A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE ANALYSIS
by Anitra Brown
In other words, despite the considerable amount of money they spend, Black consumers are still largely ignored by the major companies and agencies that ostensibly either have no respect for Black consumers or take their patronage as a foregone conclusion that requires little to no effort to secure or maintain. And when Black consumers are disregarded, so are Black-owned media outlets.
Like Black churches and historically Black colleges and universities, they are pillars of the Black community, starting with the first Black-owned and operated newspaper in America, Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 to advocate for the abolition of slavery. In its first issue, the Journal declared: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
And that voice—an unencumbered, authentic alternative to mainstream media that have historically either ignored Black communities, at best, or, vilified them, at worst, has been at the core of Black-owned media in America since that time nearly 200 years ago.
Some of those mainstream outlets have had a reckoning within the past year. In late 2020, the Kansas City Star’s editor apologized for the way that publication “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citians…reinforced Jim Crow laws and redlining…and decade after decade it robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.”
It was also in 2020, in order to make up for the racist way its paper had covered the lives of Black and other marginalized people, that The New York Times, in a series called “Overlooked No More”, decided to publish the obituaries of trailblazing African-Americans, feminists, immigration activists and members of the LGBTQ community. Louisiana’s own Homer Plessy was featured in the series. Plessy’s obituary was published in February 2020. He had died 95 years earlier in March 1925.
And last fall, The Los Angeles Times also issued its own apology on its “failures on race” .
But you know who hasn’t had to apologize for the way in which it has covered the Black community—Black-owned media. Of course.
Some 500 Black newspapers were founded between 1865 and 1900, according to historians. They helped bring African-Americans into communities at the end of slavery. They battled the negative depictions of Black people in mainstream media. They helped fuel the Great Migration of Blacks from the Deep South in search of jobs and opportunity in the mid-West and North.
And long before mainstream media paid attention, the Black press was covering and championing the Civil Rights Movement.
The voice of Black-owned media, speaking unapologetically about the issues that impact Black communities, showing Black people in positive light–that is why 22 million readers turn to Black-owned publications each week, and it is the reason millions more follow or subscribe to Black-owned media on digital and broadcast platforms.
Those tens of millions of dedicated viewers, readers, listeners and subscribers are also the reasons advertisers should be turning to Black-owned media to reach their audiences.
Like any other media outlet, Black-owned media are businesses; and advertising is their lifeblood.
However, Black-owned media, this hasn’t held true. Instead, Black-owned media, both locally and nationally struggle for survival and, more often than not, find themselves fighting for ad dollars.
Yet, Black owned media is important today for the same reason Freedom’s Journal was vital in 1827. Our voices, the issues that uniquely impact our communities need to be heard in ways that still are not found in mainstream media or only found there now because those mainstream institutions, struggling to survive in a changing market, have turned to more inclusive and diverse content to bolster their bottom lines.
Today, the National Newspaper Publishers Association represents more than 200 member newspapers with a total reach of 22 million readers weekly. And they are all facing tough times.
Of course, declining ad revenue has impacted all media, including mainstream outlets, with some of the biggest names in the business shuttering their doors, downsizing, merging or going digital only.
Still, comparing the challenges faced by mainstream media with those confronting Black-owned media is no comparison at all.
Facts. At $1.4 trillion in 2019, Black buying power in America represents a solid nine percent of total U.S. buying power and is higher than the gross domestic product of Mexico, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth.
More Facts. In 2019, less than 2 percent of all of the advertising revenue spent in the United States—some $200 billion—targeted Black consumers.
To be sure, Rouses is not alone in its lack of inclusion of Black-owned media when it comes to ad buys. In New Orleans, it’s almost every major grocery store chain. It’s the shopping centers and retails outlets. It’s the major cell service provider. It’s the big hotels. It’s the casinos. It’s restaurants. It’s the healthcare industry, from hospitals to insurance networks. It’s banks. It’s car dealerships. It is just about any major business that has something to sell. And they advertise, but rarely with Black-owned media.
