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A trusted voice: Preserving the future of the Black press

Megan Sayles

Fears over the future of the newspaper industry are not new. With the transition to the internet in the 1990s, the rise of social media in the 2000s and the emergence of artificial intelligence, media organizations have had to continually adapt.

As consumption patterns change, advertising revenue slows and media consolidation takes place, some organizations may perceive more obstacles than opportunities. However, Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), has the opposite outlook.

“All businesses have challenges and opportunities,” said Chavis. “The question is, are the opportunities greater than the challenges? That answer is yes.”

The opportunities at hand rest in news organizations’ ability to deliver content through a multitude of mediums, which Chavis thinks has expanded the business model.

“Black press is still in the print business, but it’s expanded to digital and social media. A lot of our businesses are multimedia companies now,” said Chavis. “Some people think one media form supplants the other, but that’s not accurate. We’re content producers and distributors. It’s a matter of how we distribute content, and we do that in multiple formats and channels.”

Bobby R. Henry Sr., chairman of the NNPA and publisher of the Westside Gazette, thinks there’s also a certain amount of grit that sustains the business of the Black press.

His father, Levi Henry Jr., started the family paper more than 50 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, Florida after being misquoted by one of the local white-owned papers, which refused to retract or correct the quote. Its early motto was “a positive paper for a positive people.”

Growing up at the paper and then leading it, Henry Sr. remembers encountering many trials and tribulations.

“I vividly remember the struggles, the sleepless nights and not being able to pay the printer. All of that comes to mind,” said Henry Sr. “When I’m asked about a business model, it’s to grind by any means necessary.”

Henry Sr. noted that social media and recent initiatives to secure the future of news have created additional avenues for gaining revenue. But, for him, the true power is in the content the Black press disseminates.

“The core of gaining the revenue is the same. It’s the message that we’re putting out and the voices that we’re speaking for,” said Henry Sr. “Though we try to engage on all fronts, that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have the pulse of the people.”

Chavis shared this perspective. He said the Black press has earned its position as the trusted voice of the Black community. This distinction underpins the value of Black media.

“It adds value to everything that we do, everything that we publish and everything that we distribute,” said Chavis. “Potential sponsors and advertisers get a greater return on investment when they do business with the Black press because we’re the trusted voice.”

In the face of attacks on Black history and on diversity, equity and inclusion, both Henry Sr. and Chavis think safeguarding the future of the Black press is of vital importance. For Henry Sr., it’s even a matter of life and death, and it’s going to take a team effort to achieve.

He thinks the Black community cannot win the battle alone. The team must include people from allied communities, but they must be chosen carefully.

Chavis noted that the protection of the Black press is not just for the benefit of Black communities but for everyone. He compared it to Martin Luther King’s dream. While many think the renowned civil rights leader was only advocating for the rights of African Americans, Chavis said he was fighting for the liberation and self-determination of all Americans.

“The future of the Black press and the future of Black America are inextricably linked. If the Black press becomes silent, that will be injurious to the future of Black America,” said Chavis. “We serve as a vital source of information not only to Black America but to America in general.” 

Megan Sayles is a business reporter for The Baltimore Afro-American paper. This piece was originally published by Afro News.

Black press, National Newspaper Publishers Association, newspaper industry, NNPA, opinion

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