Race has never been covered in more American media outlets than now, but Black life is far from a new subject for the hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations that have long been dedicated to reporting on the African-American experience. In a modern era when “Black” routinely dominates headlines, influences culture and challenges society (e.g., a Black president and the Black Lives Matter movement) a pressing question arises: Who is really telling our story?
And perhaps the more challenging question is: Does it matter who does the telling?
The Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015 reports on African-American media with varied results, pointing out that Black-oriented (not always interchangeable with Black-owned) news media “maintains a presence in print, broadcast and now the Web.” The report cites a declining audience for Black newspapers in 2014 but notes more positive trends for television. According to the Pew Center, seven Black-owned TV stations began operating last year, an increase from zero in 2013.
There is indeed, a mixed-bag reality for African-Americans with regard to today’s media landscape. Powerful movies focusing on Black History such as Selma, are drawing critical acclaim. Network, cable and digital television regularly distribute stories about the Black experience (CNN’s Don Lemon holding up an “N–ger” sign on air). The fact remains, only sometimes are we the actual gatekeepers of our stories; more often, we are simply being hired by others to tell them.
“We’ve seen Black media go through major changes over the last two decades,” says Michaela angela Davis, editorial director at BET Networks and a self-describe “image activist” frequently seen on CNN. “[Black] titles and platforms have shrunk, heritage brands have become vulnerable and many Black perspectives have been compromised as we assimilated from Black, hip-hop or urban to pop or mainstream culture,” she explains. “In the 20th century, Black ownership, entrepreneurialism and financial independence were the cornerstone of the movement and our media. But the 21st century brought in moguls and conglomerates. Big corporations got into the media business, and many Black media companies simply couldn’t compete so we made deals.”
Davis argues that although Black ownership is the ideal, we have to be more realistic about how we analyze Black media today. “What Black media–like Black folks– have always done is survive. It’s our voices that need to rise, even more than our stocks. This is not to discount the power of Black ownership but to emphasize that it is the Black lens that must stay intact … our stories, our language and our voices are critical to the American and global societies.”
Cloves Campbell Jr., Former Chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade organization made up of over 200 newspapers, collectively know as “The Black Press”, argues that Black media is actually in a strong position today.
“As media becomes more targeted, people are coming more and more to us to find out just what’s happening in the Black community,” he says.
Yet according to the Pew Report, four of the larger African-American newspapers experienced noticeable dips in total paid print and digital circulation from 2013 to 2014, including a 19 percent loss for the Chicago Defender and 17 percent for the Washington Afro-American.
Still, Campbell counters that because Black newspapers have always focused on stories traditionally ignored by the mainstream, they have and will continue to attract an audience– though he does acknowledge the audience for those newspapers with only a weekly circulation doesn’t begin to rival that of larger, daily mainstream papers. He also points to an increase in readership among Black newspapers in Southern states, where reverse migration has resulted in a population increase among African-Americans.
The future challenge for Black newspapers will be to continue incorporating new technology into their business models, but Campbell says they have been slower to jump into the digital age.
“We’re more hesitant because [publishing online] is hard to monetize and figure out what your return on investment is,” he explains. “[Daily newspapers] haven’t figured out what that is. Our websites are not hitting millions of people. They were created to hit our community.”
Campbell believes digital properties may allow for a great return on investment for Black newspapers. He proposes that NNPA-member publications move to a paywall structure.
Of the three national publications with major circulations that target African-Americans, two are Black-owned: EBONY (which leads with a circulation of 1.25-million) and Black Enterprise (at 527,000.) The third, Essence (1.1 million) founded in 1970 by a consortium of Blacks, was sold in 2005 to powerhouse publisher Time Inc.
Harsh economic realities have saddled the entire magazine publishing industry—skyrocketing paper and shipping costs and a frequent decline of single copy sales at the newsstand (thanks in large part to the Internet)— but Black-owned magazines in particular are in a fight for survival. Perhaps the biggest struggle has to do with a perception by advertisers that Black audiences can just as effectively be reached through White publications and other media. “Casting Black faces in print and TV is no substitute for delivering culturally relevant messaging,” says Don Coleman, chairman and CEO of GlobalHue, a Black-owned marketing and advertising firm. “[Advertisers’] depth of understanding centers on a false sense of efficiency. By overlooking how African-Americans influence popular culture, they negate business growth.”
Samir Husni, Ph.D., director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, School of Journalism agrees. He notes that 2015 represents a radical increase in Black faces appearing on general market covers. “In 30 years of this business, I’ve never seen so many,” says Husni, also known as “Mr. Magazine.” “Magazine media has essentially transcended race. That’s the reason there is almost no longer a need for a Black magazine that only features celebrities. You can’t compete.”
Compounding an already complicated reality, a handful of prominent Black writers and editors are working for the nation’s top news magazines, and they are regarded as among the foremost voices on race in America, including Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic; Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker; and Kai Wright and Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation. These publications deliver nuanced long form, deeply investigative journalism, which often comes with heftier paychecks and price tags than Black publications that focus on the lower paying fruit of content aggregation and celebrity reporting. These arguably more upper-class publications cater to a wealthier audience and do not openly list any numbers verifying Black readership; rather their media kits focus on media affluence and age.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., a writer, researcher and scholar of African-American media says Black America still lacks its own political and intellectual chronicle. “We still don’t have a news magazine,” he notes. “We don’t have an NPR or a PBS. We don’t have places … where we can define our own historical perspective.”