It’s no secret the newspaper industry is in crisis. Competition from both the internet and television have for years taken away market share from all but the widest circulation publications. Among journalists it is a constant conversation, especially in times of major media layoffs and cutbacks. In fact, a 2022 Census.gov report shows a 52 percent decline in newspaper revenue between 2002 and 2020.
But the challenges are nothing new for Black-owned papers that, like our community, have always found ways to survive challenging times.
“I wish I could say we were impacted more by the newspaper crisis, Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, told BET.com. “But I have to go back to when my father was publishing the weekly newspaper. One of the things that he used to always say is, at times, it felt like a “w-e-a-k-l-y,” Rolark Barnes said, highlighting her dad’s play on words to make a point about the challenges he faced.
Barnes, a former chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association of Black-owned newspapers, is the second generation to own and operate the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper, which her father, Calvin Rolark, founded in 1964.
Black-owned newspapers have historically had a tough hill to climb in getting advertising and to finance their business, she explained. So what's happened over the last decade in the industry is really nothing new.
“But We still found ways to publish every week, and serve our readers. This is just another test, another chapter, for us,” Rolark Barnes said.
At a time when racial justice issues are emerging – from police assaults of unarmed Black people, to the gutting of voting rights – Black-owned newspapers face a challenging business environment. Unlike earlier generations, their survival is complicated by the need to master technology and social media. Scores of newspapers – both inside and outside our community – have shut their doors in historic numbers. But many Black newspapers are fighting the good fight.
Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism took the pulse of the nation’s already declining newspaper industry and reported stunning results. The study, released last June, found that the United States continued to see newspapers die at the rate of two per week.
News deserts, areas that have no local news coverage, are expanding. More than 360 newspapers closed from late 2019 to the end of May 2022. Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025.
BET.com spoke with four publishers of Black-owned and Black-operated newspapers about how they’ve managed to survive the industry crisis when so many others have closed.
“We're used to a struggle, but that's not going to defeat us,” Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-in-chief of The New York Amsterdam News, told BET.com.
“There were definitely times when I looked at what was going on and I asked the question, can we continue? And I had to take a pause and say, can we do this? Can we make this happen? It was definitely a struggle, said Tatum, who took the helm of the storied Black newspaper, founded in 1909, from her father, Wilbert A. Tatum, in 1998.
“But there's a difference between can and will. And there was never a question of will, because we will continue to make it happen. And that is what we did.”
C. Zawadi Morris, founder and publisher of BK Reader, a Brooklyn, N.Y--based digital daily newspaper, said the Black experience in America has equipped our community with survival instincts.
Launched in 2013 on a shoestring budget, the publication has served its community for a decade as Brooklyn, a New York City borough of 2.6 million residents, has become a vast local news desert.
Morris said life has taught her “how to turn, stretch, and make a dollar out of 15 cents. …I've been taught to work harder, almost expect less, and to figure it out.”
Unlike many of the other publishers, the Bakewell Company, a large Black-owned commercial real estate development company, is financially positioned to weather the storms. The Bakewell Company is also the parent company of Bakewell Media, owner of The LA Sentinel and the LA Watts Times and New Orleans radio station WBOK.
The Bakewells are the third Black family to own The Sentinel, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary, Pamela A. Bakewell, chief operating officer for the newspaper, told BET.com.
“We were hand-selected by the previous owner for our ability to survive and for our deep roots in the community, as well as civil rights involvement in Los Angeles,” added Bakewell, the sister of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., who purchased the newspaper in 2004.
But despite the company’s resources and connections, the Sentinel still faces many challenges to remain a relevant voice in the community it serves.
These four newspapers use particular survival tools that help them continue to churn out news and perspectives on important issues for the communities they serve. In a series of interviews they illustrated their strategies for keeping themselves moving forward.
Adapt to change
One of the biggest challenges, especially for older newspapers, was evolving from print-only publications to establishing a web presence.
