The Press Club of Cleveland's April luncheon was a congenial affair -- not at all what anyone expected.
Representatives of five local African American newspapers had convened to toss around the topic "Cleveland's African American Press: a Healthy Range of Voices or a Recipe for Instability?" At some point during the previous six months, media watchers around town suddenly discovered that there was not one, not two, but six weekly or biweekly newspapers covering African American issues. The vigorous public speculation that ensued prompted the Press Club's panel discussion.
Few could have envisioned such a gathering a year earlier, when the Call & Post -- the dean of Cleveland's African American press -- was in bankruptcy court, awaiting purchase after years of financial troubles. But the industry landscape began to change significantly when the paper was bought, out of the blue, by a high-profile Cleveland native. In response, two of the unsuccessful bidders started papers of their own, and another paper went from paid monthly to free weekly.
By the April luncheon, the question on many minds was: Can all of these papers survive? Surely there wouldn't be enough advertisers to support all six newspapers, and the ensuing competition for revenue would lead somebody to fall by the wayside. Mainstream newspaper coverage characterized the competition with battle metaphors, and observers were left to wonder why Cleveland needed that many African American papers in the first place.
One by one, the papers' spokesmen -- Call & Post Senior Editor John Lenear, City News Publisher James Crosby, Cleveland Monitor Publisher and Editor Richard T. Andrews, East Side Daily News Publisher and Editor Ulysses Glen, and Crusader Urban News Publisher and Editor Bill Potts -- asserted that there is no "war" between their papers. (Cleveland Life, the sixth paper in the equation, did not participate in the roundtable.)
All five said the question should be cast in terms of advertising support for African American media in general, not which individual entity or entities would survive the shakeout. "I do not understand why 25 percent of the black people in this community, and the media that represent them, should be constricted to 2 percent of . . . all the [advertising] money for the entire media," said Lenear. "And I think that in itself is just racist. There's absolutely institutional racism right there. And there's absolutely no reason why we should sit here today . . . and be subjected to a dog and pony show, as if we are supposed to be at odds with one another."
The cordial tone of the presentations and question-and-answer period lent credence to the belief that, despite any differences and disagreements behind the scenes, the papers saw themselves as colleagues more than competitors. But the reality, since borne out in the marketplace, was that this was a gathering of players in a highly competitive business, and all the racial solidarity in the world wouldn't pay their bills. Indeed, six months after the height of the hype, market forces seem to have taken hold. In order to find a niche that will allow them to stay afloat, the two newest papers have made radical changes: Andrews left the Monitor in August, and its owners have revamped the paper; and City News is merging with Cleveland Tab, an alternative newspaper.
The fact that there is some shakeout happening in a crowded field is not newsworthy. That this particular field became crowded at all was and still is news.
Greater Cleveland is home to approximately 400,000 African Americans, with a combined buying power of $3 billion.
But while the African American community's political and economic influence -- not to mention its professional class and geographic dispersal -- has grown over the last thirty years, it has yet to develop lasting media institutions to parallel, chronicle, or analyze such developments. Magazines have come and gone. The only local broadcast properties owned by African Americans today are the East Cleveland cable system and one FM and two AM radio stations. No newspaper has mounted a successful challenge to the Call & Post's decades-long hegemony.
The fact that five papers now exist to offer counterpoint to the Call & Post -- no matter if they're all still here a year or five years from now -- suggests there is a need for media by and for African Americans that represent a wide spectrum of economic, social, and political perspectives, and that provide information not found in mainstream outlets. It also proves that there are people with the vision, capital, and chutzpah to give it a shot.
And the need for information, news, and discussion is as critical now as it has ever been. While many African Americans have moved on up like the Jeffersons, many more haven't and probably won't. Police brutality, education, and access to a decent life continue to be front-burner issues. If Cleveland ever needed a strong and vigilant African American press, now's the time. Which of the current papers, if any, will fill that role?
Pleading the Cause
Most studies indicate that newspaper readership is down, now that more Americans are getting their news from cable television and the Internet. The opposite, however, is true for African American newspapers.
