Since the founding of the Freedom's Journal, the first African-American owned and operated newspaper in 1827, Black Americans have used the power of the press to voice their unique experiences. Newspapers sprung up nationally over the years covering issues such as slavery, lynching, civil rights, elections and present-day discrimination issues.
John J. Oliver Jr., 68, publisher of the Afro-American, a weekly Black newspaper covering the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area, grew up watching the inner workings of the long-standing publication his great-grandfather John H. Murphy Sr., a former slave, founded in 1892. Oliver has been responsible for ushering the company and other Black newspapers into the present digital age.
“It was a place that had big machines that made a lot of noise with a lot of people doing a lot of different things,” Oliver told BET.com of his early memories of the newspaper’s Baltimore office. “And I guess I felt somewhat intimidated. But I was very curious about why they were doing what they were doing and why it made so much noise. I was fascinated by the press room,” he continued.
Throughout the years, the Afro-American has provided coverage of landmark events in Black history. In 1915, a reporter sent to cover the funeral of Booker T. Washington described the harmony between races never seen before in the state of Alabama. “It was the only time in history in the state of Alabama, race meant nothing. You had white folks, you had rich folks, you had poor folks converge on Tuskegee Institute to pay homage to this man,” Oliver described.
Oliver also mentioned the Afro’s coverage of the Scottsboro boys, who were falsely accused of gang raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931, as big news in the publication’s history. But it was President Obama’s 2007 election campaign that was most memorable in his lifetime.
“We were on the bus right after he won Iowa,” he said. "We saw the momentum that was beginning to grow. That was an exciting time for all of our reporters and the Inauguration topped it all off.”
At a young age, Oliver recalled being “baptized” into the process of the newspaper and doing tedious small jobs in the mail room such as rolling subscription. “I knew enough to see that it wasn’t what I wanted to do…when I grew up,” he admitted.
After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1969, he received his law degree from Columbia University in 1972. Oliver practiced corporate law in New York from 1972 to 1978, but found his way back to the family business as publisher in 1982.
Under Oliver’s leadership, the Afro became one of the first newspapers to use Internet technology in 1993. This allowed reporters in their Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore offices to share information faster. In 1994, it became one of the first newspapers to go online at Afro.com. While serving as president of the National Newspapers Publisher’s Association from 1999 to 2003, Oliver worked to introduce more African-American newspapers to the World Wide Web.
“Our objective was to network all the Black newspapers that were interested into a national Internet network where you could choose stories,” he explained. At the time, not all publications had enough reporters to publish articles daily and the network gave outlets access to more content they could use on their sites.
Today, Oliver looks to social media, particularly the newspaper’s Facebook page, to stay connected to readers. The newspaper boasts 130,000 “likes,” — more than the Baltimore Sun and top Baltimore news stations such as WJZ and WBAL. He said the comments and interactions from Facebook fans give insight into what topics matter most to readers.
“We [African-Americans] don’t always have the same opinion. Very rarely do we have the same opinion. But it is refreshing to know that there is diversity about everything and it’s refreshing to watch the debates.”
Oliver believes Black news outlets still have a significant role in present media decades after the civil rights movement and the fight for equality. “White organizations, even though they become diverse, they really don’t get how we communicate with each other,” he said. “They don’t know what types of issues do really resonate with us,” he continued.
Going into the future, tomorrow’s leaders of the Black press have to remember one thing, Oliver says. “Learn your history. You got to understand the legacy and the heritage that you have a responsibility to move forward.”
He added that being open to future technology is also important.
“They have got to keep their eyes open and ears open and learn how people are communicating and absorbing the news differently. And social media represents that more than anything else.”
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(Photo: Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper 1956)