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Black media in transition

Herb Boyd | 2/20/2014, 10:48 a.m.
WBLS radio

To paraphrase an old economic saying: If the mainstream media sneezes, the Black media comes down with pneumonia.

A number of recent warning signs have popped up to indicate that things are not going well with mainstream media, and none are more telling than the suspension of morning editions of major dailies and the mergers occurring across the board, particularly in cable television and radio.

Last week, we reported on the purchase of WBLS and WLIB by Emmis Communications from YMF, which is rather odd because Emmis once owned Kiss-FM before it melded with WBLS. The merger of the two stations has propelled the combination to the top of urban radio.

While there was no truth to the rumor that WWRL was up for sale, there was a decisive sea change at the station, as it switched to a Spanish-language format this year, thereby abandoning a format that officials there said was no longer bringing in the advertising revenue required to keep the station on the air.

Mergers and sea changes don’t appear to be on the horizon for African-American newspapers, although many of them are suffering a serious decline in circulation and advertising revenue, according to a report released last year in Crain’s New York Business, a business publication based in Detroit.

One of the things plaguing Black newspapers is the increased traffic on the Internet, which is the same problem the majors are experiencing. But Black publications face an additional hurdle: the substantial number of former subscribers who were no longer bound by restricted covenants.

Desegregation, which had a negative impact on a number of Black-owned businesses, dealt a blow to Black newspapers in particular because their base was now widely dispersed. And this fact, said Hiram Jackson, CEO of Real Times Media LCC in Detroit, makes “delivery expensive.”

Real Times publishes the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s oldest Black newspaper, which competes with the Michigan Citizen for subscribers and readers, and the Citizen may not have 30,000 scribers like the Chronicle, but it does have a loyal and activist following.

Another longstanding publication, the Chicago Defender, has been struggling through some tough times, and since 2008, to save money, it has curtailed its four-day schedule to once a week.

A similar move occurred at the Atlanta Daily World, and while it still has “daily” in its name, it is now published only once a week. Like the Michigan Chronicle and the Defender, it is now part of Real Times Media, and last month, its historic site was sold, and what that signals for the future is undetermined at the moment.

A recent informal poll conducted with students at City College of New York revealed that none of them ever read the Amsterdam News, the country’s oldest continuously operating and Black-owned newspaper. Most of them said they got their news online and from television.

Social networking among young Black Americans is obviously on the increase, and according to one report, their activity on Facebook and Twitter matches their white counterparts.