"Black newspapers are doing much better than conventional wisdom would have you believe," says Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based research company that monitors African American consumers and media trends. "Especially in the major markets, they don't have the mortality rate of general market newspapers. Papers that are five years old and older are not closing."
That may be because African American newspapers historically have played a different role from mainstream publications. They have been the glue that helped keep a politically and economically disenfranchised community together and informed.
The tone that most current publications strive to meet was set by the very first effort, Freedom's Journal, published in New York City by Samuel Eli Cornish and John Brown Russwurm from 1827 to 1829. "We wish to plead our own cause," the editors wrote in the first issue. Their five-point mission statement cited the creation of a forum for African American expression and discourse, an emphasis on educating young people, self-help lessons on economics and socialization, the importance of voting, and the promotion of major African American authors and scholars.
Most of the first African American newspapers were regional and short-lived. Not surprisingly, much of the discussion was about the abolition of slavery. As more localized papers emerged after the Civil War, they took on a multifaceted role in their communities -- one that the major papers to this day still play.
"They spoke for and to the black community and its leaders," says filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose documentary America's Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords aired on public television in February. The papers "helped to shape African American opinions about themselves and the world," says Nelson, who began reading them while researching other projects. "I became fascinated by the papers themselves and the insight they gave into people's lives, communities, hopes, and dreams."
As the only form of mass communication available to African Americans, they helped promote small businesses, publicized community and church activities, and gave voice to a world that sustained itself despite the oppression of segregation.
Their advocacy role has never diminished, says Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Chicago and Gary, Indiana Crusader and immediate past president of the National Newspaper Association (NNPA), a trade group representing more than two hundred African American newspapers.
"We are needed more than ever before," Leavell says. "Many stories would not see the light of day without the black press." As examples, Leavell cites the Texaco discrimination case and racial profiling by U.S. Customs Department employees and law enforcement officers.
And while small-business advertising, from retailers to fortune tellers, has been the backbone of these papers, the major bone of contention by the current Cleveland publishers is that large advertisers have ignored them and, by extension, the African American community.
"There is still a certain degree of racism in the industry in terms of the white corporate dollar," says Michael House, chief operating officer for the Call & Post. "They put their dollars in white newspapers, radio, and TV stations. In many cases, they feel they can reach and sell [African American consumers] through those media just as easily."
But, House says, "Reaching us may not be selling [to] us, because we have a strong loyalty to those who support our institutions. Anyone that supports those institutions has a better chance of getting our readers to buy their products or services."
Smikle attributes the lack of mainstream advertising support to economic ignorance, not racism. "There just isn't as much known about African Americans by most major marketers," Smikle explains. "Once you show most companies the numbers, the myths, and the inaccuracies, they generally get more involved. But it takes somebody else going first to get everybody else interested."
"What all of our newspapers do is educate these advertisers on a lot of different fronts," City News's Crosby says. "We're educating them that we're a valuable audience with huge amounts of disposable income. This is brand-new information to them. They don't know that there's a huge middle-class black population out there."
Down the Big Road
The first African American newspaper published in Cleveland was in the spirit of the broadly circulated anti-slavery papers of the time. In 1853, William Howard Day and two runaway slaves, Samuel Ringgold Ward and J.W.C. Pennington, inaugurated the Aliened American. Day, an Oberlin College graduate, had gained newspaper experience as a compositor and local editor at the general-market Cleveland Daily True Democrat.
Day, Ward, and Pennington kept the Aliened American going for three years, featuring literature, science, and the arts in addition to news and commentary. After its demise, there was no African American newspaper published locally until well after the Civil War and Reconstruction. But between the 1870s and 1890s, Cleveland's black population more than doubled, and the liberal political climate of the region fostered the birth of a burgeoning African American middle class.
Harry Clay Smith and three associates founded the weekly Cleveland Gazette in 1883, but it was primarily Smith's enterprise. It quickly took on Smith's pro-integration politics, vehemently attacking segregation and racial prejudice. Even though he was a firm supporter of African American business, Smith denounced the bootstrap capitalism ideologies of Booker T. Washington and advocated a more militant stance.
