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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Black Publishers Dream Of Equality, Respect by Hazel Trice Edney

As America's Black Press continues its traditional role of protecting and defending the rights of African Americans, the 177-year-old institution still has a dream of equality of its own, says the chairperson of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of more than 200 Black-owned newspapers.

"That common dream that we share basically amounts to the fact that we are looking for equity in advertising. We are looking for mutual respect in the newspaper industry and among our peers," Sonny Messiah-Jiles told NNPA members at its annual mid-winter conference in St. Maarten, Netherlands, Antilles last week. "But, more so, we dream of a day when our news holes will be judged for the character of its content, and not by the color of its publishers or its leaders."

Messiah-Jiles, elected chairperson of the organization last June, was giving her first "State of the NNPA" address at the conference. She says the organization must take advantage of every opportunity to assert its readership clout and historic mission as leverage to win economic equity for its readers as well as itself.

"As we sit here as NNPA members, the Black Press of America, one of the most powerful tools that we have is we serve 15 million people," said Messiah-Jiles, publisher of the Houston Defender. The NNPA's target market has an annual buying power of $572.1 billion, according to a University of Georgia study.

"We've worked hard," she said. "We've had some good times and some bad times, but through it all, one of the premises that we continue to live by is something that was said by Frederick Douglass That is that power concedes nothing without a demand."

Not just African Americans face discrimination. So do Black businesses, according to the publishers gathered here.

"They come up with all kinds of excuses not to advertise," states Robert W. Bogle, publisher of the 120-year-old Philadelphia Tribune, the nation's oldest continuously published Black-owned newspaper. He says some will note that many Black newspapers are not audited by Audit Bureau of Circulations, the nation's most respected auditing agency.

"Many daily newspapers are not audited by ABC," Bogle says. "Then they want to talk about our failure rates. The Philadelphia Inquirer has lost more circulation than any other daily newspaper in the country, but advertisers still buy ads."

Others say Black publishers need to stop making excuses and run their newspapers in a more business-like fashion.

"We can no longer say, 'We are Black' and expect them to just buy," explains Joy Bramble, publisher of the Baltimore Times in Maryland. "They will be asking us for the numbers just like everybody else."

Publishers say Black newspapers must expand their readership base and that, in turn, will lead to more advertising dollars. The average reader of NNPA newspapers is about 49 years old.

"We have to refocus our target audience. Our target audience has always been the leadership of the Black community," says James E. Lewis Sr., publisher of the Birmingham Times in Alabama. "We must refocus on the young minds of the Black community, something that we've been unable to accomplish."

Some papers are already moving in that direction.

Chris Bennett, 33, among NNPA's youngest publishers, says his Seattle Medium plans to cover more little league sports as a way of attracting younger readers.

"There's got to be something in the paper that encourages that young person to pick up that paper and start reading it, to appeal to younger folks to train them to become loyal readers," Bennett says.

Founded 62 years ago, NNPA also has a news service, run by the NNPA Foundation, a separate entity, chaired by Brian Townsend, publisher of the Precinct Reporter in San Bernardino, Calif. It is America's only Black newspaper wire service.

The emphasis on attracting younger readers does not mean coverage of political and social issues should be sacrificed, said Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington (D.C.) Informer.

"We can't get tired and we can't lose focus. I think that's what inspires us, to recognize that our viability is important and remains strong," Barnes said. "When an administration accosts affirmative action, when you still have cases of redlining in communities, when you can't get loans and we have predatory lending, these are issues that not only affect us in the housing industry but from anything from gaining credit to buying cars. Check-cashing places and predatory lending are creeping into our communities. In a lot of ways, economically, a lot of us have fallen through the gap."

Some publishers say that in a difficult economy, advertising dollars will be even tougher to come by.

The key to achieving the dream will be Black newspapers taking stands to work together and with community groups to establish our own credibility, Messiah-Jiles says.

"We have to roll up our sleeves We've got our work cut out for us," Messiah-Jiles says. "Our legacy is built upon the track record of Black publishers who have come before us like Samuel Cornish and John Russworm. And they said, 'We wish to plead our own cause. For too long others have spoken for us.'"

Hazel Trice Edney is a NNPA Washington correspondent.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

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