And Why the Black Press is More Important than Ever
In recent weeks, we have watched several events in the world of journalism unfold with a great deal of interest and with some skepticism, maybe even a bit of disillusionment, if we were to be completely honest.
For example, there is Mark Fannin, president, and editor of The Kansas City Star, who apologized for the publication’s 140-year racist and biased history of covering the Black community and announced the launch of a of what is sure to be a highly anticipated series that will recount and expose that sordid history as it endeavors to do better.
Fannin wrote that The Star was guilty of reinforcing “Jim Crow laws and redlining” and robbing “an entire community of opportunity, dignity justice and recognition.”
Okay. Just want to make sure we got this. Admit that your institution has been historically and intentionally racist, throw in the obligatory apology and then write about it—not just one news story, but a six-part package. That’s a neat way to sell papers.
Yes, that was sarcasm.
But don’t misunderstand us here. We think repentance is a good thing. Atonement is even better. And real transformation makes it a trifecta. Still, how could it be that The Kansas City Star (and many other longstanding mainstream publications) responsible for such reprehensible behavior for decades, centuries, in fact, are only now having these awakenings. We get it, racist institutions in racist nations do racists things. But why the apology now in 2020? Like wouldn’t 1965 have been a great year to apologize and do better? What about 1975? Were you really that busy and blind in 1985?
It just makes us wonder whether the transformation is real or if it is just a way to stay viable in a changing nation, one that is less White and more conscious. Is this just a way to remain viable in a changing industry that has had to adjust and transform as technology threatens its very existence, as readers have turned to followers and ad sales are based on cost per mille.
To be sure, this is the same question we had when The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate/NOLA.com recently announced the launch of The Roux, a newsletter aimed at empowering Black businesses.
McKenna Publishing Company has been empowering minority businesses in and around New Orleans for 35 years with both The New Orleans Tribune and The New Orleans BlackBook. Recognizing that economic empowerment and education have been the undergirding of our community, this work has been our passion since McKenna Publishing Company opened its doors in 1985. And while we welcome The Roux’s newfound focus on empowering minority businesses, we wonder why now? Why now has the local daily—a mainstream giant in local news with the merger of The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate along with the acquisition of Gambit, a widely circulated weekly publication—set its sights on minority businesses? Is it an effort to increase the sustainability of these small businesses or to increase its own sustainability by mining communities it has historically ignored and helped to marginalize and disenfranchise?
Minority-owned businesses have existed in New Orleans for as long as there has been a New Orleans. Yes, The Roux is a good idea. But it is not a new one. And we can admit to being a bit bothered by anyone who thinks it is. Marginalized communities have long found ways to build, sustain and grow without the help of mainstream. Not because they wanted to, but because they have had to. So, when the mainstream finally catches up or wakes up and pays it some attention, we are obligated to ask, “WHY?”
When the modern-day New Orleans Tribune was founded 35 years ago, it was created in the spirit of the Black press, of historically Black colleges and universities, and of Black churches—to serve, inform, uplift and educate a community of people who were not being served, informed, uplifted and educated anywhere else because, as The Kansas Star’s Fannin so aptly put it, most mainstream institutions were too busy robbing “an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.”
As we face challenges—both those spurred by this global pandemic and the others created by dynamic changes in technology and the ways information is delivered and consumed—we have remained steadfast to our mission of providing news, analysis and insight to the Black community from a perspective that speaks to, for and about the Black experience unapologetically and inimitably. In fact, there have been times that our independent and unapologetic voice has cost us financially with some mainstream advertisers ready to yank their ad if we say something they don’t like as if that would keep us “in line.”
By the way, it does not work.
It does not work because we know that The New Orleans Tribune and institutions like ours, including Data News Weekly, WBOK 1230 AM, and The Louisiana Weekly are valuable to our community. Here in New Orleans, alone, there are several Black-owned media outlets, each filling a unique and vital role for those who turn to it. The work we do—the truth we speak to power—is as necessary now as it was 207 years ago, when Freedom’s Journal was founded by free Black men in New York City. So we forge ahead. And yes, we are protective of the community we serve and the role we play in it. While it is one thing to welcome new-found interest in our communities even though we suspect it only comes in search of new sources of readership and revenue, we want to remind those in our community that there is a difference between Black-owned media and Black targeted media, just as there is a difference between serving a community and exploiting it.
But back to those unfolding events that caught our attention recently. If there has been anything decent to emerge from this global pandemic, it is the renewed focus on journalistic institutions and the vital role journalism plays in this nation. Yes, journalism must be supported and sustained despite lagging ad revenue, which is usually the life blood of an any media outlet. And that includes Black-owned media, especially. The impact of changing technology has only been compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we have no doubt that media outlets, large and small, have felt the impact. But so many of us have stayed in the fight despite the challenges because we know that our communities need what we provide—information that helps them make the important decisions that guide their lives.
We have done so here without putting up pay walls or blocking content to extract payments or information from our readers even though industry leaders insist that it is the way to go.
So at The New Orleans Tribune, we met the recent announcement by The New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune that it will benefit from $1.5 million donation administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation with mixed reaction. That the Greater New Orleans Foundation would use its influence and agency to help lead an effort to solicit private donations to support local journalism is commendable. That it would do so in a way that funnels the largess to one of the largest, most prosperous for-profit media outlets in the city is questionable.
Here is the thing and please understand us well. When giant mainstream philanthropic institutions come together in 2020 with giant mainstream journalistic institutions for what is supposed to be the good of an entire community while ignoring the Black press, they are purveyors of the marginalization and disenfranchisement that made the Black press necessary to begin with.
Institutions like ours have always done more with less. We have never enjoyed the advertising support of mainstream businesses in the way that our mainstream counterparts have, even though our readers and followers are also consumers who shop, bank, dine, purchase houses and cars, and seek services from the same businesses that will run double truck ads in The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate while acting as though we don’t exist. We have actually had some mainstream businesses say to us that the reason they won’t advertise in Black-owned media is because they do not want to appear to be a Black business. But they will gladly take our money. And why shouldn’t they, when so many of us give it to them so freely, asking for little in return? But that is an editorial for another day.
Does local mainstream journalism need well-organized community backing, philanthropic support. Sure? We know all too well that the industry has changed and times are lean. Yet, the role journalism plays has never been more important. We also know that if the Black press has the flu, our mainstream brethren have only caught a cold.
However, we know that with even fewer resources of all kind, we too are finding our way, shifting and changing to serve those who trust us and turn to us. And we do so because we know that what we do is important and needed. When we say we are trusted voice for the community, we mean that.
We are just thinking that a good time to look at what you are doing and question whether it was inclusive and empowering to all the people of New Orleans would be now instead of 140 years now.