The Gazette became Cleveland's dominant pre-World War I African American paper, outlasting the Globe (1884-'96) and other competitors. But Smith's strident personality earned him many detractors, some of whom started newspapers of their own. The Journal (1903-'12) and The Advocate (1914-'22) were closer to Washington's ethos, but eventually fell by the wayside, and The Herald lasted only from 1924 to 1926. Two other challengers to the Gazette, The Call (founded in 1920 by inventor/entrepreneur Garrett Morgan) and The Post (founded in 1919) weren't doing much better and probably also would have gone under if they hadn't merged in 1927.
The Gazette's heyday coincided with the first golden age of the African American press. Newspapers such as The Chicago Defender (est. 1905), The Philadelphia Tribune (1884), The Baltimore Afro-American (1892), and The Pittsburgh Courier (1910) became not only tireless crusaders for African American causes but successful enterprises in their own right.
The papers afforded training opportunities for many journalists and publishers, including William Otis Walker. Born in Selma, Alabama, in 1896, Walker studied at Wilberforce University, in southwestern Ohio, and at Oberlin Business College before becoming a reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier in 1919. He was soon promoted to city editor before moving to The Norfolk Journal and Guide. His next stop was Washington, D.C., where he founded The Washington Tribune and served for nine years as managing editor. Walker left the newspaper business for retailing, but he soon itched to get back in the game and had settled on Cleveland for his reentry into journalism.
Attorney Norman McGhee, publisher of the merged Call & Post, tapped Walker to run the paper in 1932. By the end of the decade, circulation had risen to almost 10,000, up from three hundred when Walker came on board. Walker stabilized the paper's organization and outlasted the competition (Smith's staunch Republican politics helped the Gazette fall out of favor during the New Deal; it ceased publication in 1945, four years after Smith's death). He even acquired controlling interest in the paper and formed P.W. Publishing to own the enterprise. In time, editions were rolled out in Columbus and Cincinnati. But Walker's era of importance had only just begun.
Under his watch, the Call & Post became the unquestioned advocate of African Americans in Cleveland. Along with John O. Holly and other vocal African Americans, Walker formed the Future Outlook League, which pushed for increased hiring of African Americans and membership in trade unions. Walker's weekly column, "Down the Big Road," publicized FOL activities.
Walker was also active in local politics. Early on in Cleveland, he had proven his ability to rally the African American vote through the paper. In 1939, he was elected to City Council from the Cedar-Central area. The Call & Post's strength made Walker something of a kingmaker: a required visit for any politician courting African American votes. But though he was a Republican, he regularly threw his weight behind African American politicians regardless of affiliation. It was Walker, among others, who helped Democrat Carl Stokes form the strategy that won him the mayoral election in 1967.
The Call & Post came of age during the 1940s, the second golden age of African American newspapers. From the Great Depression to the dawn of the civil rights movement, African American papers enjoyed their greatest influence. The key papers of the era monitored treatment of African American soldiers in the segregated armed forces during World War II and consistently pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting to free Nazi Germany while still discriminated against at home. They insisted on the rights of African American reporters to sit in the U.S. Senate press gallery. They also kept their readers informed of the latest exploits of sports heroes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.
But the good times didn't last forever. Ironically, the civil rights movement saw the downturn of the African American press.
African American newspapers were similar to baseball's Negro leagues and historically black colleges. All three institutions thrived as late as the '40s and '50s, in large part because of the indifference of mainstream society. But the Negro leagues died a slow death after Jackie Robinson joined the major leagues in 1947. Enrollment at black colleges dwindled, once major mainstream universities opened their doors wider to African American students. And the civil rights movement proved too big a story for the white press to ignore.
"During the '60s," Nelson says, "black papers started to lag. They didn't have the resources to cover the civil rights movement vis-à-vis The New York Times."
