WASHINGTON — With newspapers across the nations watching their circulations decline, many black journalists find themselves re-evaluating the next steps in their own careers.
During a conference last month hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), reporters and bloggers assessed the coming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to make technology a priority in his administration, and considered how black journalism might fit into the new digital era.
If the statistics are any indication of print journalism’s future, more readers are getting their news from new media tools like blogs and YouTube — and the industry’s demise could be just around the corner.
According to an August survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 46 percent of Americans read a newspaper regularly, which is down from 52 percent in 2006. On the other hand, online readership has grown from 9 percent to 13 percent in two years, as reported by Editor & Publisher magazine.
The drop in print readership has also affected the nation’s approximately 200 black newspapers, leading many to reconsider how to stay competitive.
Zenitha Prince, Washington bureau chief for the Afro-American Newspaper, was one of very few members of the black press to follow Obama throughout his presidential run. The Afro-American, which primarily serves readers in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, published Prince’s campaign reports daily on its Web site in addition to the coverage in its weekly print edition.
At the recent NABJ conference, Prince said that while reporting on the campaign trail from a black perspective created unique opportunities, it also revealed significant disadvantages, particularly in the area of online competition.
“Because we are a weekly newspaper, we are able to do more in-depth reporting on issues affecting our community,” she said. “But because we have limited resources, it was difficult sometimes to compete with everything going on online.”
Weekly community newspapers have always had to compete with big-city dailies, but in recent years, the emergence of the blogosphere has created even stiffer competition for readers. According to blog search engine Technorati, there are over 110 million blogs for Web surfers to choose from, many of which are run by and for African Americans.
While many blogs exist purely to entertain readers, the black blogosphere has also become an information source and outlet for discussion of issues underreported in the mainstream media, as well as a motivator and organizing place for social activism.
Last year, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Jena, La., in support of six black teenagers accused of attacking a white teenager following a number of racially-motivated events. The case of the so-called “Jena Six” gained momentum in the national press only after a grassroots movement developed online to bring attention to the students’ plight.
“Blogging is the new NAACP,” said Gina McCauley, founder of the feminist blog What About Our Daughters. “Blogging is about love, community and social justice. It’s beautiful.”
McCauley, an Austin, Texas-based lawyer, said she started her blog last year to address negative media portrayals of black women and girls. Since its inception, What About Our Daughters has taken on everyone from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Black Entertainment Television executives. McCauley is also the founder of Blogging While Brown, the only international conference for bloggers of color, which convened for the first time in Atlanta this past July, and runs a group blog called Michelle Obama Watch, which aims to present balanced information about the first lady-in-waiting.
“Some of the top black bloggers are women,” McCauley said. “There are a lot of great, smart black people in the blogosphere today.”
Journalist Amy Alexander is also looking to join that number. Alexander is a 2008 Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute and is working on a book about race and the media. She is now blogging for the Nation and the online magazine The Root, while developing her own blog, which she said she hopes will uphold old-school journalistic standards.
“It has taken an adjustment for me to blog,” Alexander said. “Blogging has given me more freedom. However, my blogging is opinion informed by research and traditional reporting.”
Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and writer of www.blacksmythe.com, may be the first black academic blogger. He said he sees a host of new freedoms that new media can present.
“When you talk about democratizing the media, you have more voices and less boundaries,” he said.
With more writers blogging and more readers consuming online content, the $64,000 question has become: Should the traditional media call it a day? The answer, according to Doni Glover, may be evolution.
The former editor of the Sandtown-Winchester Viewpoint, a Baltimore-based black newspaper, Glover may have created a template for the future of traditional black media. In 2002, he started www.bmorenews.com, which has become one of the country’s few black-oriented, hyper-local online news outlets.
The Web site combines video, photos, news and blogs targeted to the black communities of Baltimore and Washington. Its focused business plan has paid off — since its inception, Glover said, www.bmorenews.com has received over 600,000 unique hits and has reached readers from more than 65 countries.
Perhaps most important, from Glover’s perspective, is that by running his own site, the buck stops with him.
“[I] was tired of doing the same work for others and not getting my due,” Glover said. “Besides, [I have] always been bitten by the entrepreurial bug. ‘God bless the child [that’s got] his own,’ said noted singer Billie Holiday.
“So [my] take is that if you are going to stay in the game, you’d better have your own venue. That way, the only one giving out pink slips is you.”