Veteran journalist Roland Martin believes Black America has some tough decisions to make. Martin attended the recent Black Media Story Summit in New York City, where he stopped and chatted with the New York Amsterdam News about the current state of the Black press across all media platforms.
“We can’t just simply rely on it being free,” he said. “We have to pay for the level of journalism we want. The Black consumer has to decide, ‘Do I want to ask someone else to tell my narrative, or am I willing to shell out x amount of dollars to get the information that I know I will not get from broadcast and cable networks?’”
Millions of viewers were disappointed to learn late last year that Martin’s news program on TV One, “NewsOne Now,” would no longer air. It was one of the few news programs that regularly and substantively covered topics of interest to many Black Americans. Since then, many have grappled with the question of where to get quality news and information on television or online that amplifies Black voices.
“One of the issues with Black-focused or even Black-owned sites is an overabundance of entertainment,” Martin said. “Yet on the other hand, Black people saying, ‘Why are we not getting information?’ It is because of advertisers who essentially said we value Black entertainment over Blackness. So therefore, if that’s the case, the model can’t be totally dependent upon advertising. It has to be a combination of subscription and advertising.”
Martin believes the Black community has both the resources and the aptitude to pave the way for the paid content it wants. He points out that audiences have finally grown accustomed to paying for content of all kinds.
“Even though artists were critical of iTunes for setting the price, the reality is iTunes taught consumers how to pay for music,” Martin said. “Now we pay for streaming services. We pay for movies. Then you had paywalls for daily newspapers. African-Americans are going to have to pay for those news products. Otherwise we’re leaving it to the whim of someone else.”
History already holds the blueprint. In the years after slavery, when newspapers were not covering the Black community, Black people started their own newspapers and the public supported them. Many of those papers, including this one, survive to the present day.
“The Chicago Defender became the pre-eminent newspaper under Robert Abbott,” Martin explained. “By paying for that newspaper, they were paying the Defender to keep delivering them a product. Claude Barnett had his Associated Negro Press, same thing.”
Because of a lack of representation, Blacks also had to start their own consumer periodicals. Martin stated, “The question is how much do we value news and information that’s targeted to us, that’s about us and that’s from us? We know we subscribe to magazines. We sustained Ebony, we sustained Essence, we sustained these magazines.”
Martin revealed that he is currently working on a product to meet the needs of the modern-day Black news consumer. He believes one of the keys to success is paying attention to the type of content being delivered. “It has to be high quality and professional,” he said. “It has to be diverse. It can’t just sort of be just one thing. I am working on a digital model right now. We’re not at the point where we’re going to announce it, but I’ve spent considerable time over the last three years studying all them.”
On the other side of the equation, Martin is fully confident in the ability of Black media to deliver the quality content that paying subscribers would expect. “They’ve got to make decisions,” he said. “They can’t cover everything. They must decide, ‘What am I going to specialize and focus on?’ They can’t compete trying to cover entertainment and sports and culture, etc., so I’m going to do this way. Those are the decisions that you have to make.”