To make matters worse, what few resources they had were quickly usurped. Mainstream media, which had more money to spend, were able to hire away African American reporters. At the same time, integration of suburban communities led to the inadvertent dispersal of the tightly knit African American community segregation had fostered. The African American press began to lose its readers.
"With integration," Leavell says, "it was thought that there would be no need for a specialized press."
The leadership of the papers fell out of touch with the political mood of their audience. Many of the old-line African American publishers were Republicans, while African American allegiance switched to the Democratic Party, largely on the strength of John F. and Robert Kennedy. Radicalized African Americans in the late '60s had even less patience with politics as usual.
"The papers changed," Nelson says. "They were started by people with fire in their bellies. Now, the people who ran them, their passion was to make money."
The Call & Post was not immune to these trends. By the time of Walker's death in 1981, the paper was no longer part of the vanguard. Business Manager Harry Alexander and prominent businessman and attorney John H. Bustamonte took over the operation after Walker died, with Bustamonte assuming control after Alexander's death in 1988. Under the watch of Bustamonte and his sons, J.W. Andre and Michael Tuan, the Call & Post hit rock bottom.
By the '90s the paper was besieged by creditors and IRS problems. In 1995, P.W. Publishing declared bankruptcy. It looked like 1927 all over again. Bankruptcy court trustee Saul Eisen managed to bring enough stability to the paper's finances to put the property up for sale in 1998. Several suitors, all with previous publishing experience, formed groups to bid on the property. The actual winner had no previous media ownership experience and seemed to come from out of nowhere.
Actually, he came from the streets of Cleveland.
King Ascends the Throne
Throughout his youth and early adulthood, Don King was the most successful numbers runner on Cleveland's East Side. In 1966, he stomped Sam Garrett to death in broad daylight on Cedar Avenue, over $600 Garrett owed him. For that, he was convicted of manslaughter and spent five years in prison.
The rest really is history. King became a voracious reader while on lockdown and emerged with a sharpened intellect and a desire to make it big. He became a boxing promoter and stunned the sports world by pulling off the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. But for every one of his triumphs in boxing, there are countless allegations of how he ripped off boxers or rigged boxers' ratings, right up to his role in the Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis judging debacle last fall in Madison Square Garden. He has never been convicted of any boxing misdeed, but that's not for lack of trying. Mike Tyson is only the most recent boxer to sue him.
The side King wants the world to see these days was captured in a cover story last summer for Emerge, a national African American news magazine. That side is King the philanthropist, the supporter of worthy causes, the race man. Over the years, and especially in the last few years, King has made high-profile financial contributions to the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of Negro Women, and similar organizations.
King's detractors claim that his generous donations were designed to bring him praise from influential, non-boxing supporters. Chicago Tribune sportswriter Jerry Thomas, who wrote the glowing Emerge piece, says that King's philanthropic endeavors spring from his concern for how history will treat him.
"He is extremely serious about black empowerment," Thomas says. "He wants to leave a legacy, to establish himself as someone who advanced the cause of black people." As of June 1998, that legacy includes ownership of the Call & Post. King Media Enterprises won the bankruptcy court bidding process with an eleventh-hour bid of $760,000.
King did not officially enter the picture until "the day before we went to court," says Crosby, who spearheaded a runner-up group. Crosby had been president and publisher of Cleveland Life, but left that newspaper to bid on the Call & Post. Prior to King's entrance, Crosby believed that his group was the frontrunner.
"It was a done deal. We had already set up meetings with potential advertisers. That Thursday night [the week before the sale], [King] came in and asked for the bid package and sent the bid package back that Friday, which was the absolute last day he could have filed for the proceedings. Coming from nowhere? Yeah, he came from nowhere. Unbelievable."
There was little noticeable change in the Call & Post immediately after the sale, except that the paper began running stories from non-staff writers (including Thomas) about King's charitable and social activities. Headlines include:
"Don King, Rev. Al Sharpton lead New York memorial service for James Byrd Jr." (June 25, 1998)
"Happy birthday Don King" (September 10, 1998)
"Don King receives honorary degree, pledges millions" (November 26, 1998)
"Don King receives Humanitarian Award" (December 3, 1998).
