Power to the people, via the Internet

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A new online journal is providing a new media voice for Britain's black community. Vanessa Thorpe talks to Professor Thom Blair about his hopes for `The Chronicle'.

"By now we all know the problem. We know government has difficulty solving problems in areas with a great concentration of black people. But there is still a hope that Africans and Afro-Caribbeans can use their own creative energies right where they live."

So argues Professor Thom Blair, the indomitable consultant sociologist who brings out the second issue of his digital magazine at the end of the month. The Chronicle, which went online last month, is certainly an ambitious project. Sitting at a screen in his Hertfordshire home, the professor wants to reach a whole new generation of young black achievers. He wants them to read The Chronicle and he wants them to contribute.

"We don't know who is out there," he explains. "And finding these new voices is the role of the Net because there is a blanket over many aspects of the media that stops it highlighting the existence of most blacks - except rapists and criminals."

It is no surprise, then, to hear that one of the magazine's first targets will be the apparent media conspiracy that has allowed positive images of blacks to emerge only in the marginal fields of sport, fashion and pop music.

The antidote, Professor Blair believes, is simply to inform Britain's black urban communities; to let them talk to each other and find their own solutions and spokespeople by means of information technology.

"It is not all fashion and the body of Naomi Campbell. Where are the Afro-Caribbean violinists? The scientists? Blacks need more information about themselves. We need a marriage between the cultures of technology and self-expression. And this is the arena for The Chronicle."

Professor Blair, who arrived in Britain from New York 30 years ago, is an international urban planning adviser who has lectured in Europe and the United States and has taught environmental and social planning for 18 years at the former Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). During this period he has witnessed the failure of repeated schemes to improve the lives of inner-city blacks: first, the inevitable injection of large amounts of cash, then the forlorn wait for the benefits to "trickle down".

"In fact, the social infrastructure is the thing to deal with straightaway. Of course, I could have told you that 30 years ago, but the crucial thing today is that there are now more and more black people finding their homes in the public sector in the cities," he says.

"Local participation is the key to regeneration and reinvention in these places. We want to include the black Pentecostal churches, the pirate radio stations, the youth workers, and even those people with other languages. We want to reach them through the computer access being set up in many community centres.

"In this way, The Chronicle hopes to be part of a wave of feeling in black communities, that they want to be heard."

Angrily, Professor Blair recalls a seminal incident in his career. A group of white urban planners were busy setting up health service provision for an urban area which included council-run estates with a large black presence. Would there, the professor asked, be provision for mobile surgeries to test for sickle cell anaemia? The planners had never even heard of this destructive inherited disorder, which is particular to the African and Afro-Caribbean community.

Fuelled by such encounters with well-meaning ignorance, now that he is of "pensionable age", the professor decided to fund and edit his own quarterly magazine. He is, he says, still eager to attract support and finance from others for the project, but he stresses that the whole point of The Chronicle is that it is cheap to produce. "This is exactly why the Internet has fantastic potential. People like me and my contributors can just have a go."

Articles by the poet and essayist John La Rose and by the Caribbean's unofficial cultural ambassador, Alex Pascall, who writes on the culture of calypso and reggae, feature in the current issue. There will also be a regular page put together by Professor Blair, dealing with urban policy. "It is called `Regeneration Time', and it will aim to be both motivational and practical. It is a page devoted to providing practical solutions for dealing with black life in the modern world."

So far the online magazine has attracted more than 200 hits, but judging by the success of similar black projects, such as American Visions Society Online in the US and the Jamaican-influenced British online magazine Yush, which earns itself about 50,000 hits a week, the professor may well be tapping into one of the most rapidly expanding areas of Net interest.

It will be important, though, he knows, to keep tabs on his audience. As a serious and academic enterprise, at first The Chronicle is bound to be talking mainly to professionals and students, yet the professor can see no reason for his reach to end there.

"We could act as a focal point for the problems and the prospects of all black urban communities, precisely because they are a group that is not reflected in the media.

"The Chronicle will argue that we must end the policy of `colour-blindness'. We have to allow special enhancement for areas where there are large black populations living in difficult conditions."

One area that is crying out for such positive social discrimination is the white-dominated media itself, Professor Blair believes. And here, he says, his own journal can offer practical help.

"Where are all the black reporters?" he demands. "If they don't exist, why don't we help to train them before they go on into mainstream journalism?"

The Chronicle

http://www.thechronicle. demon.co.uk