“With all the transitions that were happening, we had to open our eyes to the change in print readership,” Bakewell recalled about entering the newspaper business twenty years ago. “We saw the importance of incorporating digital and social media. Some of the other publications failed to see that. They were predicting that digital wouldn’t last.”
Indeed, that period was also a crossroads for The Amsterdam News. “We found ways and through some creative measures that helped us to dive headfirst into digital transformation,” Tatum said, adding that the newspaper faces an ongoing challenge to keep up with the constant changes in technology and social media.
Despite coming into existence during the digital revolution, Morris said the survival of BK Reader in the digital age requires vigilance and foresight.
“Another part of it is creativity, to be creative and try to think ahead of the curve of what's coming,” she said. “I'm always trying to think three steps ahead of what's around the corner. We're constantly evolving as an industry. So I'm trying to always try to get in front of what's evolving.”
Multiple revenue sources
Newspapers that are surviving the industry’s troubles have successfully developed multiple streams of revenue to stay afloat, as the traditional business model of advertising and subscription income has largely collapsed.
Morris said her forward thinking prompted her to start a nonprofit 20 years ago, which has become an important source of income for her company and others that now combine nonprofit and for-profit business income.
“You now have philanthropists and grantmakers who are focused entirely on helping to build up the news industry again. And so what they're encouraging a lot of folks to do is to move into the nonprofit model, because news really is a service model,” she said.
The Informer also has a nonprofit arm that has long sponsored community events. But the COVID-19 pandemic opened doors to expand the use of its nonprofit.
“We found out that there are nonprofit dollars that can support our journalism,” Rolark Barnes said. “Philanthropist dollars help pay salaries for reporters working on special community projects like the impact of climate change and stories about Black homeownership.”
Meanwhile, The Sentinel has carved out a niche with event sponsorships in Los Angeles that create business opportunities while also bringing resources to the community, Bakewell said. The paper’s signature event, Taste of Soul, which draws approximately 350,000 people, is now in its 18th year, and is supported by the city, county and business community.
Staying relevant is another key to thriving. “Try to produce as much local, original content as possible and engage with the community,” Rolark Barnes recommends to other publications.
The Informer has nearly doubled its readership to about 50,000 and increased its pages per issue from an average of 36 to 56 pages over the past five years. Rolark Barnes said one reason for success is her editorial mission to tell authentic “life-lived stories” in the Black community and to focus more on positive stories that are overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
“The other media, they fly and fly out, doing journalistic drive bys,” she said, adding that The Informer strives to “tell stories that really are great stories about our community.”
Tatum said The Amsterdam News is based in Harlem but provides broad coverage on issues that impact the Black community nationally, as well as the Black diaspora. Indeed, the newspaper has a long history of condemning racism, police brutality, redling and other issues from the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement and today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Most recently, the newspaper launched Blacklight, which produces long form and investigative journalism reports on Black and Brown communities in New York City and beyond.
The three family legacy papers said they stand on the solid foundation of the relationships their forerunners built with political, activist, religious, business leaders. Now, their challenge is maintaining and building on those connections.
Morris also credits relationships she’s built in Brooklyn for her success. She recalled knocking on doors and introduced herself and BK Reader to leaders and small business owners in the community.
“It's all about relationships. That’s especially true for Black people in this country. Doors don't just open for us automatically,” Morris said, adding that as a small business owner herself, she “approaches them in a certain way, with a certain degree of respect and understanding, and humility.”
Future success not guaranteed
There are clear advantages to operating a family legacy newspaper. But what will happen when these family newspaper dynasties end?
A common characteristic of successful Black-owned newspapers is that they are second or third generation owned and operated publications. “When we get together at the NNPA conferences, we talk about that a lot because now we're looking at who is going to pick up the mantle as we're getting older,” Rolark Barnes said.
Tatum said family-owned newspapers know “how to be nimble and how to produce with shoestring budgets if they need to” and can survive if there is someone to pass them down to.