Help! The Black Press is dying

Charles ONeal
Charles ONeal



Okay, okay! I’ll admit it! I’m a dinosaur! I still believe there’s something magical about holding this week’s edition of a Black-owned newspaper in my hand, savoring every page, wincing at every typo, all while reveling as the story of Black America unfolds.

I got the news this week that The Chicago Defender – without question the one-time “granddaddy” of The Black Press – has stopped the presses and gone digital. Publisher Hiram Jackson cited economic reasons (shrinking advertising revenue) as chief among the reasons for the move to cyberspace. I don’t question or fault his decision, but I do lament what we’ve lost in the process.

America’s Black Press took root in New York City, March 16, 1827, with the first issue of Freedom’s Journal. The sentiment expressed in Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm’s first editorial – “… too long have others spoken for us – we wish to plead our own cause …” – ignited a flame that has burned for 192 years.

From my patron saint, Frederick Douglass, to Ida B. Wells, T. Thomas Fortune, the Vances, Scotts, Murphys and Richardsons, the roll call is impressive of those who battled with the same fervor as Robert Abbott’s Defender, shaping and molding not just Black America but all of America into a better (not perfect) place. The chronicles recorded in print by brave Black men and women across nearly two centuries leaves us an undeniable, irrefutable record of the road we’ve travelled.

The dinosaur in me says it’s impossible for the advent of digital-only Black newspapers to replicate the heroic impact of the “Soldiers without Swords” who week in and week out chronicled our challenges, extolled our virtues, announced births and deaths, and showed us (often grainy) pictures of our glorious selves. The fleeting, minute-by-minute changes in news and perspectives that are so, so seductively packaged in the digital space, I’m afraid, are incapable of keeping the flame alive.

The dinosaur in me doubts that an already “miseducated Johnny” will learn to read looking at a screen. I doubt that same Johnny will learn to discern and distinguish news from the digital Black Press from questionable nuggets unearthed in the next “click.”

Whether we like it or not, we are truly in the age of “fake news,” hacks, data breaches and phishing scams. I see no evidence the handheld screen will match the handheld crispness of the printed page.

I am not advocating a return to the Jurassic age. I am, however, putting a “sticky note” in this moment in the history of America’s Black Press/Black America. When we lose control of our communication channel, we lose control of our primary means of conscious-raising nation-building.

When we capitulate to the salacious lure of cyber everything, we put at risk the written record of our achievement against the odds. When we concede that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is the best strategy for survival … well, you go the way of the dinosaur.

I’m a dinosaur, and I’m crying.

Charles O’Neal is the founder of Strategique, which focuses on effective communications, business development and strategic relationship consulting for businesses and organizations. O’Neal is the president of the Texas Association of African American Chambers of Commerce, one of the oldest Black business leagues in America, and the chairman of the U.S. Black Chambers Inc. board of directors.


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