Black on Black
Once influential and essential, black newspapers have lost many of their readers...and their political niche. Now they're pinning their hopes on local coverage.
By Jim Strader
Jim Strader is a wire service reporter in Pittsburgh.
Forty years ago in Pittsburgh, people couldn't wait to read the Courier. Thursday afternoons, "everybody went to the drugstores to buy the Courier," says Ruth White, a reader for more than 50 years. "That's how we got news from across the country." Mayor David Lawrence would send a cab each week to pick up a copy before the ink had even dried. "I can see that cab driver now, wiping the ink off his hands and cussing at Lawrence," recalls former Courier Editor Frank Bolden.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Courier and other leading black newspapers boasted circulations of a quarter-million or more. Editors whose publications reached far beyond their own cities wielded considerable influence and helped shape the political consciousness of America's blacks.
Now, the readership of those papers has dwindled and competition from the mainstream press and black magazines for both readers and writers has intensified. Papers that once had tremendous presence are shells of what they used to be. Publications familiar to and eagerly awaited by black communities across the country – the New York Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier – no longer inspire the same ant icipation they once did.
"It was the old Pittsburgh Courier that was the great paper," says Phyl Garland, a professor of journalism at Columbia University who read the Courier while growing up and worked there as a reporter from 1959 to 1965. "Now, it's not at all what it was then."
"It gave me my sense of identity and also gave me an opportunity to see and understand what black people had done in the past and see what they were achieving in the present," says Garland. "It was a fine newspaper and my inspiration."
Veteran journalist Chuck Stone also has fond memories of that paper. "I had my consciousness awakened by the Pittsburgh Courier," he remembers. "It was like an umbilical cord that tied us all together. It was powerful as hell and could really affect political decisions in the early days of the civil rights period."
But the black press has changed, says Stone, who was an editor at three black papers and spent 19 years at the Philadelphia Daily News before leaving to teach at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "[The black press] can't represent all African-Americans. It is not as dominant a force as it was 20 years ago."
The first black papers of any size were published in the 1890s, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. The Baltimore Afro-American first appeared in 1892, the Indiana Recorder in 1895, the New York Amsterdam News in 1909 and the Pittsburgh Courier a year after that. The St. Louis Argus debuted in 1912. Roland Wolseley in "The Black Press, U.S.A." estimates that some 3,500 black newspapers have been published since the first, the Freedom's Journal, in New York City in 1827.
The advent of most of these papers corresponded roughly with the founding of organizations advocating equal rights for blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in 1909 and the National Urban League in 1910.
Many black newspapers crusaded for black causes, campaigning first for black freedom and then, after the Civil War, for equality. The Chicago Defender's best-known crusade resulted in the migration of 110,000 Southern blacks to the city, Wolseley writes; in 1917 the paper urged blacks to leave the stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and helped organize clubs that could get group rates on train fares. The Pittsburgh Courier's advocacy helped Jackie Robinson become the first black player in major league baseball in 1947. Wolseley notes that Time reported in 1949 that the Norfolk Journal and Guide "was responsible for the county floating a $750,000 bond issue to improve black schools and for changes in pay scales so black and white teachers were treated equally."
Black papers "gave the Negroes hope and did the fighting for them, because they were too weak to fight for themselves," says Bolden.
Black papers of the 1920s also carried news of church, society and sports activities in the black community, items that didn't appear in white-owned publications, as well as occasional reports of national and international events. Garland says they were needed because "black people were invisible as far as the mainstream media were concerned. Maybe there would be a two-inch column in a corner on the back page: 'Afro-Americans in the News.' " Like the white-owned tabloids of the era, many ran sensationalized articles on crimes and scandals.
Over the years, several black papers grew dramatically and became a link for blacks nationally. In the 1930s the Chicago Defender distributed 300,000 copies. At its height in the late 1940s, the Pittsburgh Courier's circulation was over 400,000, while the New York Amsterdam News distributed 200,000. In 1945 the Afro-American's national circulation was 137,000.
