Where have all the black digital publishers gone?

The local-news funding surge has bypassed ethnic media


Illustrations by Daniel Fishel

It’s difficult to say just when the notion first struck me to quit the relative security of a newsroom job to go it alone in the fledgling world of online community journalism.

Maybe it was late in the 1990s, during my days reporting for The Wall Street Journal, when I first saw the phrase “hyperlocal media” attached to an article about BaristaNet.com. Or maybe it was years later, after I moved to North Carolina to take a job as business editor at The Charlotte Observer and noted that the city’s African-American community, then about 35 percent of the population, had practically no options when it came to online media that addressed their specific needs and concerns.

Whichever the case, in November 2008, the same week Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president, I walked out of the Observer’s newsroom as deputy managing editor to launch Qcitymetro.com—a website devoted to serving Charlotte’s black community—confident that I would soon be followed by a wave of black journalists in cities from New York to Los Angeles.

Eight years later, that wave is yet to form.

While the internet offers a host of African-American publishers who write national blogs, celebrity news, and lifestyle articles, far fewer have chosen the difficult road that leads to community-based journalism. Even among the legacy black press, conversion from print to digital has been slow and uneven. Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer and chairwoman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (which represents 211 black-owned publications nationwide), says the issue boils down to money.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

“That’s always been our struggle,” she says. “How do we generate enough revenue to keep our print publications going? And now there’s this internet thing that we are being pulled into, and there was a lot of resistance, because no one could really see anybody making any money off of this thing.”

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The dearth of black publishers is even more pronounced in the nonprofit sector, where digital operations such as Voice of San Diego and The Texas Tribune have made a name for themselves as community watchdogs. (The Texas Tribune raised more than $6 million from grants and contributions in 2015, according to its most recent federal filing. Voice of San Diego brought in $1.8 million. Neither are black-owned publications.)

In February, the Knight Foundation invited me to Miami for its two-day Media Learning Seminar, an annual event that brings together nonprofit news organizations and some of the foundations that fund them. Not only was I surprised by the number of nonprofit news outlets that attended the event, I was even more impressed by the quality of community journalism that many were undertaking. While some focused on local government and traditional watchdog roles, others aimed their staffs at enterprise and investigations centered on specific topics, such as health or the environment.

Absent at the event was any significant number of black publishers. (Aside from me, I know of one other who attended.)

I left Miami convinced that seasoned black journalists, especially in this era of newsroom layoffs, may be missing some very real opportunities to make a significant impact on communities in which they live and work.

 

Entrepreneurial journalism, whether for profit or through a nonprofit organization, is not for everybody. I launched Qcitymetro in the teeth of the Great Recession, and for the first two years I generated enough revenue to buy, perhaps, a good steak dinner. Even now, I still have months when expenses exceed income, though such shortfalls have become far less common.

Although it was suggested to me that I might organize as a nonprofit, I chose the for-profit route. As a former business reporter, I was intrigued by the notion that I might create the next great media empire. (Insert laugh track here.) Equally important, I now look back and realize that I was entirely misinformed about the nature of nonprofit journalism; it can be far more robust and well funded than I ever imagined.

To sharpen my entrepreneurial skills, I enrolled in classes at a local community college, took on a SCORE mentor, enrolled in a workshop for journalism entrepreneurs at the University of Southern California and was accepted into the Punch Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University. Still, on any given day, the demands of wearing two big hats—editor and publisher—are more than I can easily negotiate.

 

Even among the legacy black press, conversion from print to digital has been slow and uneven.

 

A lack of training in entrepreneurship (and a well-documented shortage of reporters of color) may help explain why more African-American journalists have not taken the entrepreneurial route, says Dr. Battinto L. Batts, Jr., who directs the journalism fund at the Scripps Howard Foundation. Twice each year, the fund opens its website to accept new applications for funding. But in the 15 months since Batts has directed the fund, he says, he cannot recall a single request that came from an individual or organization seeking to cover a minority community. “That is not to say that it’s not out there,” he says, “but in the time that I have spent reviewing requests, none of the organizations that I have come into contact with has had that as a singular focus.”

In an effort to support media entrepreneurship, the foundation funds the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communications at Arizona State University. By training college professors, Batts says, the foundation hopes to cast a wide net that will ultimately bring in more minority students. The fund also makes grants for mid-career training for journalists.

Asked why more African-American journalists aren’t launching their own community-based websites, Batts also says it boils down to money. “There is a lot that goes into it, preparing a concept and building a business model,” he says. “It’s really all about relationships and access and being able to get in front of the right people who might be able to provide you the type of funding that you need to make your concept work.”

