“It’s important that we stop thinking of ethnic media as a ‘nice to have,’ as something on the side. It’s a must have,” Glenn Burkins of Q City Metro, a Charlotte-based African-American news website, said at the Knight Media Forumearlier this week. Discussions about how to better amplify and support diverse media are still a core part of the future of the industry — and the numbers are unfortunately still dismal — but it helps to have a data-driven understanding of the state of ethnic media now.
Appropriately, Democracy Fund released a report on the state of African-American media in the last days of Black History Month here in the U.S. It includes a detailed history of African-American media, from the 1800s’ Freedom’s Journal and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star — creating a legacy of, according to the late Columbia Journalism professor Phyllis Garland, “never [intending] to be objective because it didn’t see the white press being objective. It often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and a deliberate slant.”
Today, 205 publications across 29 states and D.C. are part of the 70-plus-year-old trade organization representing America’s black press, with Los Angeles as a circulation stronghold despite its relatively lower level of black residents. (The Los Angeles Wave has the most subscribers of any black newspaper in America, 92,000.) The average reader is between 25 and 35, more likely to be married, and earning a median income between $35,000 and $45,000, the report finds. Unusually, their biggest social referrer online is Twitter, not Facebook (which finished second, with Instagram in third).
But digital transformation hit these publications hard, and the next (digital) generation have tried to seize social media for traffic as much as any other digital-first company:
Using Comscore data for the top 22 Black-focused websites, the median audience size of these websites is just under two million average monthly unique visitors. Collectively, these websites saw a median decrease in average monthly visitors of about four percent between 2015 and 2016. However, there were a few standouts that saw large growth in their audiences in 2016. The website for Black Entertainment Television, bet.com, the largest Black-focused website, had over 13 million average monthly unique visitors, a 136 percent increase from 2015. Huffington Post Black Voices also saw a 136 percent increase to just over six million average monthly unique visitors. The largest increase, however, was seen by the Atlanta Black Star. Average monthly unique visitors for the Atlanta Black Star rose to 2.75 million in 2016, a 236 percent increase from 2015.
The report also includes snapshots of Blavity, The Grio, and The Root as the three most promising black digital media outlets for Millennials and Gen Z:
Each of these sites seems positioned for future growth. Blavity is growing by launching new platforms and acquiring other platforms. In 2017, Blavity acquired Travel Noire and debuted 21Ninety, which is a lifestyle brand aimed at Black women. The Grio, now a part of Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, is brilliantly positioned to take full advantage of the growing importance of web video in driving traffic and ad revenue. The Root, while enduring some raised eyebrows after its 2015 sale to Univision (Fusion Media Group), continues to draw eyeballs to its site, and it has established franchises like The Root 100 and Very Smart Brothas (VSB) to build upon. In this way, The Root is also primed for the future.
Black publishers face the specific challenge of preserving their archives — which hold huge amounts of the history of and by African Americans — along with more common problems like declining ad revenue and the need for a more robust digital presence.
In many African-American communities, traditional legacy newspapers are either in the process of closing or have already ceased operation. In the worst cases, this leaves some communities without an operating source of local news. Even in communities where legacy newspapers continue publication, some newspapers are either not equipped to provide adequate news coverage in the communities where they operate or have relied on operating standards that no longer reach a viable target audience. Smaller community newspapers that rely on traditional print-and-newsstand/box or delivery circulation options are struggling to survive. Some have turned to an online solution, with varying degrees of success.
In terms of ad revenue, African-American newspapers were especially hard hit by tobacco companies — which had long advertised disproportionately to black audiences and spent heavily in print after being banned from advertising on television — reducing or eliminating its print ad buys in the 2000s. (A 2007 meta-analysis found that billboards in predominately black neighborhoods were 70 percent more likely to advertise tobacco than those in predominantly white neighborhoods. The black press was criticized for being too pro-tobacco editorially in the era when it took in lots of tobacco ad dollars.)
— Developing a think tank to zero in on journalism for and in African-American communities:
A think tank would serve as a “connector” for the “new” African-American press, commissioning projects that identify interesting reporting techniques, technologies, and business models, as well as editorial innovations. These projects would connect with the people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.
Such an organization would also be focused on the African-American experience, with recommendations and blueprints for calls to action. The information from this think tank should be topical to the social and political issues impacting the African-American community and suitable for journalists to communicate relevant and actionable information to readers and legislators.
— Syndicating national news relevant to African-American communities:
One way to help support journalism in African-American communities is helping news organizations focus their efforts on reporting local news and events by syndicating content that is of interest to these communities nationwide. An organization with a dedicated corps of journalists and writers focused on coverage of national current events and on opinion content for African-American communities is vital for the advancement of the Black press.
— Providing more support for training and collaborating with black media outlets.
As the Black press continues to move online, there should be more support for tools and training to maintain the digital presence of African-American media. This includes the development and training for use of apps by journalists; conventions bringing together editors of the Black press to discuss and learn about new techniques for business growth and reporting; and a clearinghouse for information about and access to programs that focus on audience development, revenue generation, business and leadership acumen, and tech and reporting issues.
The report highlights collaborations it says have found success, particularly noting The Marshall Project.
Main image is a screenshot from The Root's homepage, one of the leading African American media sources for young audiences.