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Black Press Presses on for Respect
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 3/14/2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Los Angeles Sentinel publisher Danny Bakewell was forced to challenge a White-owned public relations firm last June before the 72-year-old Black-owned newspaper was finally allowed to cover the funeral of Ray Charles.

Freelance photographer Andre Smith of Detroit was twice denied access to this year’s Academy Awards in Hollywood although he had applied to represent five Black newspapers, with a combined circulation of 520,000, owned by Real Times LLC. He was told the circulation was not large enough.

Staff photographer Sandra Sellars of the Black-owned Richmond Free Press was barred from covering the swearing in of Virginia’s first Black Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy Hassell two years ago while at least four White-owned news agencies were allowed that privilege.

And Kimber, Kimber & Associates, a Fresno, Calif., advertising agency that serves approximately 250 Black-owned newspapers, led a boycott of the Kohl's department store in Milwaukee last year after the store spent $86.4 million in advertising but none with the Black Press..

This is 21st century reality of Black-owned newspapers 178 years after the founding of America’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russworm.
Some publishers don’t know where to start recounting the rebuffs.

“Why would I talk about one incident when there’s so many?” asks Robert Bogle, publisher of the 121-year-old Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in the nation. “The Black Press of America has been marginalized as African-Americans in general have been marginalized. And therefore, we are not perceived to have the same credentials as non-African-American institutions.”

When Cornish and Russworm founded Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827, they declared, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

This week, as Black publishers of the 200-member National Newspaper Publishers Association converged on Capitol Hill in Washington to visit with lawmakers in celebration of Black Press Week, many concede that after nearly two centuries of fighting for Black people – from the lynching and Jim Crow of yesterday to the police profiling and economic inequality of today – the Black Press has not fought nearly hard enough for itself.

And there is much to fight for.

“This is the first time I have ever known that the Democratic Party almost totally ignored the Black Press as far as advertising in its publications,” says Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Chicago New Crusader. “They did this targeted kind of advertising in battleground states and ignored the rest of the Black Press.”

Two months before November’s election, NNPA Chairwoman Sonny Messiah-Jiles wrote a letter to DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, pressing him about ad dollars that he’d promised the Black Press.

“Well, we are in the final 60 days and there is a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately, the National Newspaper Publishers Association has not heard from the DNC regarding its advertising plans. As a result, I am sending you the proposal previously submitted in June, 2004 by the National Newspaper Publishers Association to ensure The Black Press of America is a part of the strategic advertising campaign to educate and mobilize voters to go to the polls and vote in November,” she wrote. “During a meeting with the leadership of NNPA, [Democratic Presidential Candidate] Senator [John] Kerry and you both made a vow to advertise with The Black Press of America in a big way. Considering during the last presidential election, the Democratic candidate made a promise to advertise in Black newspapers and did not follow through, I am sending you another copy of our proposal in an effort to avoid history repeating itself and remind you of the commitment.”

According to a January memo from the DNC to NNPA publishers, the DNC made what it described as “a historic investment in African-American media, spending more on African-American print, radio and television than ever before.”

But that $3.2 million - nearly triple what was spent in 2000 - placed ads in only half of NNPA newspapers, amounting to $500,000 or approximately $5,000 each. The balance of $2.7 million was spent between radio, Internet media and magazines, says DNC spokeswoman Daniella Gibbs Léger. She says the DNC spent less than $3 million with White newspapers.

It’s not just ads, but respect that appears to be lacking despite the significant role that the Black Press still plays, says Howard University Journalism Professor Clint Wilson, author of “A History of the Black Press.”

Wilson says, “The Black Press lost a lot of its luster after the civil rights movement although the Black Press, of course, was responsible for the civil rights movement and led the charge.”

Wilson says there are several key reasons that circulation and readership of the Black Press began diminishing after the civil rights movement. One, he says, is because the White-owned media began luring journalists from the Black Press to integrated their all-White staffs.

Additionally, he says, television came of age and people started turning more to television than newspapers.
A. Peter Bailey, who taught a course on the Black Press for four years at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the Black Press has become too soft and must return to its strong activist role of the 1960s.

“It’s never going to be a Washington Post,” says Bailey. “The Black Press basically reflects Black people. But I think it has compromised both, its coverage and its editorial stances.

The Black Press should be a representative of Black people; not a mediator between Black folks and White folks. And when it stopped doing that; then it began to have problems.”

And aging readership is yet another challenge of the Black Press.

According to a media audit by International Demographics, approximately 70 percent of Black newspaper readers are between the ages of 30 and 75.

NNPA Foundation Chairman Brian Townsend, who oversees the NNPA News Service, says he hopes a 3-year-old partnership between the news service and Howard University will not only give students experience in writing for the Black Press, but will also help to increase readership among the youth.

“I think it’s important that we give them a training ground so that they can appreciate the value of the Black Press before they go out into the world,” Townsend says. “If they stay with the Black Press, then great. If they go out into the mainstream press, at least they’ll understand the value that we bring to the table.”

Attracting younger readers is a challenge for Black and White newspapers, Townsend says. “That’s a secret that we’re all trying to figure out.”

Townsend points out that the Philadelphia Tribune has a periodical section written by and for youth that could possibly serve as a model for newspapers to reach out to younger readers. Because young people are more drawn to the Internet, the Black Press is also developing a stronger online presence, Townsend says.

Jiles, publisher of the Houston Defender, remains confident.

“The Black Press has always encountered difficulty with advertising and with circulation as far as subscribers are concerned,” says Jiles. “However, the real role and reason for the Black Press birth was out of a need to tell our own story and to make sure that it’s a positive story and that people give a correct image of us and not the story that is told by others which is often negative.”

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