Question. If Black buying power, alone, represents nine percent of the nation’s total buying power and is outpacing the buying power of White Americans in terms of growth, why is it that the major brands and companies that spent $200 billion in 2019 on advertising only spent about two percent of that money to target Black consumers? If Black consumers account for nine percent of the nation’s buying power, it stands to reason they should attract at least nine percent of the advertising dollars spent to woo customers; and perhaps even more when the buying habits of Black consumers are examined closely.
According to Nielsen, the global measurement and data company that provides worldwide consumers and markets analytics, African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the total population to say they will “pay extra for a product that is consistent with the image they want to convey.”
They are also more likely to shop at high-end stores, and African Americans also outpace the general market on the purchase of certain grocery brands, including Quaker grits ($19 million); Louisiana Fish Fry ($11 million); and Glory Greens (frozen and fresh, $9.5 million combined), according to Nielsen.
And when Black buying power is combined with the fast-growing buying powers of Latinx and Asian American communities, a University of Georgia report tells that it is the nation’s minority consumers that drive the nation’s economy.
But who would know that based on ad buys and placements?
In other words, despite the considerable amount of money they spend, Black consumers are still largely ignored by the major companies and agencies that ostensibly either have no respect for Black consumers or take their patronage as a foregone conclusion that requires little to no effort to secure or maintain.
And when Black consumers are disregarded, so are Black-owned media outlets.
So here we are. About two percent or $4 billion out of $200 billion to court $1.4 trillion or nine percent of the nation’s buying power. And it is impossible to determine how much of that meager two percent spent targeting Black consumers is actually spent with Black-owned media, which is different than Black-targeted media. That figure includes all buys designed to target Black consumers, not just ones made specifically with Black-owned media. To be clear about the difference between Black-targeted and Black-owned media, let’s consider BET. While its programming is overtly designed to target Black viewers, BET is owned by Viacom. That makes it Black-targeted media, not Black-owned. On the other hand, more than 35 years ago, The New Orleans Tribune, which has been an authentic, unfettered voice speaking to, for and about the city’s Black community and the issues that impact it, was founded and remains owned by Dr. Dwight and Beverly S. McKenna.
Here in New Orleans, we are proud to share our authentic narrative and the landscape with other Black-owned media outlets, including The Louisiana Weekly, Data News Weekly, WBOK 1230 AM and Think504.
But if we, at The New Orleans Tribune, were asked, we would say unequivocally that neither Black-owned media across the nation nor those of us here at home see our fair share of the minuscule $4 billion being spent nationally to target Black consumers. Nor are we seeing a fair share of the millions spent locally and across the state by government agencies, regulated companies and private corporations. We say that because we know first-hand the uphill battle we face just about every time we make sales calls to corporations that we know are advertising in media, the same corporations that we know count among its customer base the city’s largely Black population.
“We have heard and dealt with it all, from companies outright telling us that they don’t need to advertise with Black-owned media to attract Black consumers to those that cancel contracts or stop advertising because they have an issue with editorial,” says Tribune publisher Beverly McKenna. “Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to being held to an entirely different standard than our mainstream counterparts. I have seen it with my own eyes. A major corporation will place their ad on every local station, in the mainstream daily, the mainstream weekly and in mainstream magazines. Yet, we can’t get a meeting; or when we do, we are placed in a position of automatically having to defend ourselves. We jump the same hurdles. We have circulation audits and share analytics of our digital reach. And more importantly, we know that our readers and followers are their customers. We have influence; and with our audiences our influence is even greater. These companies should be advertising with Black-owned media as well. Instead, we are fighting for survival. Allow me to share something that bothers even now. I earned my bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University, and I am a proud HBCU graduate. After moving to New Orleans, I furthered my education, earning a master’s degree from Tulane University. I am a Tulane graduate, but I have never been able to get so much as an appointment with anyone there to discuss marketing and advertising in the New Orleans Tribune. The school places ads every where. And here, I can’t even get an appointment, even though I am a Tulane alumni. It is an insult.”
