African-American newspapers fall on tough times

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There are times Ovid Goode cannot fathom why he continues publishing the Arkansas Tribune.

Readership isn't as strong as it once was for the state's only African-American newspaper; neither is advertising. And at times, Mr. Goode can scarcely finance publishing the four-year-old, four-page paper.

"I feel like a doctor driving past a five-car accident," says Goode. "I feel a moral obligation to stop and help the black community, but you know you should drive on by and not get involved."

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Even as Hispanic newspapers and glossy niche magazines such as Ebony and Teen People are seeing readership grow - in some cases dramatically - the fortunes of African-American newspapers have been less sanguine.

In a trend gaining momentum since the end of the civil-rights era, more and more prominent black papers are filing for bankruptcy. The number of newspapers in one major chain, the Afro-American, has fallen from six to two, and the Chicago Defender - often considered the most prestigious black paper - is up for auction.

In part, mainstream papers have made it harder for African-American papers to compete by hiring more African-Americans. They've also improved their coverage of topics relevant to the black community. And while these are signs of broader progress, scholars say, they are also imperiling a unique African-American institution that dates back to the most turbulent times of America's racial history.

"There is a need for African-Americans to have their own voice," says Clint Wilson of Howard University in Washington. "While the mission is different than in the days of slavery, the choice venue to voice concern and expose these stories is the black press."

The future of the Chicago Defender - and three other African-American dailies - is tied to owner John Sengstacke, who died in 1997. Sengstacke, the nephew of the Defender's founder, Robert Abbott, placed Sengstacke Enterprises Inc. in trust with instructions that it be sold upon his death, leaving his heirs with little say in the matter.

Recently, a $10-million plan that would have left the Sengstacke family with 49 percent of the company failed. But activists continue their push to save the paper.

"The Defender is the only daily newspaper that tells our story," says the Rev. Al Sampson, who heads the Citizens Committee to Save the Chicago Defender. "It has told our story throughout the black liberation movement, and we need it to keep telling that story."

Papers like the Defender have been telling the stories of African-Americans for nearly two centuries. In 1827, Freedom's Journal, one of the first African-American newspapers, was founded in New York City. By the time the first shot was fired signaling the Civil War, more than 40 African-American newspapers had been established.

Many African-American newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender, which started in 1905, became widely acclaimed in the 20th century. Throughout the turbulent South, African-Americans hungered for the newspaper, which was distributed as an underground newspaper by Pullman porters on trains and sold by newsboys who risked being lynched.

The Defender particularly angered Southern whites, with editorials urging blacks to leave Jim Crow laws and cotton fields for the North's more-promising factories and less-sinister segregation.

Later, the African-American press seized a leadership role during the 1960s and the civil-rights movement, when efforts for equality were virtually ignored by the mainstream media.

But soon after, the black press became a victim of its own success, losing circulation and initiative.

In Arkansas, the once-beloved Arkansas State Press, started in the 1940s by civil-rights crusader Daisy Bates, shut down for 30 years after the city's Central High crisis in 1959. Revived briefly, the paper stopped publishing a few years ago.

Still, African-American newspapers aren't completely without good news. In 1998, boxing promoter Don King bought The Cleveland Call and Post, and has since turned it around dramatically, increasing advertising and subscriptions.

Such success stories are a sign of hope for those who want African-American newspapers to remain a vital force.

"People will hopefully see the wisdom and profitability of black newspapers," says Dr. Wilson. "They will of course change as society changes, but a voice will still exist to tell the stories."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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