Afro-American survives tough times Publisher looks toward future with aggressive marketing plans.

August 12, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

Reports of the impending death of the Afro-American nearly two years ago were greatly exaggerated, contends Publisher John J. Oliver Jr.

In fact, the Afro, which publishes weekly newspapers in Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, as well as the nationally distributed Dawn magazine, is making plans to celebrate its centennial a year from now. And if all goes as Oliver anticipates -- especially his strategy of marketing Dawn to mainstream urban newspapers -- it should be around for its bicentennial in 2092.

The Afro's staff numbers about 100, its finances have improved and circulation for the three papers is running about 75,000, up from a low of 20,000 in 1989.

That compares to a peak combined circulation of 200,000 in the 1950s, when the newspaper was respected for such things as its fight against Jim Crow laws.

But later, the paper that chronicled the civil rights movement began to struggle both financially and editorially. During the last decade, it shifted its coverage to sensational stories of crimes in the black community, with headlines like, "We Didn't Rape Her, She Gave It Up."

Oliver said there have been changes to restore the Afro to its glory days of reporting hard-hitting news about the black community although he acknowledges that the low wages paid reporters hinders his ability to attract top black journalists.

"For the last two years, we have been overcoming what I thought was an erroneous image of the paper, content-wise," Oliver said. "People had preconceived notions that there were too many mistakes in the paper, the production was horrible and we were only focusing on sensationalistic stuff. Historically, it may have been true but we have tried to get away from that."

Oliver, who is a lawyer, started a second stint as publisher in 1986. Early on, critics accused him of spending too much time practicing law and too little time wooing advertisers.

In 1988, the newspaper chain cut back the Baltimore and Washington papers from twice a week to once a week. By 1989, when Oliver focused his attention on the Afro, it was in a financial crisis. Circulation was down, advertising was scarce and the company faced $900,000 in debts.

The Afro teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

But, instead of going to court, Oliver went to his creditors and his community.

That fall, he presented creditors with a payout plan that reduced the company's debt by three fourths. They went along.

"The creditors thought the payment plan had credibility. And certainly I was going to take 25 cents on the dollar than to get nothing," said David Gasper, chief financial officer for Image Dynamics, a public relations firm that was owed about $11,000.

"I think it was a good move on the part of the Afro," Gasper said.

Turning to the community, Oliver solicited help from black churches and politicians.

A circulation drive dubbed "Operation Afro" turned into a campaign to collect $1 million. Community leaders such as former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and Del. Howard Rawlings, D-City, became Afro spokesmen. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, gave the Afro $1,000.

"I believed the total community recognized the importance of the Afro," said Rawlings, who sold and delivered the Afro some 40 years ago. "I wanted to help facilitate the survival of the Afro."

"The community looked at the Afro as its newspaper," Mitchell said.

During a news conference in 1989, a week after the campaign was launched, Afro officials said $10,000 in cash had been donated with another $20,000 pledged.

Oliver still refuses to say how much money was raised but added that it was a mistake on the part of company officials to sound as if they wanted charity.

"We didn't mean for it to become a charity drive and we got heat for it. I'm not interested in saying to people, 'Give me money because I'm the Afro,' " he said.

Recently, Oliver said, he has been exploring possibilities of offering equity investments in the newspaper, which has primarily been family-owned since its inception in 1892.

Now, a year away from its 100th birthday, Oliver said the newspaper company isn't planning a funeral. In fact plans are under way for a big birthday party to celebrate its founding on Aug. 13, 1892, as a four-page church newsletter. John H. Murphy Sr., a former slave, bought the newsletter and developed it into a nationally read black newspaper.

Oliver is confident that if his strategy works to increase local advertising, install desktop publishing systems and market Dawn magazine to large daily mainstream newspapers, the Afro will be around to celebrate its 200th birthday.

"Will we be able to tread water and will the paper be able to swim another 100 years? We are always swimming against the tide, but the immediate answer is we won't close our doors tomorrow because we can't get a loan," Oliver said. "We are working on a strategy to bring in additional funds."

But even Oliver, the great-grandson of the Afro's founder, sometimes wonders how long the business can stay afloat.

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