Let’s not forget that only about two percent of all ad revenue spent in 2019 targeted Black consumers. And, of course, Black-owned media did not lay claim to all of that, with the small pot of money no doubt split among ads in mainstream media, Black-targeted media and Black-owned. In short, if mainstream media has a cold. Black-owned media has the flu. And if the advertising revenue pie is getting smaller, it only means that Black-owned media’s slice of the pie is little more than a sliver.
Demanding Our Fair Share
The issue of Black-owned media outlets struggling to gain the attention of corporations and ad agencies as viable outlets for their advertising efforts is hardly a new one or a local one.
In August 2020, a national coalition of Black-owned media outlets came together to call on advertisers to start spending dollars with their companies. And in September 2020, the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce launched an initiative to get the state to spend a larger share of its ad dollars with Black-owned media companies.
Much of the national focus on Black-owned media outlets and their advertising struggles resurfaced in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists responded to the latest instances of racial injustice, with both protests to demand change and by calling attention to the inequitable treatment of institutions within their community, such as Black-owned businesses, including Black-owned media.
Determined now, more than ever, to do something about the inequity in the manner in which the major companies that account for a large share of media buys target and spend advertising dollars while enriching themselves on the buying power of Black New Orleanians, The Tribune has joined WBOK, Data News Weekly, The Louisiana Weekly, and Think504, to urge change and accountability.
On Feb. 3, with Wendell Pierce, a partner in Equity Media, which owns WBOK, speaking during a City Council Utilities Committee meeting, announced the launching of the local Black-Owned Media Coalition with the call that the New Orleans City Council support the efforts of the new organization by urging regulated businesses and agencies, such as Entergy, RTA, Cox Communications and the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, that operate in New Orleans, to examine and alter their practices when it comes to buying space and time in Black-owned media.
In short, Pierce told members of the committee that in a city that is majorty African-American, those companies are without question making money off of the city’s Black residents. To do so while blatantly ignoring Black-owned media is offensive, must be called out, and is a practice that must end.
Maybe, just maybe, some help is on the way. At its Feb. 11 meeting, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling City departments, boards, commissions, agencies, as well as entities regulated or in contract with the City or the City Council, “to leverage community and multicultural media; increase or reallocate annual advertising budgets for multicultural media outlets, including Black, Latino or Asian operated or owned media organizations that target these populations; and generate and maintain a list of qualifying media outlets in the New Orleans region.”
And that is a positive step in the right direction. But it will take more than a City Council resolution to deal with this longstanding issue for Black-owned media that has suffered from what can only be described as the exclusionary practices of major companies and advertising agencies.
Calling on the City Council to use its influence to prompt change with regulated companies is just the beginning, organizers have said.
The plan includes focusing on the privately owned corporations that are enriched by Black consumers in and around New Orleans while ignoring Black-owned media.
Pivoting to the Private Sector
Black-owned media’s struggle for ad revenue has recently been thrust into local limelight again when Donald Rouse Jr., a former co-owner of the Louisiana-based Rouses chain of grocery stores, attended Donald Trump’s rally turned riot turned treasonous insurrection in early January. Rouse landed in hot water, especially with the Black community, who took Rouse’s presence at the event as a sign of racism. Local Black residents were particularly unnerved given the well-documented racist overtones of the rally’s chief organizers and participants, such as the Proud Boys—an organization identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “extremist” group known for its incitement of violence that regularly spouts white nationalist, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, misogynistic rhetoric. They called for a boycott of the local grocery chain and urged Black consumers to find Black-owned alternatives when possible.
For what it is worth, Rouse has insisted that while he was there to only observe and be a part of history, he did not take part in the riot and insurrection and he is not racist. And at the urging of those close to him, Rouse decided to talk directly to those who seemed especially offended by his actions and decried them as racist. To achieve that goal, he went on Oliver Thomas’ morning talk show on WBOK 1230 AM, a locally Black-owned media company.
While on the show he apologized for his actions to WBOK listeners and to Rouses’ employees who he said would be most impacted by an ongoing boycott of the stores. He made a few vague promises to better educate himself on the issues raised by his actions.
