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The Black Press

The Black Press

Considering its long history and the size of its target audience, one might expect the black press to be the biggest and most advanced of the ethnic media in the U.S. Some outlets have been in existence for 40, 50, 60 years or longer. The oldest papers were founded more than a century ago. And some form of the black press has existed since 1827.1 The papers represent and serve a large established population. And there are several large, dense communities around the country to target.

Even so, the black press is not nearly as organized as the Spanish-language press; it has been slow to adapt to online technology, and its audience appears to be aging and waning. The lack of unification among the black press outlets leaves little hard data to analyze, but those who study the press offer some insights as to where the industry is going.

They argue that there are two primary challenges for the black press, though they are somewhat interconnected. First, the audience, like the one for mainstream newspapers, seems to be aging. And, second, many of the papers have been slow to establish an online presence.

Kevin Watson, an editor at New American Media, sees the problems as two sides of the same coin. The papers’ slowness in creating Web sites is costing them younger readers, while at the same time distribution centers for the print product, such as churches — also miss the younger demographic.

On the whole the black press has been slow to adapt to a changing world, says DC Livers, managing editor of blackpress.org, which is part of the Historical Black Press Foundation. She says papers have not worked to audit their circulations, so advertisers don’t know exactly what they getting. Her group is hoping to remedy that problem by pushing several more publications to be audited within the next year.

Among the few papers that do audit circulation, how do the trends look? Not good, according to research by PEJ. We ran the names of several scores of African-American newspapers through the database of the Audit Bureau of Circulations and only three yielded a result: New York’s Amsterdam News, the Philadelphia Tribune and the Baltimore Afro-American.

Between 2002 and 2006, the New York paper saw a steep decline in circulation, while the Baltimore and Philadelphia papers were essentially flat.

Circulation of Selected African-American Newspapers
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation, annual audit reports and publisher’s statements

The Amsterdam News, a weekly, fell to 13,175 in 2006 from 18,711 in 2004 – the last audit period. That is a decline of almost 30%. The biggest decline came in single-copy sales of the paper, which fell to 10,487 in 2006 from 14,298 in 2004.2

The Philadelphia Tribune, which publishes three days a week, lost a small number of readers, but was basically unchanged. For the purpose of this study PEJ averaged the three days’ circulation. The 2006 circulation figure for the Tribune was 11,559, just under the 2004 figure of 11,638, a decline of less than 1%.3

The Baltimore Afro-American, a weekly, was essentially flat. The paper’s circulation climbed to 11,224 in 2006, up from 11,180 in 2004, again less than 1%.4

Flat and declining circulations are not something new in print journalism, of course. Mainstream outlets have seen both. But the more telling aspect of those figures lies in the size of the numbers themselves in the context of the African-American populations involved. There are more than 2 million black people in New York City, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 620,000 in Philadelphia and almost 400,000 in Baltimore.5

Those papers, then, take in only a fraction of the African-American populations. Why are the figures so low?

Several traits work against the industry. The target readership already speaks English and can turn to any number of other print outlets — something not true with native-language ethnic outlets. And the fact that most of these publications are weekly — or at least less than daily — means they are not really meant as a replacement for other print media.

They exist as supplements to other news, ways to get other views. And those are the kinds of outlets that are suffering in the new media world. Surveys show that audiences are devoting steady or declining amounts of time to news consumption, while at the same time there are more outlets than ever — many of them online — competing for the news consumer’s attention. Print outlets, particularly supplemental ones, often take a hit.

The numbers might also reflect the success of African-Americans in the U.S. As the group becomes more and more a part of the mainstream culture, it may be that blacks don’t feel the desire to read publications aimed specifically at them. They may feel just as comfortable turning to mainstream outlets. It could also be, however, that most of the readers of the black press come from an older demographic, one in particular with roots in the nation’s civil rights struggles. The black press’s heyday came in the early 1960s as the civil rights movements was growing, but not yet covered seriously in the mainstream press. But as the mainstream press turned on to the story, the readership of the black press declined to a smaller core. As those readers grow older and die off, their numbers are not being replenished by younger readers.

That doesn’t mean the audience for the papers is undesireable. The National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black press publishers, estimates its 15 million readers have more than $570 million in buying power. With an average age of about 44, they are still not as old as mainstream newspaper readers, who average 55 years. The group also says 90% of its readers are high school graduates, with 6 in 10 having attended college.6

But in the end the black press seems to be facing problems similar to those of mainstream newspapers — declining and aging audiences — combined with a smaller audience to start with. The long-term prospects for those papers may well hinge on their ability to get online quickly.

The online world, which is defined less by geography than by interest group, may be well suited to black publications. Some African-American Web sites report high traffic numbers. BlackPlanet.com, a social networking news Web site, has more than 15 million registered members. Blackamericaweb.com, a site founded by the popular morning DJ Tom Joyner, reports 30,000 unique visitors a day.7

In fact, while the black press has suffered, black radio, particularly in the case of Joyner, has thrived. His show, a mix of comedy and commentary, is syndicated in roughly 120 markets and reaches some 8 million listeners. And it has had some major personalities on air including Senator Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton. The show is seen as a powerful force in the black community — an identity the black press would like to re-establish.

As more and more people go on online and develop online habits, the more urgent it is that the black press focus on getting online and building audience. Such a move might help in its effort to reclaim its place.

Footnotes

1. Black press Magazine.com press release

2. Audit Bureau of Circulations report for the New York Amsterdam News

3. Audit Bureau of Circulations report for the Philadelphia Tribune

4. Audit Bureau of Circulations report for the Baltimore Afro-American

5. 2005 U.S. Census data

6. National Newspaper Publisher’s Association data sheet

7. BlackAmericaWeb.com about page

8. Ibid