Part one: A brief history of Black-owned news media (June 8, 2020)

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Saanya Jain
Jun 8, 2020 · 4 min read

HISTORY

A 2019 report, “African American Media Today,” compiled by the Obsidian Collection for Democracy Fund, traces the arc of the Black press in the U.S. It starts with the first Black-owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 to advocate for the abolition of slavery. The Journal was an outlet for Black people to advocate for themselves, as its first issue declared: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

Historians estimate that over 500 Black newspapers would go on to spring up in the 35 years between 1865 and the start of the 20th century. These publications challenged what had been taken as objective news by “mainstream newspapers,” which were by-and-large by white writers and editors and for white audiences. “The Black press was never intended to be objective because it didn’t see the white press being objective,” Phyllis Garland, the first African American and first woman tenured professor at Columbia’s journalism school, said in PBS’s film on the Black press. “It often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and a deliberate slant.”

For example, The Oklahoma Eagle, a Black-owned weekly in Tulsa, aims to keep the memory of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which white mobs killed 300 Black people and forced thousands to flee, alive. The massacre was mostly ignored by the city’s mainstream newspapers — one of which only wrote about it for the first time 50 years after the massacre occurred.

Black newspapers more generally were instrumental to “pulling African Americans together after slavery into cohesive communities,” according to historian Christopher Reed. The Democracy Fund report cites examples of the essential role newspapers played in historical events, from tackling Hollywood’s derogatory depictions of African Americans in 1914 to fueling the Great Migration to the North after WWII.

The Black press also had a significant reach — by 1929, the most popular, the Pittsburgh Courier, had a weekly circulation of over 300,000, according to Nieman Reports. Most of these were from single-copy sales, and many issues were passed around, so readership was likely much higher. Sixty years later, magazines had also established an audience: Ebony, for example, reached 1.7 million homes in 1985, amounting to over 40% of African-American adults, more than any other general interest magazine during that time.

TODAY

Today, 205 publications are members of NNPA, the trade organization that represents Black press in the U.S. Like the rest of the industry, for whom ad revenue decreased from $60 billion to $20 billion from 2000 to 2015, declining ad revenue has also impacted Black newspapers. According to Pew, paid and free print circulation has also declined — with most relying on subscription rather than newsstand sales.

Many of the most popular papers of the 20th century have stopped printing: the Pittsburgh Courier, for example, stopped publishing in 1966. The circulation of other popular papers of the early-1900s — like the Baltimore Afro-American and Chicago Defender — has dropped to around 10,000. Still, Black newspapers reached over 20 million people weekly in print as of 2014. Some papers still reach the high five-figures: The Los Angeles Wave has 92,000 subscribers; The Philadelphia Tribune, the longest continuously publishing Black newspaper, founded in 1844, has a daily circulation of 91,200; and the Chicago Crusader has 88,000 subscribers.

The success of long-running Black magazines like Ebony, Essence, and Jet, meanwhile, has been mixed. Essence, in particular, has been able to translate its legacy into reaching new and increasingly larger audiences in recent years. It was owned by Time Inc. from 2000–2018, until it returned to Black ownership under Richelieu Dennis. Investments in revenue streams, namely events, have been fruitful : Essence Festival, held annually in New Orleans, attracts almost half a million attendees over four days and is reportedly the largest annual African-American gathering in the U.S.

Digital readership remains a challenge for both Ebony and Jet. Both magazines, owned by Johnson Publishing Company since the mid-1900s, were acquired by a private equity firm in 2016. While Essence reached 6.7 million readers in April, Ebony and Jet have not fared as well according to comScore data.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Democracy Fund report urges legacy Black news media companies to 1) collaborate to boost their digital presence and 2) preserve their archives.

NNPA has taken a first step towards collaboration with BlackPressUSA.com, which is the web presence of the NNPA’s wire service and of its member newspapers. The report suggests that there is room for further collaboration with other Black-owned media or the mainstream press on stories and training as well.

The report also highlights the importance of preserving the archives of legacy newspapers that are closed or are on the verge of closing, since they “hold huge amounts of the history of and by African Americans.” Obsidian Collection, which compiled the report, has partnered with newspapers to create a virtual, free-to-access portal of their collections to tap into the archives’ editorial and revenue potential.

Read Part Two, covering the first wave of digital-native publications aiming to reach Black audiences.

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