The Future of Black Media

As Chief Executive Officer of Real Times Media, Inc., Hiram Eric Jackson oversees a multimedia company that encompasses African American-focused newspaper publishing, radio, television programming, niche marketing and special events. He was named to this position in December following the death of longtime Publisher, Sam Logan.

The parent company of such African American newspapers as the Michigan Chronicle, the Chicago Defender, the Tri-State Defender in Memphis and the New Pittsburgh Courier, Real Times Media is one of the platforms by which the African American experience is shared with the public. BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke with Jackson about African American media, its significance and the challenges of running a media company in the 21st Century.

Your industry is changing—particularly in the way people consume media. How do you envision Real Times keeping up with the times?

Hiram Jackson: The one thing that you’re always searching for in the media business is a foundational brand, and you want to have a brand that speaks to either a specific community or a specific niche and it’s very clear what that brand represents. Our plan is to continue to be that trusted source of information, but to be real creative on how we get the information to our readership. That means continuing to put out a paper product [and] a print product, but it also means growing with the technology, the technology that the audience demands. Some people want to get their information on mobile devices, some people want to get it just through digital editions. People are not buying print like they used to, so you got to develop creative ways to monetize your product.

Then there’s the business side of things. You can’t sell the same way that you sold even a few years ago. What are some of the things that you’re doing to keep revenue up?

Jackson: We’ve noticed that corporations have really responded to what we call niche programing. We’ve been very aggressive at not only developing a new way to deliver the content, but also being more narrow in terms of the content that we’re delivering. We have taken our trusted brands, and we’ve tried to do what we’ve always done—that is, to be a leader in the African-American community and provide great information. And we’ve tried to segment that a little bit more, so we still have our regular publications, but we supplement those publications with what we call custom publishing.

For example, we have a product called Living Well that focuses on healthcare issues that impact African Americans.  We have a product called Driven highlighting African American achievement in the auto industry. It gives the automotive industry an opportunity to connect their executives, the successes, and the challenges of their executives with the everyday Joe and highlight some of the achievements that they’ve had internally with their minority executives or minority employees. We have another product called Achieve, which is a product that’s designed to help African-American parents who have kids in K-12 make better decisions on what schools to choose. We’ve also launched a special events division. So you really have to be real creative with your nontraditional revenue strategy, but at the core is the quality and the reputation of the brand.

Is it still a challenge to convince advertisers that they actually need to reach the black audience through black media?

Jackson: I think that some advertisers don’t fully appreciate the African-American audience. There are endless statistics that show the significance of the audience, but for the most part I believe that the major advertisers feel that they can capture the African American audience by the mainstream media. We are huge consumers of media, whether it be digital media, television, radio. Our research shows that 40% of our readers do not read the mainstream newspapers, and they’re touched emotionally in a way that is different than they’re touched through mainstream media. We have an emotional relationship with our readers.  We have a longstanding relationship with our readers.  We have an intimate relationship with our readers, and the research just shows that relationship does not exist in mainstream media.

Circulation for print products has declined over the years, across the board. Do you have a plan to bring those numbers up at your firm or is the rationale that circulation will continue to decline so we’ll focus on live events or digital platforms?

Jackson: What we have found is that if you find a creative way to make the product available, people will buy it, and more importantly, there are some creative things that you can do with your corporate partners to make the product free to folks. The challenge is  if you’re trying to be a reputable product and get your audits. What we’ve done is we’ve implemented easier ways for people to put their hands on the product—door-to-door delivery, subscriptions with the price of admission at our special events.  We’ve done very well with the digital editions where you can receive [circulation] audit credit. It boils down to the quality of the product.  If people want it, they’ll buy it, and I think that where you’ve seen significant decreases of circulation has been the dailies.

You just can’t break news anymore.

Jackson: By the time you’re having your cup of coffee in the morning you’ve seen that story through 24-hour cable, through network television, on the Internet, so yeah, you can’t break news. Again, it boils back to having a niche audience and giving them the stories from a perspective that they can appreciate. So, we have not given up on circulation. What we’ve done is we’ve tried to be real creative on how to get the paper in folk’s hands and partner with our corporate partners to see how we, you know, how to pay for that.

Where do you see the company actually heading?  Things seem in a state of flux right now, and there’s a lot of media companies small and large trying to figure things out.

Jackson: I’m concerned, you know, about this whole space because we live in an age of quick stories, 24-hour cycles ” need it now,” fast information, and the stuff that we see now is information where [journalists] don’t validate the source of the information, [they] receive information that may not be from folks who have the best integrity. And once it’s on the web, it’s out there whether it is factual or not.

Everybody is struggling with how to monetize the digital platforms. The revenue that companies are getting from the digital platforms are really a fraction of what they’re getting from print.  So, I think our challenge is no different than any other of the media company’s challenge in terms of how to continue to provide a great product over multiple platforms without eroding your revenue pace. Our plan is to continue to provide niche products that are very meaningful to people, and as the technology develops, try to get to a space where people are willing to pay for content. At the same time advertisers are going to have to value those digital platforms a little more and be more willing to pay for the digital readers.