September 27, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As new media change our habits, some grand old traditions are just hanging on. Among them, the nation's 200-plus black newspapers. Once regarded as the voice of a stifled people, the black press suffers from steadily declining readership and advertising dollars, stiff competition and even a generational divide, as OTM's Phillip Martin reports.
PHILLIP MARTIN:If the free press to Walter Lippman was like the beam of a searchlight, then the black press for W.E.B. DuBois and other civil rights leaders directed that light for the first time on their lives and their cause, says scholar Hayward Farrar.
HAYWARD FARRAR: Well the black press for all of these people were the best and in some instances the only outlet for their writings, for their thoughts, for what they stood for. Basically at least up until the '60s, '70s and '80s the black press was an integral part of the black community.
PHILLIP MARTIN:As an example, says Farrar, the Baltimore Afro-American -- the subject of his 1998 book -- regularly published stories detailing racial discrimination and lynchings as well as listings of black weddings and black culture that were usually ignored by white newspapers. Other black papers like the award-winning Michigan Chronicle also carried the banner for civil rights. During the riots of 1967 which many African-Americans described as "uprisings," the Chronicle ventured into burning neighborhoods where many white reporters dared not go physically, and it covered allegations of police violence which many mainstream papers were reluctant to explore.
MICHAEL GOODIN: When the riots broke out in Detroit, our headline was: It Didn't Have to Happen.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Michael Goodin is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. He says among the other top stories covered by his paper during that period was on-the-scene accounts of the Attica Prison rebellion by black and Hispanic inmates in 1971.
ATTICA INMATE: We're tired of being beaten. We're tired of being oppressed. We're going to get this if we all have to die. All of us.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Among those whom inmates asked to mediate was Michigan Chronicle columnist Jim Ingram. At that time the Chronicle had 120,000 readers. Today its circulation is 47,000. Michael Goodin.
MICHAEL GOODIN: One of the reasons that we could count the circulation so high in the late '60s and early '70s was that there was much more of a consciousness about being supportive of black institutions. Since then the commitment to a struggle has diminished in some sense. The current generation feels that African-Americans have made it, and of course supporting the black press is not seen as a method of contributing to the cause.
PHILLIP MARTIN:Hayward Farrar who teaches history at Virginia Tech says those generational changes have contributed greatly to the decline of black newspapers.
HAYWARD FARRAR: Most of the readership of black newspapers now happen to be Blacks in their 50s or over; large numbers of young black folk -- they're more inclined, again, to patronize BET or the Tom Joyner Show or the electronic media than they would the print one.
PHILLIP MARTIN:Rick Wright, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, says that the reach of Tom Joyner's syndicated radio program of news and entertainment has made even the granddaddy of all black publications seem less relevant these days.
TOM JOYNER: In the African-American community, many of us used to call JET Magazine, you know, the "Black Dispatch," meaning it's the -- if you really want to communicate with the African-American community in a print format, JET Magazine was the way to go. But the plain buzz on the street -- if you want to reach the African-American community in America, the Tom Joyner Show should be number one on your list. [TOM JOYNER SHOW JINGLE PLAYS]
GROUP: [SINGING] Ho, ho, ho and a ho, ho, ho-- it's the Tom Joyner Morning Show...
PHILLIP MARTIN: And while companies are lining up to advertise on the Tom Joyner Show which reportedly reaches nearly 10 percent of African-Americans, they're abandoning black newspapers. Newspapers also are competing with web-based popular news sites like Africana.com. Black newspapers in the aggregate are attracting only around 80 million dollars or about 5 percent of the 1.6 billion dollars spent on ads targeting African-Americans each year, according to E. Morris Communications. But lost advertising dollars and dwindling circulation aren't the only problems. Hayward Farrar says there's also resistance to change due to the fact that many of the newspapers are family-owned.