The papers' readership was by no means limited to the cities in which they published. From Pittsburgh, for example, more than a dozen regional editions of the Courier were shipped across the country. The Defender and the Baltimore-based Afro-American also distributed nationwide.
Spreading the News
Distribution was difficult, especially in the South. Bolden says bundles of papers often were burned as soon as they were unloaded from rail cars at Southern depots. In his 1922 book "The Negro Press in the United States," Frederick Detweiler describes a 1920 Mississippi law that forbade publications advocating equality for blacks.
To circumvent such problems, the Courier depended on black railroad porters to safeguard shipments, says Rod Doss, current general manager of the paper, now called the New Pittsburgh Courier. Black ministers also agreed to receive the papers and encouraged parishioners to subscribe.
There were other difficulties with putting out newspapers that weren't for the larger, more affluent white population, and high on the list was money. Advertising dollars were scarce for some papers. "Our budget was tight. We didn't begin to make money 'til late," Bolden says. "White businesses don't give you a lot of advertisements when you're criticizing white people."
Photographer Teenie ``One-Shot'' Harris found a way to live with the Courier's tight budget. When he photographed Lawrence, ``there were 12 photographers in the building, all shooting pictures,'' Harris says. ``I'd just come in and take one. So, he called me 'One-Shot.'
They only paid me for one picture, so why take two?''
A number of these papers no longer have their former reach. The New Pittsburgh Courier still publishes a national edition with a circulation of 50,000, Doss says. And the local edition, which now comes out biweekly, has a circulation of just 28,500. The Chicago Defender, one of only three black dailies – the Atlanta Daily World and the New York Daily Challenge are the others – has seen its circulation drop tenfold, to 30,000. The Amsterdam News now publishes only about 60,000 copies per week.
Some claim the papers' contents have contributed to the circulation decline. "Today's black press does not have the political leadership that the old black press had," says Columbia professor Garland. "A lot of people I know who used to read the Courier no longer read it because it's not as tough-minded and it's not as plugged in to the community as it was."
"Today's black newspaper is not the same paper it was 30 years ago at the height of the civil rights period," says Steve Davis, executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a black newspaper organization based in Washington, D.C. "We were the source of telling the story to the public. Now, we've gotten complacent and lost that urgency."
Observers also trace the decline to the emergence of national magazines aimed at blacks. "We now have Ebony and Jet and you can get the news from around the country," says Garland, a former Ebony editor. Publisher James E. Lewis, whose Birmingham Times has distributed about 10,000 copies weekly since it was founded 28 years ago, concedes that some functions of the black press a half-century ago have been usurped by the white-oriented media. News about black issues, celebrities and especially athletes now is found in white-owned daily newspapers and on television, Lewis says. In decades past, that kind of coverage was relegated to black papers.
"Those papers used to be the only place blacks could read about blacks," says Frederick Benjamin, editor of the Augusta, Georgia, Focus. "Now there's competition everywhere."
But Garland says black national magazines, and black television, often devote too much space to entertainment "glitz and gloss." "That presents a distorted view of what is important to us, but it sells magazines."
By emphasizing gossip about black celebrities and the achievements of black athletes, the magazines also neglect the more serious role black newspapers used to play, particularly on political matters, Garland says. "Nothing does that today. It's just unfortunate."
Another drain on black papers is the increased presence of black journalists in the mainstream media. Some, such as Bernard Shaw of CNN, Carole Simpson of ABC News and Ed Bradley of CBS' "60 Minutes," are in highly visible positions. The result, Stone says, is that the mainstream media now address black issues more frequently.
In addition, minority internships and scholarships offered by media companies steer young black journalists away from the black press. These programs also force black publishers and broadcasters to compete against more established and better-funded rivals for qualified reporters and editors.
"Most of these kids that get these scholarships go into the mainstream media. Very few go into the black press," Stone says. "The increase of black journalists..helps the white media."
