Media: Faltering printing presses of black America

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ARMED WITH their resumes, portfolios and plastic smiles, hundreds of young black journalists descended on Washington DC this month for the National Association of Black Journalists' annual conference.

Impeccably turned out, they wait in line at the downtown Convention Centre to be seen by representatives from the largest news organisations in the country including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The companies will select the cream of young black talent into their organisations.

Conspicuous by their absence, however, is the black American press. The irony of their absence at the largest gathering of black journalists in the world is lost to those who are hoping to cut their teeth in journalism in the mainstream press.

Sadly, the absence is indicative of just how irrelevant the black press has become to black Americans.

Denise Carter, publisher of the capital's leading black paper, The Washington Informer, a 28-page weekly with a circulation of 27,000, says she deliberately stayed away from the convention because its agenda is antagonistic to the black press. "The NABJ promotes jobs in the mainstream media, but we need to strengthen our own newspapers," she explained.

To say that they need strengthening is an understatement. The papers are facing a daily battle to hang on to their once loyal readers.

The 93-year-old Chicago Defender, once the biggest black newspaper in America, is fighting for survival. Its owners allegedly owe the Internal Revenue Service $4m (pounds 2.5m) in taxes, and recently sacked the board of trustees who wanted to sell the paper to clear its debts. Myiti Sengstake, 26, granddaughter of the legendary black publisher John Sengstake, has vowed to fight tooth and nail to continue the paper's legacy. "We are not going to give up more than 90 years of history without a fight," she says defiantly.

While the situation for other black papers is not as dire as that of the Defender, which has a daily circulation of around 20,000, problems are still serious. Declining advertising revenue, coupled with falling circulation, means that most papers are run on a shoestring budget. Consequently they employ very few staff and use antiquated equipment - the newspapers are of low quality, poorly designed and devoid of any colour.

At the 89-year-old Amsterdam News, arguably the country's leading black newspaper, journalists still input their copy on typewriters. Publisher Elinor Tatum said: "If you walk into our newsroom you step back to the Forties."

Many black newsrooms are staffed by ageing journalists, who, by clinging on to their jobs, are failing to make way for up-and-coming black journalists. At the Amsterdam News, which has a weekly circulation of 30,000, one journalist recently retired after almost 55 years on the job. The senior reporter has been there for nearly 30 years. "The age of our staff means it is harder for us to introduce technological change," complained Tatum.

The issue is compounded by the fact that young black journalists simply do not want to work on black newspapers. Stanley Nelson, who recently made the highly acclaimed documentary Soldiers Without Swords, a history of the black press in America, said: "At NABJ, young journalists were running around looking for work in the mainstream, but where was the black press? People want to work where they will get a high profile and make good money, but it's rare that they will be able to do it in the black press."

Many in the black press still hark back to the Thirties and Forties, when black newspapers were at their best. Black newspapers, notably the Defender, spurred the mass exodus of southern blacks to the industrial north and, during the Second World War, the Pittsburgh Courier spearheaded the Double V campaign which demanded that, as well as fighting Fascism abroad, black Americans fight it on their own soil. The black press was so powerful that FBI head J Edgar Hoover wanted to indict black publishers for sedition. At their height, black newspapers were read by millions of people each week.

Ironically, it was the civil rights movement that was to bring the power of the black press to an end, and in the Sixties circulation fell sharply. As the movement gathered momentum, the black press became lost in the sea of voices demanding the same thing. Blacks began turning to television rather than newspapers, and black journalists began moving away from the black press and into the mainstream for better-paid jobs. According to Chester Higgins, former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, it was a double blow from which the black press has never recovered: "We will never be able to recapture what we had," he lamented. "We lost the ability to touch the souls of our readers. Nowadays, working in the black press is a labour of love."

Most papers still see their role as projecting positive images of the black community, and championing the cause of black Americans. At the Washington Informer, Carter has made a point of not covering stories that have negative content. "The notion that crime stories define news is over- used and false," she said. "We tell the other side of the story."

But while black papers seek to challenge the prevailing negative image of blacks in the mainstream press, as well as providing an outlet for stories that would not appear elsewhere, many have fallen into the rut of being driven by stories about race. They are missing out on stories and issues which, although not specifically about blacks, may be of interest to them.

Some black publishers are realising they must become more relevant to the lives of black Americans if they are to survive. Many are turning to the Internet to get their views across while others are pinning their hopes on a new generation of young affluent Afro-Americans.

Despite its problems, there is a consensus that the black press is still a vital, if forgotten, part of black America. Higgins says it must redefine itself to remain relevant: "We will always need the black press," he said. "The mainstream press continues to pursue negative images of blacks and we need to redress the balance. We are in bad shape but, no matter how bad things get, we will always have a role to play."