A Look at the Black Press
By Errol T. Louis
My life as a journalist started with a bang in the summer of 1982: a front-page story in The New York Amsterdam News. I was 19 years old, and it was the first time one of my stories was published professionally. I bought up as many copies as I could carry that Thursday, and went around happily handing them out to friends, family and neighbors. The front page of the Amsterdam News!
As it turned out, people were a little thrown off by the gift I was proudly bestowing on them. Maybe it was the headline of my story: POLICE BREAK CHILD SEX RING IN BROOKLYN. And here I was, shoving it in people’s faces: Look! They ran my article on the front page! The usual response was a polite, “Um, yes, uh, very nice.”
But for an aspiring writer born in Harlem, it didn’t get much better. For me, it wasn’t just the start of a career: it was history. In the 1940’s, when my father was a boy, he’d sold the AmNews on the streets of Harlem to make a little extra money. In high school, when I wrote school reports on the civil rights movement, I’d spend hours at the Schomburg, looking at back issues of the Amsterdam News from 1968 and 1969.
As a journal of record for New York’s African-American community-especially in Harlem-nothing matches the history, prestige and all-around popularity of the Amsterdam News, which has been in print for 89 years. But a host of younger black papers (including Our Time Press) are betting that there is a large and growing market for even more information outlets that are for, by and about the African-American community.
Some of these papers, like the Queens Voice, the New York Beacon and the Brooklyn-based Daily Challenge, have long provided general-interest news with an outer-borough perspective, largely by covering events outside of Harlem that might not make the Amsterdam. The Challenge, in fact, has 25 years under its belt as the city’s only black daily newspaper. The New York CaribNews has built a solid following by supplying vital news to New York’s Caribbean community-everything from Brooklyn politics to sports, culture and exchange rates throughout the Caribbean. Readers of French have long flocked to the Haiti Observateur and Haiti Progress.
But another wave of black newspapers has appeared in recent years. These newest newspapers tend to zero in on different segments within the black community. The Brooklyn-based Network Journal focuses on business; the New York World covers arts and entertainment; and the Christian Times carries stories about black churches throughout the city. A brand new paper, EboniX Communications, made its premiere in January of this year and is distinguished by, among other things, its advocacy of teaching methods that use African-American vernacular, or “Ebonics.” Another new paper, the African Press, is targeted at the many immigrants from the motherland who have settled in New York and are looking for news from home.
Many of these new papers are distributed free within a neighborhood, to ensure a solid readership, which, in turn, helps attract advertisement. Despite its name, for example the Crown Heights News is dropped at stores and supermarkets in Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights and Ft. Greene. Our Time has a Brooklyn flavor but is distributed in Westchester and Harlem, as well.
Where did all this activity come from? For one thing, advances in computer technology have made it cheaper and easier than ever for entrepreneurs to start a newspaper. Ten years ago, cutting, pasting and editing newspaper text used to require a typesetter that could easily cost $25,000 or more. Today, layout can be done with a $600 desktop publishing software package and a $400 laser printer.
Virtually anyone with a personal computer can automate key functions like editing and laying out stories. Writers can now write, spell-check, edit and file stories electronically, eliminating yet another costly set of face-to-face meetings with editors and the time-consuming retyping of articles. This article, for example, will be composed, edited and sent to the publisher over a phone line within minutes. And although I’m sending it from a brownstone in Brooklyn, I could just as well be sitting in Paris, Dakar or Hong Kong.
Now that publishing is easier, we are seeing a revival of the great tradition of small, scrappy publishers submitting their vision and views to the public. The result is a wonderful, noisy marketplace of ideas. Every month, for less than $10, you can buy five or six daily, weekly and monthly African-American newspapers, and check out a broad spectrum of ideas, from true-blue capitalism (the Network Journal) to die-hard nationalism (The Final Call, published by the Nation of Islam).
All this activity continues a tradition that dates back to 1827, when John Russwurm began publishing Freedom’s Journal and calling for an end to slavery. The paper’s slogan declared, in Biblical tones, “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.” Frederick Douglass, in the same abolitionist tradition, took $1,000 he earned from sales of his autobiography and began publishing the North Star in 1847. By the time of the civil war, more than 40 black newspapers were being published-not simply to report routine news, but to argue a point, with passion and urgency.
From that time forward, every significant strand of African-American opinion has found expression in a paper of one type or another. Labor activist A. Philip Randolph published The Messenger. The legendary Harlem minister and congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., started The People’s Voice in 1942. In any given week-side by side with Powell’s fiery editorials attacking condition in New York City-you might find poems or essay by the likes of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson or Ann Petry.
The fact that most of these papers no longer exist is hardly a cause for mourning. Frederick’s North Star was a crusade for the end of slavery, and stopped publishing once its purpose had been served. By the same token, Powell’s rise to national prominence gave him the raw power needed to make changes in Harlem-and made The People’s Voice less of a necessity. And, in the end, there was always the Amsterdam-as feisty, funky and opinionated as its tens of thousands of loyal readers