Black columnists as well are no longer limited to writing strictly for black publications, says Stone, who wrote a column for the Philadelphia Daily News before accepting the faculty position at the University of North Carolina. He points to colleagues such as William Raspberry and Clarence Page, who are syndicated nationally, and Vernon Jarrett of the Chicago Sun-Times. "We exert as much influence on some issues as the African-American press," Stone says.
But black opinion-writers in the mainstream press have to be careful not to let themselves get pigeon-holed on the basis of race or they run the risk of losing their influence, Stone says. "We can't always write about African-American issues, because people get bored as hell."
Finances were another factor in the decline of the big newspapers. "These newspapers that had vast national circulations – there's just no way to sustain them. It costs too much," says Benjamin.
Readership has also changed, shifting from "practically all of black society" to a segment of the population, says Wolseley. Now, most readers are urban blacks who want news about their own community and "crusaders" of the civil rights movement, he says. "There is a portion of the black community that is indifferent to the black press. Editors don't like to be told this. They have a tough job holding the interest of middle-class blacks."
But G.M. Doss says the Courier made changes to keep its main audience, the middle class. "We realigned the product so it gave a more positive reflection of the core readership, which is mostly upscale, better educated, employed, socially and politically active and aware," he says. However, he says the paper remains relevant to its traditional readership – lower-income, inner-city blacks.
Benjamin of the Augusta Focus characterizes the future of black newspapers as "pretty bright" but says they can't expect to survive by continuing to conduct business as usual. "Traditionally, black newspapers have taken the audience for granted – they've felt that they had a captive audience. At times, they felt it was enough to keep publishing to keep going."
Alive and Kicking
Media observers and several editors of black papers say that although the black press may have lost its sweeping influence, black newspapers remain vital. They say black communities still need a black perspective on the news and advocacy on black issues.
"The black press finds it necessary to take up a leadership role, because it's not being taken up by anybody else," says the NNPA's Steve Davis.
Many more blacks now trust the non-black media, Lewis says, since the mainstream press has discovered that blacks make news. But that faith is not total.
"Blacks trust CNN. They trust USA Today," Lewis says. "But on the local level, black people do not trust the information that's in the local newspaper as it applies to them."
Hit by the same problems as white-owned papers – decreasing readership and ad revenues – black papers are taking steps to solve the problems. In Augusta, Benjamin says he revamped the design of the Focus with a new layout, color photos and graphics, and added special editions on business, culture and social activities.
In 1988 the Afro-American chain dropped its national edition. "We looked at our national edition and said, 'That's not our market,' " says Frances Murphy Draper, president of the company that publishes the Baltimore Afro-American and papers in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. "We said, 'We're a community newspaper.' "
Draper says circulation of the three local papers has climbed steadily in the past five years. The Baltimore paper publishes about 15,000 copies now, up from 8,000 in 1986; Washington circulation has increased to 10,000 from 4,000; and the Richmond paper now publishes 4,000 copies, up from its circulation of 2,500 five years ago.
In August 1990 the NAACP launched an effort to revitalize black-owned newspapers and television and radio stations. Executive Director Benjamin Hooks, saying black media outlets are "locked in a struggle for survival," called on the nation's 500 largest corporations to devote more ad dollars to the black media, directed the NAACP's 1,500 branches to give more support to black papers and broadcast stations and assigned organization staffers to assist black media owners.
Now more than a year and a half old, the effort has made progress, says NAACP spokesman Jim Williams. He says 250 of the Fortune 500 companies have responded to a letter Hooks sent their CEOs. Half replied that they already were advertising in the black media, and about 10 percent said they would consider doing so. The rest responded that they weren't doing any consumer advertising. Linking those companies with newspapers and stations in their areas is a joint project of the NAACP and the NNPA.
Davis contends that the black press as a whole is healthy, noting that no member of the NNPA has gone out of business in the past four years. But he thinks it should do more.
"People say, 'Where's the black press? They're not out in the streets marching.' Well, maybe we should be."