Neophyte's black-oriented paper thrives

January 01, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

As a girl growing up on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Joy Bramble became accustomed to seeing her countrymen warmly embrace entrepreneurship.

The observations of her youth crystallized into a lifelong ethos. Which may explain Mrs. Bramble's matter-of-fact air when she talks about creating the Baltimore Times, a 4-year-old, free weekly that has a healthy advertising base in an era in which some papers are cutting personnel because of shrinking ad revenues.

Despite Mrs. Bramble's unassuming demeanor, it's hardly commonplace for a newspaper neophyte to form a thriving urban publication.

When she was deciding whether to go ahead with the paper, being an industry outsider was an advantage, Mrs. Bramble said. She said she is glad she didn't consult with anybody in the profession about the feasibility of the project. "They would have discouraged me."

Instead, Baltimore's black community gained an editorial voice to complement the venerable Baltimore Afro-American, which has experienced declining circulation and financial problems in recent years.

Mrs. Bramble, 44, said her newspaper, whose circulation she estimates to be around 50,000, isn't competing with the Afro or any other publication.

"I believe that it's ridiculous that there's only one black paper, or even one white paper," she said. "I think that there's room for several other papers. That's why when people compare me with the Afro, I say, 'So what?' We can both exist, we can both do well."

A self-described "inveterate reader," Mrs. Bramble said the seeds for the Baltimore Times were sown after she and her husband, the Rev. Peter Bramble, moved to Randallstown from Connecticut in 1976 and she read the Jewish Times. "I used to think, 'Gee, it would be so nice to have [a publication] like that for blacks,' " Mrs. Bramble said. But her work as a social studies teacher at an Arbutus high school, along with the task of rearing her children, Jacelyn and David, afforded little time for much else.

The Bramble family moved to the Madison Park section of Baltimore in 1977. About that time, Mrs. Bramble's entrepreneurial ethic began to assert itself: She noticed that as the ownership of many mom-and-pop grocery stores in black city neighborhoods changed from Jewish to Korean, few black entrepreneurs were capitalizing on the phenomenon.

Mrs. Bramble quit teaching in the early 1980s to open two inner-city stores along with her minister husband, who's also from Montserrat.

However, repeated vandalism at one of the stores soured Mrs. Bramble on that experience, and the businesses were sold in 1986. Mrs. Bramble found herself knocking around the house with nothing to do, so her spouse challenged her to start a newspaper.

She accepted the challenge and was immediately confronted with an interesting question: How do you put a newspaper together from scratch?

"I'm an information person; I love to get information," Mrs. Bramble said. "What you find is that people who have information love to share it. And lots of people helped me. I mean, I wouldn't have been here if it wasn't for people helping me. I just kept on asking people, asking people, asking people."

Before long she had inquired her way into nailing down a Carroll County printing facility and securing the services of Bennett Akpa, a former Afro staffer who helped decide how the paper would look and how many sections it would have. Mr. Akpa was part of an unpaid staff of about six people.

Putting out a newspaper for a primarily black audience is no different from writing for any other, Mrs. Bramble said. "What's the big deal about black information? We supply information that anybody can use, and black people like to use information. And that's been the crux of the paper."

Mrs. Bramble alone set her paper's editorial guidelines.

"Our little slogan is positive stories for positive people," she said. "I mean I would never have a murder, a rape, a dope bust . . . nothing like that will ever be in the paper, unless it had some significance in telling another story or trying to prove some other point."

Mr. and Mrs. Bramble incurred $700 in out-of-pocket expenses to produce the first edition of the Baltimore Times in late 1986. The paper began life as a monthly and sprang from a personal computer in Mrs. Bramble's kitchen onto a 16-page tabloid with ads on every page. None of the ads had been paid for, however.

"It was like a promo issue, because I wanted to use it to sell ads," Mrs. Bramble recalled. "I think there's nothing more depressing than selling ads. I've never been told 'No' so much in my life. People loved the paper, they said, 'Gee, it's wonderful . . . so, how is it going to help me?' "

These days, the Baltimore Times has more than 30 pages and is filled with paid ads. Mrs. Bramble and her husband estimate that it will generate $750,000 in revenues during 1990.

Once the Brambles' kitchen served as the newspaper's newsroom: Now Mrs. Bramble works out of a small North Avenue office.

The newspaper's growth has continued to exceed her expectations. In 1987, the Wisconsin-based Community Papers Verification Service audited the Baltimore Times and found its circulation to be 31,100. Mrs. Bramble estimates that figure is up by at least 19,000 now.

One thing that's remained constant is the way the paper is distributed, which is primarily to malls, stores and black churches.

Although Mrs. Bramble is a naturalized U.S. citizen, who has become an accomplished entrepreneur in this country, she still harkens back to the lessons of her youth on Montserrat.

"The thing about Montserrat that makes Montserratians unique is that we have a totally different perspective," she said. "I think owning something, or having some place you can go back to that you can call your own makes you a different person."

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