And then there is the problem I call journalism fatigue. After decades of struggling to advance in mainstream newsrooms, only to be laid off mid-career as newspapers slash their staffs, many of my former African-American coworkers say they have simply had enough. “We have a lot of people who have a lot of skills and experience in journalism who have turned to other professions, such as strategic communications or public relations or even to higher education,” Batts says, adding that many of those experienced black journalists are now looking for stable employment, not to launch a risky online venture.

 

Chida Warren-Darby, who, along with her father, co-publishes the Voice & Viewpoint newspaper and website in San Diego, represents a new generation of black publishers. At 36, she’s shifted the company’s focus to digital and has begun the arduous legal process of spinning off the website into a separate nonprofit. But getting there has not been easy, she says, even when it came to convincing her own father.

“It’s a family business, so we have our days, but we’ve reached an understanding,” she says. “He was very resistant . . . very resistant. It literally took probably about a year to really get him to see it.”

Warren-Darby says the newspaper was launched 57 years ago and has a print circulation of about 30,000. Hers is the fourth family to own the publication. Warren-Darby had married and moved out of the state when she decided seven years ago, after her mother died, to return home to help her father manage the company.

Warren-Darby says her “ah-ha moment” came one day when she saw a filing from Voice of San Diego and learned that the nonprofit website, launched in 2005, has a payroll of more than $800,000 and a newsroom staff considerably larger than her own. “We’re kind of behind as a group in terms of hitting this media thing on the internet,” she says. “Technology is advancing so quickly that if you’re just jumping on board . . . you’re really late.”

She added: “I think the problem that people may have or that they’re fearing is the stability. The money is not really there for us in black media. It’s there, but it’s hard for us to get it.”

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

Like other black publishers I interviewed, Warren-Darby says she was unaware of events such as the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. By spinning off the website as a nonprofit, Warren-Darby says she hopes to find new sources of revenue—and readers. “The reality is, not everyone wants to purchase an ad,” she says. “Some people want to do more than buy a subscription, and some people want to do more than put 50 cents in the machine and purchase a paper.”

Warren-Darby hopes to move the company’s revenue needle more toward events, sponsorships, and paid membership. “There are a lot of moving parts when you are establishing a nonprofit,” she says. “So we’re working through that to see what the final end date will be.”

Warren-Darby isn’t alone among black publishers in trying to forge a new business model. In Miami, 12 black-owned media companies—digital, print, radio, and television—have come together to form the Black Owned Media Alliance (BOMA). And in Charlotte, three black-owned media companies—newspaper, magazine, and digital—have formed the Consolidated Media Alliance (CMA).

Dexter Bridgeman is the founder and CEO of MIA Media Group, whose Legacy Miami and Legacy South Florida publications are distributed as inserts in The Miami Herald. He says BOMA was formed to “close the disparity gap that exists with black-owned media and the advertising and business community in South Florida.”

Too many South Florida businesses, he says, are failing to advertise with black-owned media. “We’re educating the community,” he says. “People are accustomed to doing business the same way they have been all throughout. We’re just trying to let them know, ‘Hey, let’s find out why you’re not doing business with us.’”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the group persuaded the Clinton campaign to advertise with all 12 BOMA members, Bridgeman says. Some, he says, also got ads from the Trump campaign. In less than two years, BOMA has secured advertising revenue for each of its members.

 

The timing of these shifts in black media is not lost on Rolark Barnes, who heads NNPA, the black publishers group. It was 190 years ago, in 1827, that the Reverend Peter Williams, Jr. and other free black men in New York City published Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black-owned newspaper. “When I read about the issues that these publishers wrote about—the abolition of slavery, access to education, access to housing, access to jobs, legislation that gave women the right to vote, voting rights for African Americans—that was in the 1800s. We’re still writing about these same stories, because, although things have changed, they have not changed to the point where we don’t need to continue to advocate for these issues,” she says.

It is because of the advocacy role that the black press has played throughout American history that change is now imperative.

 

In Miami, 12 black-owned media companies have come together to form an alliance.

 

In Washington, DC, where Rolark Barnes publishes The Washington Informer, she says the black press has played a key role in keeping authorities and the public focused on 10 African-American girls currently listed as missing—a news story sometimes overlooked by mainstream media. Websites and other forms of digital media, she says, have helped.

The question, she says, is how do NNPA members keep their print publications alive and healthy while building a future in digital.

Within the organization, print publishers are now debating whether to allow digital publishers to join as full members—a move that Rolark Barnes called a “necessary change.”

And if she can win re-election this summer, she says, she’d also like to begin a discussion about the potential benefits and drawbacks to publishing in the nonprofit area. “We haven’t talked about that as an association,” she says, “and I think it’s worth the conversation.”

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Glenn H. Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a website he launched in 2008 to provide news and information to African-American readers in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has worked at The Charlotte Observer, The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times.