Publishers discuss role of the Black Press
By Eleska Aubespin From The Houston Defender
March 16 marked the 186th anniversary of the founding of Freedom’s Journal, the country’s first Black newspaper. Its editors, Rev. Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, pro-claimed in the first edition, “Too long have others spoken for us…We wish to plead our own cause.”
Each year, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) Foundation – comprised of 200 Black newspapers – celebrates the milestone with Black Press Week. To mark the observance, the Defender interviewed four Black newspaper publishers for their thoughts. They are: Jake Oliver, AFRO–American Newspapers, Baltimore/Washington, D.C., founded in 1892; Karen Carter Richards, Houston Forward Times, founded in 1960; James A. Washington, Dallas Weekly, founded in 1955; and Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah-Jiles, Defender Media Group (Houston), founded in 1930.
Defender: What is the secret to your publication’s survival in light of papers across the country folding?
Jake Oliver: We have never been shy about experimenting with technology, a key to our ability. Technology can reach more people faster and it’s cheaper. We are the first Black newspaper to have a website. We have e-blast, iPad and iPhone applications, e-editions and are consistent in posting social media transmissions, so we are out there throwing our stuff everywhere and that’s the secret.
Karen Carter Richards: I believe our success has been the fact that the community has come to trust our publication. We have been reporting the truth without fear or favor for over 53 years and are very proud of the fact that we have never missed an issue. There is a special niche to the African-American market. We report on issues in a way that main-stream media will not report in our community.
James Washington: We are a communications vehicle and a trusted vehicle based on 55 years of operating in our community. With the Dallas Weekly, there is a certain level of trust and belief in us. But while Black media has a grounded history in our community, we are still around be-cause the owners of these Black newspapers are very astute business people who have to survive with certain adapt-ability as it relates to technology and understanding the market we serve.
Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah-Jiles: The secret to the Defender’s survival and success is maintaining a quality product that addresses the needs of our audience, being true to our goal of advocating, educating, entertaining and informing our community.
Defender: How are you adapting to address customers’ needs?
Oliver: You have to always be flexible because the customers’ needs have to reflect the changing ways in which they want to absorb news. For example, you have to tweet. We are covering major events by having a person tweet right then.
Richards: Our Web site and social media has been a great asset to us. It has allowed us to complement our print publication, reaching a very large and different audience.
Washington: Our role has been to adapt, so if there is no use of technology then we lose to the big boys. We are now a multimedia brand that consists of print, online, website and radio. Also, we serve a niche market and niche markets are in fact growth markets.
Messiah-Jiles: The De-fender has constantly changed to address the needs of our community: going from a paid publication to a free newspaper, expanding our distribution beyond the traditional Black neighborhoods, creating the website defendernetwork.com, and this year we are launching a number of new projects starting with “Faces of Black Houston.”
Defender: What role does Black Press play in the community?
Oliver: Consistently, we are one of the most important guardians of the interest of the community. We are so terribly important because Blacks rely on us to tell them what is happening and give perspective.
Richards: The Black Press is still a powerful voice in our community. We continue to be that powerful voice to tell our story like no other media can. We are still the voice that is trusted on issues that affect our community.
Washington: If you look at the role Black newspapers have played throughout our existence, out of the challenge of segregation and atrocities that were put upon us, to say that we started newspapers in a truly segregated society, then the magnitude of the success of our newspapers is tremendous. The Black newspaper is a conduit of being the advocate of the rights, issues and challenges that still face us as African-Americans because America is still America.
Messiah-Jiles: Our role is educating the community about the issues (pros and cons), empowering the community with information, advocating for changes that better our communities, and entertaining and recording our existence and contributions for historical purposes. Without the Black Press, there is a void of who will tell our story from our perspective.