King can hardly be considered the first newspaper publisher to toot his own horn in his paper. But a series of pieces this spring and summer show that King has also used the Call & Post to do battle with his nemeses in boxing and the federal government.
Federal agents raided King's Deerfield Beach, Florida offices in May, confiscating his records, ledgers, and computer files. They were seeking evidence that King was part of a conspiracy to fix boxers' ratings and claim higher attendance and purses from the higher rated boxers' fights. Almost immediately, King went into counterattack mode on the pages of his paper. Headlines include:
"Takeover ploy: Time Warner, HBO, TVKO trying to shaft Don King" (June 10, 1999)
"Fourth attempt: Feds aim another sucker-punch at Don King" (July 7, 1999)
"At National Convention NAACP adopts support resolution for Don King" (July 21, 1999)
"National Bar Association claims King's probe unfair" (August 11, 1999).
House makes no apologies for the paper's editorial slant regarding King's boxing and philanthropic activities. "We try not to be a PR vehicle for Don King," says the chief operating officer. "Don King is news in himself. There are situations that we feel should be covered. We not only cover it in the Call & Post, but we also pass it on to all the other African American newspapers, because we feel it's that important."
King's critics take a different tack. "King certainly doesn't have a reputation as a person concerned with providing quality journalism," says Andrews. "My supposition was, perhaps he was interested in addressing the personal problems that he personally has had with the press, and he thought that owning a press was one way to do that."
"King's doing exactly what we knew he was going to do," asserts Crosby. "Nothing."
King's publishing ambitions don't end there. Both House and Leavell say King would be interested in purchasing other distressed African American newspapers.
The Competition Lines Up
Beyond the Call & Post, Northeast Ohio's three highest-profile African American publications are Cleveland Life, City News, and the Monitor, with Cleveland Life the most visible.
Founded in 1994 by Chairman/CEO Lou Reyes Jr., co-founder and former co-publisher of Small Business News magazine, and with Crosby as the original publisher, Cleveland Life focused less on hard news than on personality profiles during its first four years. Last spring, after Crosby left the paper, Reyes changed its distribution from a paid monthly to a free weekly.
With 1,600 drop-off points throughout Greater Cleveland and plans to expand into Akron and Lorain County, Cleveland Life is much easier to find in some parts of town than the other papers. Under new Publisher Jon Everett, it also beefed up the news quotient in its editorial mix and added an entertainment section this spring.
Controversy also is part of the mix. Political Editor Eric Brewer wrote several scathing columns and articles about the administration of East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, for whom Brewer once worked; Brewer was forcibly removed from a city meeting and took out recall petitions against Onunwor. The newspaper is facing a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former employee, who is now with Crosby's City News. And Reyes, a Mexican American, still has to beat back occasional charges that he is not responsive to the African American community because he isn't African American.
Reyes answered his critics in a commentary published June 9. "I believed we could help small African American business grow, and I believe we have more than accomplished that goal," Reyes wrote. "Keep watching us, because I'm not going away. After all my competitors have thrown at me, isn't it obvious?"
Crosby, Reyes's former publisher, has no regrets about leaving Cleveland Life to try to buy the Call & Post.
"I put in the absolute best possible hand I could ever have done," Crosby says. "I am proud to say that it cost me a shitload of money to go through this process, and I lost all that money, and it was the best experience I've ever had in my entire life. I can't see me learning any more about anything -- attorneys, bankruptcy, the people involved. It was the best experience of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Crosby, a banker, has the opportunity to apply some of those lessons with City News, the paper he started last fall. The biweekly publication has a 35,000-copy press run and is the only African American paper with street boxes, mostly around downtown. Crosby also boasts a growing readership among West Siders, a largely untapped market for African American newspapers.