HAYWARD FARRAR: The problem with a lot of these family-owned newspapers is that dynasties tend to deteriorate over time, and so-- the descendants of the original founders and the owners tended not to be as strong as the original ones because they didn't have to fight to create the newspaper or keep the newspaper open.
PHILLIP MARTIN: But there are exceptions.
ALEXIS SCOTT:I had spent 18 years as a reporter, editor and executive at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, so in my family I was uniquely trained, if you will, to bring the skills and the experience to bear on seeing if we could in fact save the paper.
PHILLIP MARTIN:Alexis Scott is a third generation journalist. She quit her job five years ago as the head of diversity for Cox Communications and went about the task of trying to turn around the fortunes of the newspaper founded by her grandfather in 1928 -- the Atlanta Daily World -- the first black-owned daily in the United States. By 1997, the Daily had become a weekly in order to save on printing costs, and in the words of one observer was "sputtering toward extinction." One of Scott's first changes was to update the technology.
ALEXIS SCOTT: When I got here we didn't have voice mail. We didn't have but one computer and we were still using typesetting machines and doing hard copy pasteup on pasteup boards and taking the boards to the printer.
PHILLIP MARTIN:Then she moved to update the content, applying the standards she learned at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution; and in an area where Blacks vote 90 percent Democratic, she also shed the paper's Republican editorial page stance that was long favored by her uncle.
ALEXIS SCOTT: And I also think that we can have a black perspective that speaks to our readers and still is professional journalism -- we don't write editorials and call them news stories.
PHILLIP MARTIN:In five years the Daily World has increased its circulation 30 percent to about 10,000 readers. Scott's top priority now is to draw a new generation of African-American readers. But to do that she'll have to draw a new generation of African-American journalists, and that's not easy. [PARTY AMBIANCE]
PHILLIP MARTIN:Greg Moore is hosting his own goodbye party at his home in this upper middle class suburb of Boston. Moore, the former managing editor of the Boston Globe, was on his way to Colorado to take over the helm of the Denver Post, making him one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in mainstream journalism. Moore, who grew up reading his local black newspaper, says there's no question that they've been hurt by the fact that African-American journalists such as he have had many more options.
GREG MOORE: When I was growing up in Cleveland, I grew up reading the Collin Post Newspaper. I think when I first began to think about a newspaper career, I wanted to be the editor of the Collin Post, and now I'm the editor of the Denver Post, and the opportunities that I've had and other black journalists to work in mainstream media meant that a lot of us didn't have to make stops at the Pittsburgh Courier or the Collin Post, the Amsterdam News -- and those papers have been hurt somewhat.
PHILLIP MARTIN:Meanwhile, says Moore, mainstream newspapers began covering issues of importance to African-Americans that once were covered almost exclusively by black newspapers, and that may be the biggest hurdle faced by black newspapers -- the belief by some that they are no longer needed. Michael Goodin disagrees.
MICHAEL GOODIN: There is always going to be a need for the black press to be there to tell our story, to tell it fairly and tell it honestly.
PHILLIP MARTIN: But to have a future, papers like his own Michigan Chronicle will have to make some adjustments.
MICHAEL GOODIN: The newer generation is looking at things that move at the speed of light, and we -- just like every newspaper in this country -- have to get on board that light train, and we have to get into cyberspace - we have to find ways to get on television - to get in the radio -to create new advertising streams. We have a whole crop of younger publishers and they come in with a, a new kind of sophistication, trying to replicate what some of the more successful newspapers look like today.
PHILLIP MARTIN:In Atlanta, Alexis Scott says the Daily World is competing fiercely with smaller upstart black periodicals that are trying to tap into a metropolitan market of 4 million African-Americans. Scott acknowledges that when the smoke clears in her region and around the country, many black newspapers will no longer exist. She does not expect the Atlanta Daily World to be among the casualties. For On the Media, I'm Phillip Martin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up, two ways to build an audience for your tunes -- little musical hooks and big old juke boxes. This is On the Media from NPR.