Black, white and shades of gray
The media have come a long way since the 1960s, when I was shocked as a teenager to realize the Chicago Tribune routinely made a point of identifying as a “Negro” any African-American mentioned in its pages.
No similar ethnic qualifier was deemed necessary for an Anglo-Saxon businessman, a Polish alderman or a Jewish judge. The practice, thankfully, was abandoned around the time lynching fell out of favor (even if 10% of the U.S. Senate at this writing has yet to condemn this particularly heinous blot on our history.)
Although racial equality and ethnic diversity have been embraced by the respectable media since the 1970s, the relative enlightenment in news coverage and hiring practices has made modern times increasingly difficult for the black newspapers that stood bravely for civil rights when it was downright dangerous to do so.
In Chicago, the Daily Defender, which is only one of two daily African-American newspapers remaining in the land, has reduced publication from five days to four as the result of an economic crunch. The only remaining African-American daily is the New York Daily Challenge in Brooklyn.
The nation’s first black-owned daily, the 77-year-old Atlanta Daily World, was scaled back to weekly publication in 1997, according to the PBS program On the Media. In Detroit, the circulation of the Michigan Chronicle has fallen to 47,000 today from 120,000 in 1971.
So it goes throughout this small, proud fraternity. Beyond the changing demographics and media consumption patterns that affect all publications, the black press suffers from a brain drain that, ironically, makes it a victim of its own success.
With the media today comparatively progressive and accessible, a growing number of African-Americans evidently are comfortable reading and working for the mainstream press. For the most part, they don’t relate to the black publications that sustained their community over decades of oppression. Within a generation or so, many of these papers may be lost forever.
And that might be the end of the story, except that a new kind of African-American press may be emerging: Black media owned and operated by mainstream media companies who see an opportunity to create new profit centers in ethnic publishing.
Just such a publication has been launched by the New York Times Co. in Gainesville, FL, where it publishes the dominant Gainesville Sun. The new “black” newspaper, which is called the Gainesville Guardian, has been decried by a number of African-American journalists, including one who was quoted as calling it a “a black publication in whiteface."
"It made me angry," said Clara McLaughlin Criswell, publisher of the Florida Star, the oldest black newspaper in the Gainesville area. "We'll get the readers and they'll get the ads, because they're a white company and they have a stronger base," said Ms. Criswell, as quoted by Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute.
Charlotte Roy, the editor who helped launch the Guardian but was discharged before it began publishing, responds that the Florida Star is based approximately 90 miles away from Gainesville in Jacksonville. "Saying that the Gainesville Guardian will publish at the expense of the Florida Star is like saying that the Macon Telegraph will publish at the expense of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution," says Ms. Roy. "The Star has no presence or circulation in Gainesville; the Guardian will have no presence or circulation in the much larger market of Jacksonville. We will not compete in one another's markets for advertising."
The NYT is well within its rights to start an ethnic publication, if it believes there is a market for it. Newspapers from Miami to Los Angeles have started Spanish-language editions to more fully serve (and sell advertising in) their ethnically diverse communities. The San Jose (CA) Mercury publishes a Vietnamese weekly and Journal Register Co. runs a Portuguese paper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
So, what’s wrong with a “white” company starting a “black” newspaper?
While all’s fair in love and commerce, there is hardly likely to be a fair fight in Gainesville, if the Florida Star indeed counts on circulation and ad sales in the community as much as its publisher suggests. Supported by the superior resources and abundant cash flows of its parent, the new Gainesville Guardian will enter the marketplace as an exceptionally well-endowed competitor.
Even though NYT undoubtedly will take pains to recruit a solid staff of predominantly African-American journalists to develop a strong and independent voice for the new paper, the success of the Guardian, if Gainesville is not big enough for both of them, most may come to a degree at the expense of the Florida Star. It also is fair to argue that the Guardian will create a new audience and, if so, a wholly new source of advertising revenue for itself.
Many commentators, African-American and otherwise, are worried that formerly black-owned media companies like Black Entertainment Television and Essence magazine are now in the hands of Time Warner (which, for the time being, at least has a black CEO). Similarly, NBC owns Telemundo, one of the two major Spanish-language networks in the United States.
So, we have a dilemma. Mainstream media companies can prosper by providing ethnic communities with sustainable, high-quality products that they otherwise might not have. In the process, however, the mainstream companies will squeeze the incumbent ethnic media, which typically are less well capitalized, and perhaps less professional, than the big guys. Even the best of the locals can’t compete with NYSE powerhouses like NYT, Time Warner or NBC’s parent, General Electric.
If independent ethnic publications are silenced or, alternatively, rolled into mega-corporations where they face future homogenization, we all lose, for the public discourse will be less vibrant and less rich than it ought to be.
An NYT-published "black" paper in Gainesville is better than no black paper at all. But I am rooting for the real deal, the Florida Star.