Black press in America alive, well

March 14, 2001|By John J. Oliver Jr.

WASHINGTON -- During the past decade, I have read much in mainstream journalism trade journals about how black newspaper publishing, a champion of African-American rights during segregation, was a victim of its own success and was dying.

It was said that black audiences don't want news. Fueling this misconception was last year's cancellation of Emerge and BET Weekend, two prominent national black magazines owned by Black Entertainment Television. Black Americans -- particularly affluent ones who buy cars, televisions and homes -- only want entertainment magazines and comedy/music shows on television and radio, the naysayers said.

With the start of Black Press Week in Washington today, it is worthwhile noting that the black newspaper -- which has fought for black interests since Freedom's Journal was published in New York City 174 years ago this week -- is returning to its national leadership role in black communities.

The 60-year-old National Newspaper Publishers Association has its roots in the 1909 founding of the National Negro Press Association. The NNPA represents 200 black weekly and daily newspapers nationwide that reach nearly 15 million readers, nearly half the African-American population. Our active membership has grown by 6 percent in the last year.

Over the past year, the NNPA has rebuilt its news service into the powerful national black wire service that it was when it started in the mid-1940s. It is the only national black American wire service, providing breaking news, photos, graphics, features and commentaries to our member papers.

Last year, our reporters and editors interviewed everyone from a young Sudanese man who had been enslaved in his country to presidential candidate Al Gore. We created a national investigative reporting program that produced a series on campaign finance reform and black America that was published on the front page of 70 of our newspapers.

This year, we are returning to the place we successfully integrated in 1947, with a Washington correspondent in the House and Senate press galleries. It will be the first time we will have had a full-time presence there in at least 30 years.

Last summer, we created, an online digest of black press news and analysis. When we finish putting all of our members online by the summer of 2003, we will have created through the Internet what many have tried unsuccessfully to produce over the past two decades -- a national independent black newspaper.

Our clout is growing again among nationally known African-Americans. We used to recruit columnists. Now they come to us. They include the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., George Curry, the former editor in chief of Emerge, Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich of the Black Leadership Forum, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and analyst Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. All of them, and more, are returning home to speak directly to black Americans.

The challenge for the black press is how to participate in the coming convergence of all media -- print, broadcast and Internet -- in ways that fulfill the mandate of the first editorial of Freedom's Journal, which read in part:

"We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. It is our earnest wish to make this Journal a medium of intercourse between our brethren in different states of this great confederacy: that through its columns an expression of our sentiments, on many interesting subjects which concern us, may be offered to the public."

We have accepted this challenge with great anticipation of the future. It is one in which blacks will continue to define their agendas, their friends and their enemies in their own words, their own voices.

John J. Oliver Jr. is president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and chairman of the Afro-American Newspapers Co.

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