Pierce also had a few questions for Rouse. For his part, Pierce wanted to know why a major grocery store chain, with stores all across New Orleans and a customer base that surely reflects the demographics of the city, had rarely if ever advertised in Black-owned media.
To Pierce’s point, there is irony in the fact that Rouse understood that if he wanted to reach Black people with his apology tour and barrage of excuses and explanations, he could accomplish that goal best through Black-owned media. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find a single instance in recent or even distant history of the grocery giant using Black-owned media to target Black consumers with a media buy—all the while its inserts and ads can be found throughout mainstream media on a regular basis.
Donald Rouse did not have an answer to Pierce’s question while on the show, only suggesting that it is something owners and a newly formed advisory board would look into.
To be sure, Rouses is not alone in its lack of inclusion of Black-owned media when it comes to ad buys. In New Orleans, it’s almost every major grocery store chain. It’s the shopping centers and retail outlets. It’s the major cell service providers. It’s the big hotels. It’s the casinos. It’s restaurants. It’s the healthcare industry, from hospitals to insurance networks. It’s banks. It’s car dealerships. It is just about any major business that has something to sell. They certainly have no problem selling to Black people, especially in a city like New Orleans that is majority African-American, meaning a large segment of the customer base of just about every business is Black. They just don’t seem to care to reach them through Black-owned media.
Just why major corporations have an aversion to targeting Black consumers through Black-owned media is speculative. It is not a shortage of dollars. Remember $200 billion were spent in 2019, and only $4 billion of that targeted Black consumers. If the ad dollars spent targeting Black consumers reflected Black buying power, then at least $18 billion should have been spent trying to entice Black consumers. It could be outright disregard and disrespect. Or it could be something more despicable.
Are business giants purposefully withholding advertising dollars in an attempt to control Black-owned media and silence their voices?
Still others are concerned that some big corporations think that targeting Black consumers through Black-owned media somehow diminishes their brand. In a 2017 New York Times article, Len Burnett, who also owns Hype Hair, a magazine for African-American women, said he believes that much of the challenges his magazine faced stemmed from “luxury brands” that would rather connect with African-American consumers “by speaking broadly.”
“I think at times there’s a feeling that they do not want to directly speak to that audience because there’s a fear of bringing down their brand perception,” Burnett said in the 2017 article.
In short, they want Black consumers, but they don’t want to offend anyone else or risk “tainting” their brand, so they do not want to target Black consumers, especially not through Black-owned media.
It is a reality that Black consumers need to understand and one to which they must respond accordingly with an “If you can’t speak to me, I can’t spend with you” attitude.
“Let’s be clear, we are not asking for a handout or a favor,” says McKenna. “We reach tens of thousands of readers each month with our widely circulated print edition. And through our digital platforms and social media, our reach is even larger. More important than that, is that our readers, followers and subscribers are dedicated. They trust us. They turn to us. It’s not just an ad in a newspaper or banner on a website. It is an ad that appears in the pages or on the website or in the e-newsletter of a trusted community institution. I know that other Black-owned media can say the same. Those who continue to dismiss Black-owned media as not viable or not necessary are missing the opportunity to reach out to consumers in a way that lets Black consumers know that they are valued.
As such, this recent effort by local Black-owned media outlets is just one part of the equation.
In order to bring real pressure to bear, the African-American consumers who spend their disposable income with the companies and corporations that disregard Black-media, must also send a message to these businesses that they want to see an investment in and support of their communities and its institutions that is commensurate with the $1.4 billion dollars Black consumers spend each year in the market place.
And those in our communty who are in positions of leadership with influence and decision-making power must do more as well. They have the ability to be a voice and demand parity.
“At the end of the day, it is about deliberate and intentional action to strengthen our communities,” McKenna says. “As consumers, we must take stock. Where are we banking and shopping? Where do we go for healthcare? Where are we spending our money on leisure activities? Where do we go to dine? Who are we paying for services like cell phones, Internet and cable? Now ask this: when was the last time you saw any of those businesses speaking directly to you through Black-owned media? if they insist on ignoring our community and its businesses, Black consumers must adjust our spending habits. That’s really the only language they understand—money.”