Community steps up to keep the Black press going through coronavirus  

By Shabnam Danesh

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Newsrooms across the country have been facing financial decline for many years, and the coronavirus has added an additional stress. But it is different for many Black publications – largely because consumers say they are intricately linked with their communities.

“The Black press is an institution that Black America trusts. It is part of the Black community,” said Sherri Williams, assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University. “The role of the Black press is to record Black peoples’ history in times of triumph and achievement, as well as chaos and confusion.”

A 2019 Pew Research study found that Black newspapers are “small, community-oriented publications” and that only one paper, The St. Louis American, has a circulation that exceeds 50,000.

One in three Black Americans have “a lot” of trust in the local community media compared with 27 percent of whites. In addition, 53% of Blacks “feel connected to their news source overall, “compared with 40% of whites, according to the study.

Before the civil rights movement, Black people often were featured in the news only if they had committed crimes or fit a certain negative stereotype. The first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was launched in 1827 in New York City to combat these images and elevate Black voices. Although it folded after just two years, Freedom’s Journal laid the groundwork for other Black publications throughout the United States.

Newspaper boy selling the Chicago Defender in 1942
Newspaper boy selling the Chicago Defender in 1942 (Jack Delano)

At the height of the Black press in the 1920s, there were nearly 500 publications. One of the most important was the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott, who often is credited as the driving force behind the Great Migration of the 1920s. More than 6 million Black people left the South in droves for opportunities from 1916 to 1970 in Northern cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.

Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke, founded the Michigan Chronicle in 1936. Today, both the Chronicle and Defender are owned by Black-owned media company Real Times Media, as are three more legacy Black papers and other brands that serve the African American community.

“The Black press is valuable. … 100% respect for the mainstream media but there is a perspective that the Black press provides that only the Black press can provide,” said Tanisha Leonard, president of Real Times Media.

Aaron Foley’s mother, Jill Day, worked for the Michigan Chronicle,  and said  “it was a badge of honor and a statement of pride” to be featured in the newspaper.

Michigan Chronicle, 1966
Michigan Chronicle, 1966 (Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)

“Coming from a time when people saved clippings until they turned yellow and fell apart … that’s something Black people did. … We support our local media because we like to see ourselves. We like to see our own images in the media,” Foley said.

Today, Foley is the director of the Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Community Media, a resource for the Black press to “grow, innovate and become sustainable.”

The current Black press includes more than 200 publications, according to the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade association for Black-owned newspapers.

“We are as critical, if not more, than the first Black paper because of the environment that we are in. The Black press is a trusted voice,” said Toni Draper, publisher of the Afro-American, the oldest African American family-owned newspaper in the United States. The Afro, founded in 1892,  serves Baltimore and concurrently publishes a Washington, D.C., edition.

Leonard said that “the collaborative spirit of the Black press is what sets it apart from mainstream papers.”

“The Black media is a big family. We recognize we are all in this together. We work together as much as possible and we want all our counterparts to survive. If we learn of something, we are eager to share,” Leonard said.

Nancy Lane, CEO of Local Media Association, the largest trade organization for local media, said there are “strong connections” between Black publishers and the community.

In response to the pandemic, Lane set up the COVID-19 Local News Fund, a fundraising campaign that benefitted more than 200 publishers. She said the Houston Defender, a 90-year-old weekly Black newspaper, raised the second highest amount, more than $110,000. The Afro was also in the Top 10.

“Black publishers did really well when it came to community contributions to support local news coverage,” Lane said. “It speaks to the relationship that Black publishers have with the community that they cover.”

Sonny Messiah-Jiles, editor of the Houston Defender, agreed: “The community stepped up.”

When the coronavirus hit the United States in March, Jiles said that advertising, the main source of revenue for the Houston Defender, quickly dried up, except for Comcast and one bank. She had to furlough everyone but the editorial staff for eight weeks. Thanks to donations from the community, they were able to get back to work.

“It gave us the life blood to bring everybody back,” Jiles said.

After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, Lane of the Local Media Association, and Elinor Tatum, owner and publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, the largest and one of the oldest Black newspapers in New York City, created the Black Journalism Fund, a fundraising campaign benefitting the Black press.

“There were no options for news organizations for racial inequity donations. It was an opportunity for the Black press to be included in fundraising efforts for people who wanted to contribute through social justice issues, racial inequity issues,” Lane said.

Lane said that more than $150,000 from 300 donors had been raised so far;  most of the donations are small, but there were two large gifts of $50,000 each. Funds are used to report on racial inequities and propose solutions.

The Black Journalism Fund evolved into Word In Black, a collaboration among 10 Black newspapers focused on providing solutions-based journalism to racial inequities in America. A press release from the Local Media Association said its goal is to “establish the Black press as one of the leading national voices for solutions when it comes to racial, social and economic inequality in the United States.”

“The long-term goal is to reimagine the Black press in America,” Lane said. “Technology holds back publishers of color from transitioning to a digital future.”

Word in Black emphasizes good journalism, business transformation, investing in Black-led startups in the media industry and collaboration.  Lane estimates the project will cost $25 million and take three years to complete.

“We have sponsors coming along every day trying to figure out how to partner with this collaborative to do certain areas,” said Nick Charles, director and project manager of Word in Black.

For example, one sponsor wanted to see more education stories. All 10 newspapers were given the resources to cover the effect of the pandemic on educational disparities in Black America and were able to do unique stories, including one about young adults taking a COVID gap year, Charles said.

Charles described the collaborative as a key to the survival of the Black press because they are so small, with some having as few as three employees others as many as 10. In comparison, The Washington Post has an estimated 2,700 employees.

“Sometimes the publisher is the editor; sometimes the editor is the reporter. A lot of people wear different hats,” Charles said. “The fact that these newspapers still exist is a testament to ownership of the Black press and the audience of the Black press that still patronize and support them.”

Lane said she hoped more Black publications would join future Word in Black collaborations through the Local Media Association.

“The Black press has not been funded in big way in the past. They have been left out of initiatives and labs,” Lane said. “That is all changing now, and it’s time for it to change. It’s a shame that it took the killing of George Floyd to make that happen, but we are thankful that large corporations, foundations and individuals all recognize the need to support Black journalism financially.”

Corrections: The names of Aaron Foley and Sonny Messiah-Jiles have been updated to correct errors in an earlier version of the story.