City News specializes in articles about personal finance, legal advice (written by Crosby's brother Fred, an attorney), and health. News coverage is less extensive and in-depth than in some of the other papers and tends toward celebrating achievers and their accomplishments, but City News features a range of local voices on its op-ed pages. It also offers regular news from Africa, a priority of Editor Deborah Burstion-Donbraye, a native Clevelander who was previously a journalist and business co-owner in Nigeria.
But the realities of the marketplace prompted a decision to merge with Cleveland Tab, published by Jim Carney Jr. The Tab recently underwent changes of its own, scaling back from a biweekly to a monthly publication. While final details of the partnership have not been set, the new entity, to be published weekly, is expected to hit the streets before the end of the year. The first sign of the new partnership came in the September 22 City News, which featured a guest editorial by Carney.
Crosby sees the merging of the two papers' separate readerships as a potentially energizing force. "This can open up the world for our readers and help bring the cultures together," he says.
Of all six papers, the Cleveland Monitor is the most politically oriented. In its first incarnation, it covered the local African American political scene in detail, from Cleveland City Hall to the suburban and county levels. It also published editorials and columns about local and national African American political leadership.
Andrews, an attorney, started the Monitor last fall after a failed bid to take over the Call & Post by Choice Construction Co., which would have installed Andrews as editor. It was Andrews's third try in the media game, following the short-lived efforts The Chestnutt Report and The Real Deal.
"We need a reliable source of information that is not designed to be feel-good news, not designed to be entertainment, not designed to be boosterism," Andrews stated in an interview several weeks before he left the paper.
Inadequate circulation, production delays, and other issues hamstrung the paper, to the point where Andrews and the ownership parted ways after the August 11 issue. Andrews was replaced as publisher and editor by Associate Editor Roger T. Jones, a former Free Times contributor who cut his journalism teeth at the International Herald Tribune in Paris.
The Monitor underwent a complete makeover, reappearing September 19 as a twenty-page tabloid instead of a ten-page broadsheet. It is now the only weekly African American paper to be published on Sunday, with an expanded press run on the first Sunday of every month.
Jones says the influx of new players into the industry reflects an African American professional class with more education and experience than their predecessors had.
The Call & Post has responded to the increased competition with mostly cosmetic and infrastructure improvements to date. It added color to its masthead and put a new fleet of delivery vans on the street. It inaugurated a promotions campaign within African American churches. The paper's operations are slated to move from rented office space in Glenville to a building King purchased on Shaker Boulevard, just west of Shaker Square.
Editorially, little has changed. The paper's mix of local news, community events, church, entertainment, and sports coverage has remained constant, even with the column inches devoted to King's activities. Society Columnist Constance Harper was recently promoted to executive vice-president/editor.
House joined the paper in March from Amalgamated Publishers Inc., where he was president of a firm that placed national ads in more than 250 African American newspapers, including the Call & Post. His national background in the publishing industry is an asset the other local papers can't claim.
"The larger markets have traditionally had numerous newspapers," House acknowledges. "We have been a little bit spoiled by the fact that there has only been one major publication in the market for many, many years."
The remaining two newspapers in the current equation have much smaller profiles, but they have established identifiable niches and helped pave the way for collaborative efforts between all the African American newspapers.
Ulysses Glen started the East Side Daily News as a weekly paper in 1980. It serves southeastern Cleveland and the adjoining suburbs, concentrating mostly on community news. Glen, who learned his craft under Walker at the Call & Post, boasts that his paper was the first in the market to use color on its front page and the first African American paper in the state to publish more than once a week (thus earning the "daily" designation, although it is now back to weekly publication).
Former concert promoter Bill Potts began Crusader Arts & Entertainment in 1990 to cover African American entertainment and culture. But there wasn't enough advertising support from the entertainment industry to make the paper viable over the long haul, so Potts expanded the paper's focus in 1995 to include news, rechristening it Crusader Urban News.
One thing the East Side Daily News and Crusader Urban News can claim is early recognition of the need to join forces in advocating common causes. Glen says the Cleveland Minority Publishers Association (CMPA) was formed in 1992 to address the lack of advertising from mainstream corporations in minority publications. The CMPA included Glen's and Potts's ventures, and other smaller papers like Community News, Lee-Harvard Times, and The Reporter.
