wonder, is there room for one more publication? You have to figure that at least for a half year, the paper's going to lose money. How deep are their pockets? They will have to cut some national deals with advertisers because they have no anchor in the Triangle."Ernie Pitt, like other new-school black publishers, has proven adept at cutting deals. And many observers of the black press, like Howard University's Lawrence Kaggwa, believe these publishers are on the right track. The black press, they argue, must be economically strong to be in a position to advocate for change. But others, like Harry Amana, believe that the black press is not only fighting for its life, but for its soul as well. How, they wonder, will all that concern for the bottom line affect the black press's crusading mission?These days, Amana says, "At the NNPA's annual meetings, the editors' chief concern is not editorial content, it's advertising. You have the liquor and tobacco industries hosting breakfasts and awards ceremonies, and the publishers show up for those. But not for workshops on editorial content."The result of all this attention to the financial side of publishing, some say, is a softening of the black press' traditional fearlessness. "They are not going to do anything to rile up advertisers," says one local publisher.Perhaps that explains why many of the NNPA's member papers failed to report the imprisonment of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist -- even after the group went on a "fact-finding tour" of Nigeria in 1995. At the time of the tour, Saro-Wiwa, known for his stinging criticisms of the Nigerian government and the Shell Oil Co., had been imprisoned on what many believe were trumped-up murder charges. One month later, he and eight other activists were executed.Upon their return to this country, the NNPA member papers not only failed to report the incident: They also offered member papers an eight-page insert portraying Nigeria as "a leading contributor to international peacekeeping from Africa."Perhaps the black press's bottom-line concerns also explain what happened -- and didn't happen -- that same year, when the National Association of Black Journalists convened for its annual convention in Philadelphia. The former local chapter president of the NABJ, Mumia Abu Jamal, had been sentenced to death in the killing of a policeman after what many believe was an unfair trial. But the NABJ failed to issue a statement in support of their imprisoned fellow journalist. The reason?"Fear," says UNC's Chuck Stone, a former president of the NABJ and a close friend of Abu Jamal's. "For their reputations, loss of jobs and the association with a cop killer." But, says Stone, "If a white publisher of a major daily paper had been as unfairly convicted as Mumia, you can bet the National Publishers Association would have come out with something."Stone notes that NABJ members were under pressure not to cause an "embarrassment" that would overshadow the convention. "But," he asks, "what is a black press without a black consciousness?"That question is likely to resound, nationally and locally, for years to come. But though the future -- and the character -- of black-owned newspapers is anything but certain, the need for their traditional crusading mission is not going away anytime soon. As Harry Amana so aptly puts it, "As long as you have racism in America, you will have a black press."


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