Black papers report end of their long slump


Patricia Rush-Martin, publisher of the Standard Newspapers serving Chicago's South Side and southern suburbs, went into the business when many black-owned newspapers were taking a brutal financial beating.

Looking back over her career, Mrs. Rush-Martin, a former elementary-school teacher, acknowledges that launching a newspaper was quite a gamble -- if not downright naive. But it is paying off.

"It took us two to three years to become profitable," she said. "But we've been that way ever since."

After more than two decades of near-fatal declines in readership, profitability and, some observers say, journalistic quality, many of the nation's black newspaper publishers are optimistic that the slide is over.

Meeting in Baltimore, members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which represents 205 black-owned papers, say they are experiencing relatively good times, even as the mainstream press limps through its deepest economic slump in years. The group's 52nd annual convention ends tomorrow.

"Last year was the best year in our history," said Robert W. Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation's oldest black-owned paper. "I am not aware of any NNPA newspaper that has been significantly impacted because of prevailing economic conditions."

Mainstream newspapers are remaking themselves in response to the recession, reducing staff, using more graphics and re-emphasizing local coverage. The aim is to strengthen the connection to readers and to attract smaller advertisers to replace the large ones, such as retailers, that are increasingly disappearing.

The black press has no such worries. "Major corporations don't advertise in the sameway in the black press as they do in white papers," said Mr. Bogle, president of the publishers association. "So when they cut back, they couldn't cut us."

In some cases, black publishers say, major advertisers are turning to their publications -- typically community weeklies with circulations under 10,000 -- as a cheaper alternative to the larger papers.

"A lot of advertisers realize that they cannot take the shotgun approach anymore," said Sonny Messiah-Jiles, publisher of the Houston Defender. "They are going to the rifle approach, under which the black press becomes very important."

Michael House, national sales manager for Amalgamated Publishing Inc., a New York agency representing 120 black-owned publications, agrees that more large companies are turning to black papers.

"With the growing popularity of niche marketing and segment advertising, more and more advertisers are going to black papers," he said. "It allows them to measure the success of a campaign more easily."

And, although a significant amount of the national advertising appearing in black papers comes from cigarette and alcohol companies, more business is beginning to flow from other industries as well, Mr. House said.

"Many companies seem to be realizing that they should be addressing the black community through black media," he said.

Although the picture is improving, many large companies with a significant number of black customers still see no reason to advertise heavily in the black press.

NNPA papers threatened to ask their readers to boycott Procter & Gamble Co. products in a move to get the big consumer-products company to spend more advertising money with the black press. Subsequently, the two sides agreed to negotiate.

Although black publishers say their newspapers are rebounding, many face significant problems.

Only a handful of black-owned papers have the Audit Bureau of Circulation verify their circulations. The absence of such certification makes advertising sales an adventure.

For instance, NNPA says its papers reach 11 million readers, a claim some observers consider dubious.

Also, the black papers are facing stiffer competition from the mainstream press, which is improving its coverage of black communities.

"Black papers are not as necessary to black people as they once were, since the white papers are doing much better," said Roland E. Wolseley, a retired University of Syracuse professor and authority on the black press.

He put the combined circulation of traditional black-owned newspapers at 300,000.

Another problem facing most black papers is a simple lack of resources.

"They don't have enough reporters to cover stories adequately," Mr. Wolseley said. "Many don't have money to do fancy graphics. And they do not have enough marketing people to search out the market."

Consequently, even the most optimistic black publishers do not predict a return to the glory days, the era that peaked during the civil rights years, when black papers thrived across the nation.

"Black papers have lost a tremendous number of readers since those times," Mr. Wolseley said.

In Baltimore, the Afro-American, once among the nation's premier black newspapers, has a circulation of 11,632 in a city with a black population of more than 400,000. Other papers face similar problems.

Still, black publishers continue to man the presses, convinced that they offer a full picture of black life that cannot be found in other newspapers.

"If you were an alien from outer space and you landed on Earth and read a white paper, you'd think that all black folk did was shoot each other on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday," said Mrs. Rush-Martin, whose two weekly newspapers have a combined circulation of 40,000. "That's why I'm in this business. I want to help change that perception."

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