The Good, the Bad and the State of Black Media

Camera. Lights. Action. The spotlight is shining bright on the herald of blacks, the voice of the oppressed, and the sounds of the revolution. If you haven’t guessed it by now, we are speaking about the one, the only, the black media.

The medium that has told and captivated our every oppression and celebration since the early 1800s continues to entice and inform readers today. The freedom of expression and press undoubtedly have been forcefully bound from the start of the black press. But as we delve into the state of black media further, the elephant in the room starts to appear. This elephant bears the face of the prevalent question: should we be worried about saving the black press or rejoicing in celebrating it?

A movie on the history of the black press entitled “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” commences with the National Association of Black Journalist’s second president, Vernon Jarrett, speaking of the invisibility of blacks in papers produced by the majority.

“We didn’t exist in the other papers. We were neither born, we didn’t get married, we didn’t die, we didn’t fight in any wars, we never participated in anything of a scientific achievement. We were truly invisible unless we committed a crime. And in the black press, the negro press, we did get married. They showed us our babies when born. They showed us graduating. They showed our PhDs,” Jarrett stated to the filmmaker of “The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords.”

Black newspapers, as Jarrett briefly explained, became an institution that shed light to what the majority society couldn’t. They sparked ideas, kept a record of events, gave recognition where it was due, started debates, and ultimately gave a voice to the voiceless. The first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, had a motto that coincided with the same ideals: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

This motto has since been carried on through the echos of historical changes within the black community. For every significant shift within black consciousness and identity, the black media has been at the front lines reporting whether in print, magazine, online, word of mouth, or tweet. Though we have consistently been at the front lines reporting with the likes of mainstream papers, the question remains if this messenger of our continual revolution has lost its voice?

Bria Taylor, junior public relations major, weighs in on this matter.

Unfortunately, I feel that black press doesn’t have a strong influence in mainstream media. I feel that black media doesn’t display a very diverse voice within the black community. Things they place put as ‘news’ and it is usually entertainment-based and is lacking hard news. Black press is also on a decline, I feel that some of the publications such as Jet and Ebony doesn’t have enough outreach to the younger demographics. 
Bria Taylor
Howard University junior

The so-called downfall of the black press and media, as Taylor states, is a common attitude shared between people of the same demographic.

Pew Research released a report entitled “The State of News Media 2013” which included an expansive section geared toward the state of black media. Pew Research reported that many of the newspaper publications and radio stations geared toward African-Americans have lost significant revenue in 2012 due to the sharp decline in ad sales.

Yanick Rice Lamb, Howard University communications professor and founder of the digital media and print publication “101 Magazine”, provides some insight into the decline.

I believe that a lot of media companies have lost revenue partly because of the recession and partly because of the change in media with more people going online and going toward mobile. 
Yanick Rice Lamb
Howard University Professor

The decline of radio geared towards Blacks comes at no surprise to many.  The decline in black radio is following the pattern of overall shift in the popularity of radio as a medium. According to a report released by Edison Research in 2010, radio is the third most popular medium amongst members of 12-24 year old demographic, behind TV and the internet. Which could explain why in 2012, the two largest black radio networks consolidated.

Johnson publishing, the largest black-owned publishing firm in the United States, saw an interesting outcome in 2012 with its two powerhouse magazine, Ebony and Jet. Ebony and Jet, saw significant promise and significant setback respectively.

Essence, a magazine geared toward blacks but white-owned by Time Inc., saw a circulation increase but a drop in ad sales in 2012.

But what about television you may ask? According to Pew Research, TV is the most reached medium amongst blacks and many new stations geared toward African Americans have appeared within the past couple of years.

Bounce TV, a TV station promoted as the “the first 24/7 digital multicast broadcast network created exclusively for African Americans,” launched in 2011 and is now available in 86% of African Americans homes. The station was co-founded by Howard University alum, Andrew Young along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, Martin Luther King III. Bounce is majority owned and operated by African Americans.

Soul of the South, a television station geared toward African Americans in the south, was recently launched in May of 2013 but covers less than 15% of the nation.

Long-standing cable channels have also seen compelling outcomes recently.

Black Entertainment Television (BET), the most popular channel amongst African Americans, hasn’t had a political talk show since 2010 with the launch of “Weekly With Ed Gordon”. Gordon, a world renowned journalist, was available for comment and believes we are in a definite transitional period within black media.

The state of black media is woven. If you look across the board, black programming and news programming geared toward blacks has declined in [numbers and value]. A lot of people other than us are making the decisions of how we are perceived… All we have is Oprah and the crazy ass housewives and nothing in between like [other demographics.]  A lot of what your generation has seen is a distorted depiction of reality. That cannot be the only depiction, if we think that it doesn’t influence little girls [we’re wrong.] If you think about images we have [of us],  little girls are growing up wanting to be either Olivia Pope or the Housewives… We also have to think about future ownership of our programming.


Ed Gordon
Communications Professional

The programming on BET and other black television networks, as Gordon has mentioned, has seen a significant shift in the past couple of years.

BET’s current programing lineup is filled with drama-based television and reality television. In 2010, BET cofounder expressed strong sentiments about her disgust with BET has become stating she doesn’t watch nor does she advise her children to watch it. There have also been numerous protests against BET through the years that speak to claims of their negative portrayals of blacks.

BET, OWN Networks, and TV One’s shift toward reality and drama television is backed up by a 2013 research report from Pew Research that tells us that amongst African Americans, programming pertaining to culture and similar subject areas has had a longer lasting impact and power. Recent research from Pew also tells us that BET Networks’ website is the top viewed website geared toward African Americans, with flagging quickly behind. With the lack of mention of traditional black news outlets making the list, it begs to ask the question of  if we have really found a place for traditional news in today’s Internet centered society?

The challenge for black publications is to keep up with the times and diversify their revenue streams and income sources. I don’t think everyone [within black press] is taking advantage of all the opportunities, I see some innovation but not totally across the board. I think right now in digital media it has become a level playing field and the barrier of entry is lower. I think [this is] an opportunity to reach younger audiences on smart phones and the web. That’s some ways a publication with a higher median age can bring in other demographics


Yanick Rice Lamb
Howard University Professor

So what is the definite state of black media and press? Transitive to say the least. A history that was started over 150 years ago is finding various ways to continue to march on. The next couple of years will define where black media is marching to and just how strong. We should celebrate black media while also doing all we can to preserve its rich history.

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