Black journalists, bloggers discuss the future of news

Talia Whyte | 12/3/2008, 4:23 a.m.

WASHINGTON — With newspapers across the nations watching their circulations decline, many black journalists find themselves re-evaluating the next steps in their own careers.

During a conference last month hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), reporters and bloggers assessed the coming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to make technology a priority in his administration, and considered how black journalism might fit into the new digital era.

If the statistics are any indication of print journalism’s future, more readers are getting their news from new media tools like blogs and YouTube — and the industry’s demise could be just around the corner.

According to an August survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 46 percent of Americans read a newspaper regularly, which is down from 52 percent in 2006. On the other hand, online readership has grown from 9 percent to 13 percent in two years, as reported by Editor and Publisher magazine.

The drop in print readership has also affected the nation’s approximately 200 black newspapers, leading many to reconsider how to stay competitive.

Zenitha Prince, Washington bureau chief for the Afro-American Newspaper, was one of very few members of the black press to follow Obama throughout his presidential run. The Afro-American, which primarily serves readers in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, published Prince’s campaign reports daily on its Web site in addition to the coverage in its weekly print edition.

At the recent NABJ conference, Prince said that while reporting on the campaign trail from a black perspective created unique opportunities, it also revealed significant disadvantages, particularly in the area of online competition.

“Because we are a weekly newspaper, we are able to do more in-depth reporting on issues affecting our community,” she said. “But because we have limited resources, it was difficult sometimes to compete with everything going on online.”

Weekly community newspapers have always had to compete with big-city dailies, but in recent years, the emergence of the blogosphere has created even stiffer competition for readers. According to blog search engine Technorati, there are over 110 million blogs for Web surfers to choose from, many of which are run by and for African Americans.

While many blogs exist purely to entertain readers, the black blogosphere has also become an information source and outlet for discussion of issues underreported in the mainstream media, as well as a motivator and organizing place for social activism.

Last year, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Jena, La., in support of six black teenagers accused of attacking a white teenager following a number of racially-motivated events. The case of the so-called “Jena Six” gained momentum in the national press only after a grassroots movement developed online to bring attention to the students’ plight.

“Blogging is the new NAACP,” said Gina McCauley, founder of the feminist blog What About Our Daughters. “Blogging is about love, community and social justice. It’s beautiful.”

McCauley, an Austin, Texas-based lawyer, said she started her blog last year to address negative media portrayals of black women and girls. Since its inception, What About Our Daughters has taken on everyone from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Black Entertainment Television executives. McCauley is also the founder of Blogging While Brown, the only international conference for bloggers of color, which convened for the first time in Atlanta this past July, and runs a group blog called Michelle Obama Watch, which aims to present balanced information about the first lady-in-waiting.