By HAZEL TRICE EDNEY
A recent NAACP Black Media Speaks forum dove into a conversation in which the future of Black-owned newspapers was all but pronounced dead. To the shock of some of the members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, A federation of more than 200 Black-owned newspapers, there was not one Black newspaper journalist or publisher on the panel – despite the fact that the NAACP has used Black newspapers to distribute information to the Black community.
“In 2020, for there to be a virtual panel on Black Media and not invite or involve the NNPA or any of our member publishers to be on the panel goes beyond a mere oversight,” said NNPA President Benjamin Chavis. “We’re certainly going to meet about it as part of our ongoing strategic alliance between the NAACP and the NNPA.”
Hosted by NAACP President Derrick Johnson and moderated by journalist Ed Gordon of Ed Gordon Media, the forum had been widely promoted by the NAACP as a discussion on the need for Black media during the coronavirus pandemic and continued physical attacks on Black people by police and others. But those topics were barely mentioned during the entire hour.
Chavis was particularly taken-aback by remarks from panelists who painted a grim picture about the future of Black newspapers.
During the forum, a caller who identified herself as a second-generation publisher among those still “on the front line,” asked how members of the panel would use their positions to support Black print publications.
“This is all about survival at this point,” Gordon responded, who mentioned how he’d worked closely with Real Times Media CEO Hiram Jackson to assure the survival of several of his Black-owned newspapers.
Perhaps most notably were comments by Earl “Butch” Graves, president and CEO of Black Enterprise Magazine.
“We can’t be tone deaf though,” Graves said. “The reality is it’s like those that are in retail that thought that retail would always survive… Print is not going to survive. It will not be here five years from now. That’s a hard pill to swallow but it is a reality. So, either you reinvent, or you die. And the reality is that now Black-owned media companies need to accept that cold, hard fact.”
Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a long time reporter for CBS in Chicago, had stated earlier that there are “170 African American newspapers that still exist” and “it is critical that we as African Americans support Black-owned media,” including historic Black newspapers that fought for the freedom of Black people and continue to do so.
Members of the Black Press could agree with the sentiment, aside from the undercount of Black newspapers – which Chavis stated underscored the need for a Black newspaper representative on the panel. The NNPA represents 220 Black-owned newspapers that serve the African American community. However, there are still other African American newspapers that aren’t members of the NNPA.
Yet Graves continued with his theory.
“We probably don’t need 176 or whatever the number is exactly, Dorothy… We will probably need less than that. But those will have to survive doing it a different way. You cannot continue to print and survive…We can see this right now. Print will not survive. Therefore, we will have to do something in a different capacity to make this work.”
The NAACP’s quarterly print publication, Crisis Magazine, was not spared amidst the criticism as Johnson took it to task.
“We run the Crisis Magazine. It’s been in continuous publication, but it’s not timely,” he said. “And we have to recognize that until we can develop the publication to where people can consume it in this new media reality – that they see the value in it – I can’t fault others for not investing in Crisis when we have not kept up with the times.”
Johnson said the magazine has survived mainly because it’s been underwritten.
“Because if it had to stand up on its own, it would have been out of business 50 years ago. So, we have to figure out a new business model to keep it moving,” he said.
The publication has been moved almost completely online.
Near the close of the discussion, Gordon told the panel that he had an idea that he would be floating with each of them soon and he hopes at least a couple of them would agree. He did not say publicly what the idea is.
Other members of the panel were Jeff Johnson, formerly of BET and currently of the Rickey Smiley Morning Show; April Ryan, White House Correspondent, American Urban Radio Network, and CNN political analyst; and Jemele Hill, writer for the Atlantic and host of her own podcast, Jemele Hill Unbothered.
Chavis reflected on the videotaped forum.
“It was like our epitaph. They were having the funeral, the eulogy, and the final rites.” He expressed.
He noted this is historically how the Black Press has been treated.
“For 193 years, the Black-owned press, since the days of Freedom’s Journal, has faced the negative speculative and false analysis – not just from white supremacists about the value of the Black Press – but sometimes the history will show that at one point some of our own people also attempted to undervalue the purpose, the mission, and the sustainability of the Black Press,” Chavis reflected. “By analogy, this is the same argument that people have said about Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the same questions about the need for the continuation of the historic Black church. If there’s any person of African dissent who does not know the value of the Black-owned church, Black-owned HBCUs; Black-owned newspapers; then that person or group of people of African descent needs to re-immerse themselves in the history and the long struggle of African people to build our own institutions, to build our own businesses, and to have our own voice in all of the media platforms – print, digital, online and social media.”
After listening to her staff express strong concerns about the omission of Black newspaper representatives, Denise Rolark Barnes, a publisher of The Washington Informer in the District of Columbia and former NNPA chair, emailed a letter about the forum to Aba Blankson, the senior vice president of marketing and communications of the NAACP.
She wrote that her staff felt “consistent disrespect” by the NAACP and National Association of Black Journalists. The staff further noted that discussions about Black media had featured Black journalists who have never worked for the Black Press.
“Understandably, we are all bewildered about why the nation’s oldest civil rights organization would allow a discussion [about] Black media ownership without having someone from the nation’s oldest Black media ownership organization – the NNPA – at the table. This happens all too often, and I join my colleagues in expressing my disgust,” she wrote.
“What our readers know, and the NAACP is ignorant of, is how the Black Press is growing more robust even in the midst of COVID-19. We are the ones on the ground, bringing to life the stories of how COVID-19 is affecting Black communities across the country. We are telling the under-reported stories of our survival despite an administration that has abandoned us, and organizations – including the NAACP – that ignores us. In print, we report these stories weekly, but online, we publish them every day.”
Blankson responded the next day. Directing a letter to Barnes, Chavis and the NNPA family, Blankson shared how she appreciates the publisher’s direct feedback and candor.
“Our partnership with the NNPA is important to us. We value our shared engagements and take pride in sharing articles from The Washington Informer, Afro, Defender and others in the weekly news recaps distributed to our networks. While it was not our intent to exclude you, I recognize that was the impact,” she wrote.
Blankson did not explain how or why members of NNPA or other reporters for Black newspapers were not invited to the panel discussion, but she did state that the forum was one of several events planned for this year. Additionally, she expressed that there are other voices that had been left out of the conversation, as well.
“I want to use this moment to strengthen our relationship,” she concluded, offering to “work together to plan an NNPA/NAACP specific event in the coming weeks.”
Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about the matter.
“I am a loyal and life-member of the NAACP and I know we will work this matter out. Both the NNPA and the NAACP need to be made stronger together by working together to help improve the overall quality of life of Black Americans and all others who cry out for freedom, justice and equality,” Chavis concluded. “Thus, the NNPA does not accept the eulogy, the final rites or the epitaphs that are now being untimely articulated by people who should know better.”