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The Black Press: Then and Now

Written by Joy Childs on 24 March 2011.

(NNPA) – As readers know, newspaper readership is dwindling because of competition from online media. Notwithstanding the shrinkage, the Black newspaper has played and continues to play a critical and relevant role in the community for at least one important reason: For their its history, Black newspapers have addressed and responded to the needs of Blacks.

In light of Black Press Week, the L.A. Watts Times is giving readers a look at the evolution of the Black newspaper and its current state.

The Birth of the Black Newspaper

In a 1982 article in Ebony Jr., Managing Editor Mary C. Lewis wrote about "The Birth of the Black American News," writing:

"Black newspapers were born to be giants; the times demanded it of them. So much needed to be said in those times: about the horrible facts of slavery and its shameful way of chaining human beings' bodies, minds and lives; about the unequal way free Blacks received (or didn't receive) education, housing, and jobs; about the brave struggle Blacks made their lives; and about the laws being made that would weigh Blacks' futures."

But, there was no one to tell those stories -- that is, until 1827, when Freedom's Journal was founded by John B. Russworm, who was the first Black graduate of an American college, and writer Samuel Cornish. Their expressed purposes for the journal were: (1) to publicize from an anti-slavery point of view and (2) to print information of interest to Black folk.

Along with these purposes, another was to encourage migration.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1905, according to the publication's website, which boasts that by the start of World War I, it was the nation's most influential Black weekly newspaper.

That, it turns out, is historically significant: During the war, the paper used its considerable influence in support of The Great Migration, its website says.

It continued: The Defender extolled the virtues of life up North, published job listings and featured train schedules -- and was distributed by Pullman porters to assist in migrant relocation. These efforts were celebrated, as May 15, 1917, was even designated Great Northern Drive day. The Defender added that it was largely due to its support of The Great Migration that Southern readers relocated in droves to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and even New York.

At about the same time, migration from the South to the West Coast was being encouraged by Jefferson L. Edmonds, a newspaperman.

A publisher of two Black newspapers -- the Pasadena Searchlight and the Liberator -- Edmonds is credited with championing the idea that "opportunities for material advancement are greater in California" and that "the kindly feelings existing between the races in this city is nowhere surpassed." (From The Liberator, April 11, 1913.)

The Liberator's masthead read, "Devoted to the cause of good government and the advance of the Afro-American."

Even shortly after his death in 1914, the Black Press apparently had a significant role in his life, as a topic in his funeral program read "The Negro Press and Its Struggle."

Their Purpose, Then and Now

While Black newspapers no longer tout the advantages of migration or publicize from an anti-slavery point of view, a common thread that runs through Black newspapers is a rather simple one: to print information of interest to Black folk.

Black publishers could tell you that they're filling this void by providing information that interests their communities.

For example, the Arizona Informant, which has been around since 1958, is now owned by the family of Cloves C. Campbell, Jr., whose family acquired the Phoenix-based publication in 1971.

Campbell contends that, "dailies don't want to -- can't -- cover issues of importance to Blacks ... We have our point of view on news that you don't get from The Arizona Republic or CNN or Fox ..."

He adds, "The biggest value (of the paper) is the fact that you record the Black history of Arizona every week."

And as a Black publisher, Campbell says that he can say what he wants to say and "give his writers more latitude than a daily paper to get the perspective of our readers ..."

Michael House, the Chicago Defender's publisher and president, echoes Campbell's views, saying that what brings him joy in his role is that the Black press is serving the Black community's needs by conveying information that's "relevant and that provides them with information on which they can base decisions about business, health, crime -- those that impact the quality of life -- that they won't get elsewhere."

House, who was named to head the paper in 2008, came to the Defender with a vision to "create an integrated platform that includes Web, events marketing, and traditional print advertising." He acknowledges that while the paper's core audience is still the hardcore reader who typically have not embraced the Internet, the paper does have a digital and online presence to serve the needs of its younger readers. As he sees it, "We have the best of both worlds."

A Revitalized Black Newspaper Environment

Today, nearly 200 Black newspapers across the country comprise the National Newspaper Publishers Association (also known as the Black Press of America).

Campbell says, "There's a revitalized Black Press under the leadership of Danny Bakewell, Sr. ... Our heyday was in the '80s and early '90s, but corporations tried to kill us off ... Bakewell has got us focused again on what's important: unity and the news ... Under him, we've gotten our swag back, as the young people say!"

Campbell feels that too often, "White publications focus on the bad ..." and that "There's enough coverage from the White press about the bad, it's the inherent responsibility (of the Black press) to point out the good ..."

Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., executive publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Sentinel and L.A. Watts Times, points to the longstanding and supportive role of the Black Press in the struggle for civil rights when he states that, "Whatever stature and appreciation and influence that I have in this country as well as in Los Angeles, I owe to the Black Press. They have always carried what I've done as well as what other" civil rights leaders have done. He added that the press has covered any and every other Black person of stature in the African-American community.

Bakewell noted that, "There's simply no Black civil rights leader, there's no business leader, there's no religious leader, there's no politician that has reached their station in life in the community without coming through the Black Press."