Friday, July 17, 2009

Black Press Seems Viable, Able To Withstand Crisis...

Founders of Freedom's Journal (1828): Left--Rev. Samuel Cornish and Right--John B. Russwurm

This month marks the 182nd anniversary of the publication in New York City of the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper in the United States. It was launched March 16, 1827, with a mission to fight slavery. “We wish to plead our own cause,” the editor wrote, rather than depend on the misrepresentations of others. Freedom’s Journal was short lived but the black newspapers founded in its wake continued in the same vein—as an advocate for the rights of African Americans. Black newspapers have been in the forefront of virtually every progressive effort mounted on behalf of African-American citizens.

The 182nd anniversary of Freedom’s Journal comes at a time when newspapers in general are facing a crisis, a problem exacerbated by the nationwide fiscal problems. There is an old schoolkids’ joke that asks, “What’s black and white and read all over?” Anyone trying to answer likely would try to think of something black and white and “red.” After fruitless guessing the person trying to answer is finally told that the answer is “a newspaper.” In those days of yesteryear, when I was in elementary school and first heard that joke, a newspaper was printed in black ink on white paper with little or no color, and its words were “read all over.”

In today’s economy, it could be said indeed that newspapers in many cases, though more colorful, are red all over—with the red representing lost revenue. Newspaper shutdowns, layoffs, mergers, and drastic cost-cutting measures have become routine, with the pace accelerating in the last few years. The flocking of readers, especially younger ones, to online news sites is blamed for many of the newspaper industry’s troubles.

Daily newspapers have faced the biggest problems, although some weeklies have suffered. In this mix, black newspapers may have the best chance of surviving unscathed. Black newspapers traditionally have been underfinanced, so an economic crisis is not seen as a catastrophe. Publishers are accustomed to doing more with less. Staff members at black weeklies often perform multiple duties, unlike at large dailies where each person performs only one specialized job. Black newspapers, unable to compete with the dailies on speed, have traditionally concentrated on getting background information that illuminates the story behind the story, featuring analysis and opinion articles, and using photographs relevant to their readers. Their stories are more likely to include people readers know personally, thus forming loyalty and a better bond.

Newspaper reporters, people whose fulltime job is to gather information in which their readers are interested, do most of the original reporting being done today. Many Web sites and bloggers use original newspaper reports as the basis of their comments and writings. Newspapers have been the watchdog of the people in regard to public officials, in monitoring the operation of public schools, for example, and ensuring that law enforcement officers do not abuse their power. Reporters are trained to be objective and uninvolved in the stories they write—to give a balanced account and let readers make up their own minds. Bloggers operate under no such restraints, which increases the chances of slanted commentary.

I was talking to a woman recently who said she didn’t read newspapers because she didn’t want to read about all the bad things happening. I resisted the urge to ask her if she watches television news. The only “news” some people want is that appearing on what are called “infotainment” shows, the kind that feature the latest information about misbehaving celebrities.

What will be the effect as more newspapers close or cut back their operations?

Democracy will suffer. Citizens will be the losers. In a free society an informed electorate is the key to better government. To think, evaluate issues and make one’s own decisions are among this country’s greatest gifts. The press is a crucial link in the information chain. It provides the information citizens need to make good decisions before acting, whether voting for a political candidate, evaluating a bond issue or deciding whether to attend a theatrical production.

The newspaper industry crisis may deepen in the months ahead. Media critic Jeff Jarvis has said that community newspapers and black newspapers have shown progress while dailies have lost ground. The black press, which has been resilient throughout its existence, is in a good position to prevail and prosper.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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