Recently, the CMPA has emerged as a vehicle for all the newspapers to work together and plan strategy for their collective growth. An August 29 black music event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was co-sponsored by the CMPA, which numbered all the previously mentioned publications except Cleveland Life, plus the Spanish-language Nuevos Horizontes. The group has also met with local advertising associations and major corporations to stress the need for expanded advertising support.
This Week's Top Stories
Kim Fox, president of the Cleveland chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, likes the fact that there is diversity of voices within the local African American press. But she wonders which of those voices, if any, will stand apart from the crowd.
"I don't think the papers have defined themselves enough," Fox says. "They're re-creating the wheel; there's no unique perspective. With all these papers, I don't know which paper African Americans are turning to."
Indeed, for the most part, all of the papers are covering the same stories, many of which are old news by the time they come out. The writing and reporting don't always add a distinctive interpretation of the facts, and there are few stories unique to each paper. Ironically, the most significant local African American media story of the year has been all but nonexistent in Cleveland's African American print outlets. Only the Monitor has reported on the purchase last spring of the former WENZ-FM/107.9 and WERE-AM/1300 by Radio One Inc., a rapidly growing Washington, D.C.-based conglomerate owned by Cathy Hughes, an African American woman. The deal comes at a time when nationwide corporate cannibalism has all but eliminated African Americans from broadcast media ownership.
There were examples of good work around the Klan affair in all the papers, but also examples of their shortcomings. As weeklies with limited reporting staffs, they were not able to offer much more than a recap of the previous week's events. The Call & Post at least had the freshest headlines, keeping the front page open until Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday run. Editorials in the papers commented on the Mike White-George Forbes squabble within the broader context of the role of African American political leadership.
The primary tone sounded in Cleveland Life's pages was "Come to the Black Family Expo instead!" This was not surprising, since Live Events, the special-events arm of Cleveland Life, co-sponsored the expo. But because Cleveland Life actively and unequivocally trumpeted the event, it ended up on the radar of all the other media in town and lent some context to the drama unfolding downtown.
There has been some change in advertising, but not enough to give one paper an unqualified edge. The major advertisers are, for the most part, still avoiding the African American press, although companies like Dillard's are now giving it a try.
So who's going to ride this out, and who's going to be especially challenged? If it comes down to strictly a matter of available funding, the Call & Post should be in good shape. The paper will continue to enjoy the advantage of being the standard bearer, at least for the foreseeable future. King's ownership ensures that money won't be as much of an issue there as it is at the other papers. The question will be how the money gets spent. If King's financial backing doesn't upgrade the quality of the final product, and if the paper is perceived to be little more than a vanity vehicle for King, readership won't grow amid the competition.
Cleveland Life is also poised to ride out the competition, by virtue of its distinctive format and widespread distribution, if nothing else. If its editorial staff can continue churning out stories not seen in other papers, it will have a better chance of holding onto the higher-end demographic readers advertisers want.
On the other end of the spectrum, East Side Daily News and Crusader Urban News aren't about to challenge the larger papers, but they aren't going anywhere. They operate on a smaller but sustainable scale, even if advertising doesn't substantially grow. "Most blacks at mainstream media companies aren't satisfied," says Glen of the East Side Daily News. "I'm not making any money, but I'm happy."
With City News and the Monitor retooling themselves, the competition issue is still in play, almost one year after it first arose. All six of the papers are still publishing, and market share hasn't appreciably changed for any of them. In other words, the battle for readers and advertisers, and ultimately for survival and growth, is a long way from over. Local readers, now that they finally have a print media choice, will have much more to say about who lives and who doesn't.
Filmmaker Nelson doesn't see African American newspapers having quite the same impact today that they did a half-century ago. "It's going to be hard to do it in every single city like it was. You're not going to have those strong weekly newspapers" because of increased competition for news and information providers.
But, he adds, "The need for the advocacy press is still there. Somebody will find a way to do it and make money."
Mark V. Reynolds can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.