FOR Melvin B. Miller, publisher and editor of the Bay State Banner, putting out a newspaper with a largely black readership in Boston is more mission than moonlighting. ``It's a duty'' is all the established attorney says of his other role. Sitting in the downtown law office of Fitch, Miller & Tourse, where he is a partner, Mr. Miller declines to elaborate on the particulars of his commitment. He may wish to keep the reasons for his persistence private, but a sense of duty hangs on as an almost invisible thread binding the black press in its many manifestations. Black papers in the United States may not be as crusading as they once were, but they still reflect and chronicle the black experience more fully than it's reported elsewhere.
``[Blacks] need to read about themselves,'' says Dorris Ellis, editor of the Houston Sun, one of five black papers in that city. ``That's where the mainstream daily newspapers tend to fail the African-American community. There are not enough stories about us. We need to see blacks in the paper, and not just in handcuffs or on the sports page.''
Pursuing this common objective in the United States with varying degrees of success and professionalism are about 175 black-owned and operated newspapers, according to Henry G. La Brie III, a former Boston University instructor and black press scholar, who has done surveys for Editor & Publisher magazine. Some sources offer much higher estimates, but whatever the exact numbers, these papers are as diverse as the mainstream press. But many are weekly community-style publications with small staffs and circulations.
The Banner began 25 years ago, shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when there was a burst of hope and expectation among Boston's African-American population but little news media attention paid to developments in the community. Miller's vision for a truly state-wide newspaper has come up short, but he seems hardened to the constant frustrations.
``To do the job properly is impossible,'' he says. ``The paper is deficient every week, but it's better than nothing.''
The Banner has established a reputation for sound journalism. Former staffers have gone on to publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
This is where Miller, who maintains phone contact with the Banner's Dorchester newsroom and checks in each week before press time, draws some of his satisfaction. It does not come from inspecting the financial ledger. ``It's never been fun or profitable,'' he says of publishing the Banner. ``People from the outside looking in think it must be a real lark and it must make me a fortune, but it doesn't. Our market is too small.''
The Banner circulates to an estimated 10,000 readers. Like other black-run newspapers, making circulation gains is doubly tough now that major metropolitan dailies have broadened their outlooks and intentionally integrated their staffs to bring more racial balance to their news and opinion columns.
Even so, Carmen Marshall, executive director of the National Black Media Coalition, doesn't believe this development erodes the need for a strong black press.
``That's a bogus proposition that now that we have black people working at white papers, we don't need the black newspaper the way we once did,'' he says. ``It's needed more now than it's ever been needed. [Major newspapers] have black reporters, but they are not voices. They cover what they are told to cover.''
``[W]hen the black reporter writes in the black press, there is more believability,'' says Steve Davis, the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of black-owned papers.
During their heyday in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, black-run newspapers were much more numerous than they are today, according to Mr. La Brie. Many fell by the wayside during the postwar era, he says, partly as the result of the social upheavals black papers helped to foster.
Because of civil-rights gains, the need for a vibrant black press may be less apparent, La Brie says, but it is no less critical.
Rather than being a forthright advocate, today's black press is often a counterbalance to other news sources.
The advantages of this could be seen clearly during the immediate aftermath of the shocking Carol Stuart murder case in Boston. Some of the print and electronic media fell into the trap of playing up negative racial stereotypes, something the Banner judiciously avoided with its unsensa-tionalized treatment.
``We did not over-cover the Stuart case; it was not an obsessive interest,'' says managing editor Brian O'Connor, whose presence at the Banner is partly due to his understanding of the papers's predominantly black readership.
Perspective is more important than complexion. ``White people are part of the constituency, too, since they live here,'' Miller says of the paper's multicommunity circulation area.
But much of the paper is devoted to covering blacks and the issues that affect them, whether the possible civil-rights violations of a day school across the Charles River in Cambridge or developments in South Africa.
Unlike some black newspapers, which go heavy on social news, the Banner places a premium on what O'Connor calls serious ``nose-to-the-ground beat coverage,'' and less on ``circulation boosters'' like entertainment and sports. THE challenges of the Banner's reporting sweep may create its own problems. But even black newspapers of less ambition often must cope with scarce advertising dollars, low literacy levels within the community, and, in some cases, musty images.
During the 1960s, La Brie says, most black newspapers took a conservative approach to civil-rights activism rather than siding with young militants.
``[Black newspapers] were somewhat out of step with the times, and I think they jeopardized their future audiences,'' he says, noting an absence of strong middle-aged black support for these papers today.
``There's a perception problem,'' says Archie Colander, chief executive officer of Amalgamated Publishers Inc., a national advertising representative for 88 black papers. ``People tend to feel that these papers offer an inferior product, and that they haven't been very innovative, editorially or elsewhere.''
A chicken-or-egg polemic often surfaces. Publishers say they can't improve their papers without greater advertising revenue. Advertisers want to see audited circulation figures, which often aren't available.
``I doubt the total circulation of the black press currently exceeds three million,'' says La Brie,
The key to putting out a viable newspaper, says Ernest Pitt, is to use sound journalistic principles. As the publisher and cofounder of the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Chronicle, an award-winning weekly, Mr. Pitt has made editorial content his top priority. ``I've got seven people in my news department, which is probably more than a lot of black newspapers have on their entire staff,'' he says. The Chronicle has a relatively small readership (between 7,000 and 8,000) for its 30-plus, well-designed pages. ``We don't expect the black community here to accept less from us because we're black,'' says Pitt.
In his opinion, the black press is in a period of transition, during which weak newspapers will fall by the wayside and those with vision and commitment to the journalistic enterprise will live to see brighter days.