Photos: by Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks
Our October roundtable changed topics quickly in response to news the previous day of the resignation of George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the news service of the trade association for Black community newspapers, and one of his staff members.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association had cut their salaries in half and its board chair, Denise Rolark Barnes of the Washington Informer, disclosed that the NNPA board imposed the budget cuts after a decline in revenue and sponsorships prompted by competition from the digital world.
“The drain couldn’t continue,” Barnes said.
Barnes joined us along with roundtable regular Hazel Trice Edney, a former editor-in- chief of the NNPA news service who founded TriceEdneyWire.com.
We also heard from DeShuna Spencer, a social entrepreneur, journalist and the Founder/CEO of kweliTV, an internet video streaming network for the Black consumer. She won a $20,000 grant from The New U: News Entrepreneurs.
DeShuna described kweliTV as a “Black Netflix,” a phrase she would rather not use since she believes such projects should be described on their own terms. One criterion for adding films to the site is that they have appeared in film festivals.
Denise said it was imperative that Black publishers move more quickly into the digital age. “For the last three or four years, we haven’t made any money,”; she said of the NNPA websites. The latest difficulties “provide us with an opportunity to get refocused."
She noted that in June, Apple announced it was looking to hire editors with a journalism background to work on its new app called News it, and yet NNPA members, herself included, have not been contacted. “What perspective are these stories going to have?” Denise asked.
Still, she said, the Black press has always been struggling. The first Black newspaper [Freedom’s Journal] was published 50 years before the end of slavery, when most Black people were illiterate. Gannett, which publishes The Informer, will no longer be able to do so under its new direction, so that will be another challenge. Yet the Black press also steps up to the plate for community activities when needed, again demonstrating its value.
The Informer now sponsors the Prince George’s County spelling bee, since the Washington Post Co. closed the Prince George’s Gazette, the bee’s previous sponsor, in August. The Informer started a monthly section for millennials, WI Bridge, though fewer younger people are turning to newspapers.
However, publishing a newspaper is no longer enough. Advertisers now want digital prowess, Denise said. “Now we've got to tap dance and sing,” too, she said.
A surprise was that Denise agreed with mostly everything those in the roundtable said about problems with the Black press. Fifteen of us participated, and most had worked in the mainstream media.
Much of the discussion was about how to get companies to recognize their obligation to advertise in the Black press, given the number of dollars African Americans spend with those companies. A. Peter Bailey, an author, speaker, journalist and former Malcolm X associate, suggested that publishers make public the number of dollars Black consumers spend with certain business sectors. “Let these people see that you’re not doing us a favor,” he said.
Peter added that Black publishers should require organizations whose leaders want columns in the Black press to make sure their members are reading Black newspapers.
Likewise, when Jesse Jackson goes to Detroit this week to discuss diversity within the auto industry and attends Friday’s 16th Annual Rainbow Push Global Automotive Summit, he should raise the issue of advertising in the Black press. [Denise said later that Jackson’s automotive report card to be released on Friday will include advertising.]
Richard Prince contended that advertisers and consumers should want the product because it is compelling, not because of a sense of obligation.
Denise agreed, and added that the Black press “needs an echo chamber, such as Black Twitter.” Peter said the Black press should do more on white subjects that affect the Black community, such as the Koch brothers. “We’re writing these stories,” Denise said, but they need promotion.
Lynne Adrine said the name “Black press” itself is dated. Why not say “Black media?” DeShana went so far as to recommend that NNPA change its name to get rid of “Newspaper.” “The whole mindset needs to change,” she said. Richard Prince gave the example of the online-only Q City Metro in Charlotte, N.C., started by Glenn Burkins, who was business editor of the Charlotte Observer.
"We are somewhat isolated,” Denise said. “My role is to expose our publishers” to these other ideas. “They need to hear what we've heard and what's expected of us.”
Moreover, publishers have to believe in the value of their product.
When Denise asked why Black people in the mainstream press who had been laid off aren't flocking to the black press, roundtable members said that there are cultural as well as professional differences.
Prince said people need to feel that they are working for an organization that is part of the future and forward-looking ways. Consumers don’ want to wait a week for news anymore. The Village Voice and the New Yorker, though weekly print products, now publish daily online. Black publishers must start thinking that way, too.
Denise agreed and said she has been disappointed when she has gone to Black press websites for information on breaking news and seen Associated Press copy. That doesn't advance the purpose of the Black press.
In another part of the discussion, Peter Bailey and Hazel Edney insisted that authentic Black publications must be published by Black people. [Bailey added later that he “refers to White-owned media that attempts to attract Black people or address issues of Black people as 'Black-oriented media” —not authentic Black media.]
Betty Anne Williams and Richard Prince maintained that the content is what counts to the consumer. A Ta-Nehisi Coates, Prince maintained, is no less authentic because he appears in the white-owned Atlantic.
Hazel said that the social justice tradition of the Black press should not be overlooked as a key element in authenticity. She also suggested that NNPA's board include more people from such corporations as AT&T and Verizon in addition to publishers. Hazel maintained that Black newspapers will always exist. “They've been here since 1827,” she said.
Referring to the new partnership between NNPA and the National Association of HIspanic Publishers, Prince suggested looking into a partnership with the Association of Alternative News Media, whose members include alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice and the Washington City Paper, since that organization has acknowledged a diversity problem. .
Denise said was open to the idea, as she has joined other newspaper associations, such as the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association. Other Black publishers have joined similar associations.
The first roundtable took place in May 1999 with Alice Bonner, Betty Anne Williams, Bobbi Bowman, Richard Prince and Bill Alexander. The purpose was to commemorate Alice's return to Washington after obtaining a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Paul Delaney, Jessica Lee and Walt Swanston were also among the early founders.
When Alice left, she asked that we keep the gatherings going while she was gone, and we have. Some of the faces at the dinner gatherings have changed, but the enthusiasm for the fellowship has only grown.