As the Baltimore-based Afro-American newspaper marks its 110th anniversary this December, making it one of the longest-running, black-owned daily periodicals, many struggling black-owned periodicals are looking for new ways to survive a sluggish economy.
Intense competition from television and the Internet, rising paper prices, and an advertising slowdown in 2001 put the squeeze on all newspapers, but African American publications have been particularly affected. “If the mainstream press has a little cough, we have pneumonia and are on life support,” says Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of The Chicago Crusader newspaper and The Gary Crusader in Gary, Indiana, and the first female chairman of Amalgamated Publishers Inc., a New York City-based advertising placement firm for African American newspapers. In hard times, “we’re the first to be dropped [by advertisers],” says Leavell.
For black-owned publications, things slowed at an inopportune time. Leavell says that in 1999, mainstream advertisers were beginning to come onboard as they realized the might of African American buying power in the U.S. “As quickly as we had become recognized as a viable medium for advertising, [things] seemed to reverse when economic times got worse.”
While mainstream daily papers had a 10% advertising dollar drop-off (comparing the first half of 2002 to the first half of 2000), Leavell says the decline of national advertising in African American weeklies was substantially higher. “My guess is that it is between 40% to 50% in black newspapers,” she says.
Jake Oliver, publisher and CEO of the Afro-American, says the weekly newspaper must “fight every day” to sell ad space in this difficult advertising climate. So far, 2002 advertising revenues for the weekly with a readership of 100,000 have been flat, but Oliver hopes to see an upturn in the near future.
Oliver, who is also president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Newspaper Publishers Association, is looking to tackle the economic issues and is working with the 211 newspapers within the organization to develop and expand their Internet presence, as well as ways to minimize costs and boost advertising revenues. Keeping up with technology and general industry trends will be key to the survival of today’s African American newspapers, explains Clint C. Wilson, II, professor of journalism at Howard University and author of A History of the Black Press (Howard University Press, $23.95). “The African American market is a discerning and discriminating market,” Wilson points out, a market that demands sharp typography and visual graphics as well as keen news reporting on issues important to African Americans.
Black newspapers in the U.S. have a long history, tracing their roots back to 1827 when John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish published the Freedom’s Journal in New York City. Since then, these publications have been the dominant source of African American news and issues largely ignored by the mainstream press. Though African Americans have integrated the ranks of the mainstream press over the years, black ownership of those publications is virtually unheard of. Because of that, there will remain a need for the black press. “To really do the