African American News Media

George Sylvie. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

African American news media grew—as media so often do—from a need to communicate displeasure, in this case, of blacks with the way the white U.S. majority had treated them. A single publication blossomed into several hundred, driving a popular movement for equality as well as a people’s struggle toward civic, educational, and economic fulfillment. The black press dominated much of the first two centuries of that struggle, showcasing the debate on its pages while transmitting mainstream values and ideals to its readership and modeling prevailing newspaper business practices. Advances in technology have led to other, more viable forms of media, most notably radio and television—which continued to provide alternative, if relatively few, voices to the concerns of blacks. At the dawn of the Internet era, African Americans continue to struggle and plead their cause.


Despite their plight, African slaves who were brought to North America beginning in the 1600s created a strong, expressive tradition, singing songs and spirituals and orally passing down poetry and narratives through the years. But decades of being ignored or inaccurately portrayed by mainstream media prompted a group of free African Americans—led by college-educated John B. Russwurm and ordained minister Samuel Cornish—to start Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827. The weekly paper advocated antislavery issues and furthered discussion on affluent, middle-class lifestyle and cultural matters (e.g., fashion and religion), becoming the model for the 40 or so black newspapers across the United States until the Civil War’s end (and the ascent of political equality issues) in 1865, most of them in the North (although The Daily Creole, the first African American daily, was started in 1864 in New Orleans).

Raising blacks’ political profile, inspiring them, and creating middle-class aspirations required passion and business insight, as black illiteracy and the lack of advertising support posed significant challenges for the early African American press. As illiteracy declined and black mobility increased after the war, black newspapers proliferated (more than 500 started in 1890 alone), but many were short-lived. Unlike white papers, the black press had to rely on copy sales—rather than advertising—for most of its income because there weren’t many black businesses and no white businesses would advertise in the publications. And with literacy rates among African Americans reaching only 50 percent by 1900, sales income was so low that many black editors had to take second jobs.

After the Civil War, with the increasingly mobile and literate black population spreading across the country, more and more black newspapers started publishing (although many died just as quickly), including one present-day survivor, The Philadelphia Tribune, started in 1884. No one paper dominated the continuing battle against segregation, lynching, and discrimination. Rather, a collection of papers of varying influences and duration took up the fight against injustice, particularly as portrayed by the southern white press (i.e., blacks as bungling, uncivilized, and morally lax). Southern black papers—including the Charleston (South Carolina) New Era, Huntsville (Alabama) Gazette, and Savannah (Georgia) Tribune—upheld the premise that blacks were human and deserving of better treatment but these three newspapers needed every voice of support they could muster as more and more of them had trouble surviving. Newspapers that did survive found much to write about, particularly the abolition of lynching and the power of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the South. Because the government and the courts would not “control” blacks, private white citizens took to illegal means to do so, resulting in terror among black families (between 1884 and 1900, some 2,500 African Americans were lynched) and fears of a return to slavery. So the Reconstruction Era (ca. 1865-77) black press continued to publicize wrongdoings and provide an outlet for racial pride and self-determination, albeit in short bursts because inadequate funding prevented consistent publishing schedules. Many black publishers did not operate their publications as profit-making businesses; they were so busy maintaining watch on the Republican Party and black-related concerns and issues and—as a result—neglecting advertising needs that they often couldn’t subsist. Still, many renowned newspapers were published in major urban areas (in addition to Philadelphia), most notably Indianapolis, Washington, New York, and Cleveland; many were circulated throughout their respective states, effectively becoming more than local newspapers and wielding regional power.

The combination of moral outrage at perceived inequities and optimism that African Americans still could achieve the American dream helped to unite African Americans and inspire them to persevere at a time when complete freedom seemed unattainable. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883 ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which guaranteed equal treatment in public accommodations) unconstitutional—essentially denying federal protection of African Americans against discrimination in the use of their newly won rights—and the federal government withdrew troops from the South the same year, Jim Crow laws (requiring separate public facilities for blacks) began to appear (in nine states by 1892). Blacks protested this and other perceived wrongs through the black press, particularly in the North. (Southern and Midwest papers tended to be less demanding and more compromising.) Despite these dire trends, African Americans overall continued to be optimistic and to turn to black newspapers for inspiration.

Outstanding papers during this Reconstruction era included The New York Globe (later alternately known as The Freeman or The Age, the latter becoming the most widely read and influential black newspaper of its time), which promoted the idea of a national organization—the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—formed to contest racial discrimination and related issues. Globe founder T. Thomas Fortune suggested blacks stand firm and hold their ground against mounting white violence, contrary to the advice of more moderate black leaders such as Booker T. Washington. Fortune, the first to use the term “Afro American,” said blacks should die for their rights, if necessary. Although he believed in following the law, Fortune also felt that, lacking adequate legal protection, blacks should protect themselves—even if it meant bearing arms.

A different type of black press leadership came from Baltimore, where in 1892 the Baltimore Afro American—by the early twenty-first century second only to the Philadelphia newspaper as the longest, continuously operating black newspaper—was started by former slave and later Virginia minister John H. Murphy Jr. Establishing a strong reputation for local sensationalistic news as well as coverage of black issues, the paper—under the direction of printshop supervisor-turned-manager John H. Murphy and his family—outlasted a half-dozen similar local publications by building its infrastructure through the selling of stock and building its content on its appeal to working-class blacks rather than the elite. It also maintained a dual outlook toward racial issues—denouncing racial segregation while advocating for the best circumstances for blacks within the racist system—while increasing its influence beyond its midatlantic and Southern black readership to become more of a national voice for black America.

Political Action, with Restraint and Booker T. Washington’s Help

Around the turn of the century, many black papers started to reflect the Afro American in that they were philosophically split on racial issues—but in large part they concentrated on how to reverse blacks’ declining fortunes. Despite the moderation advanced by successful African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, some African Americans began to tout migration as a solution to the plight of Southern blacks in the columns of the black press. So encouraged, nearly 2 million blacks moved from the rural South to the more industrial North between 1910 and 1930. Inequities persisted, particularly regarding competition for jobs and housing; riots sometimes resulted, leading to the creation of the aforementioned NAACP in 1910. But regular American life—freedom from slavery, in other words—began to return some dividends: literacy growth (fostered by free public education) led to improved employment capacity for blacks. This resulting intellectual divide between middle- and lower-class blacks, combined with blacks’ improved economic power and potential and the racially segregated housing and social patterns of the industrialized cities, laid the groundwork for a fairly dramatic change in the black press.

Washington’s idea—essentially that through hard work, self-education, and patience, African Americans could better themselves and show whites that blacks were worthy of full citizenship—resonated with many black newspaper publishers. It helped that he headed Tuskegee Institute, which supplied the black-oriented National Press bureau with news releases and advertising while directly aiding some newspapers (via subsidies, free content, and advertising). Although it was not among the papers affiliated with the bureau, The Chicago Defender—founded in 1905 and generally acknowledged as one of the top three influential black papers in the country—nonetheless led the way in commercializing the black press. Increased reliance on advertising, combined with increased and controversial news coverage, helped position The Defender and its editor Robert Abbott as models for other publications. Not only did the paper advocate for blacks, it made a profit, too.

Washington’s philosophy of advancement through financial success subtly worked its way into the very foundations of the black press. The Defender—while sensationalist in its own right—was an early proponent of the northward migration and at the outset shunned political coverage, concentrating more on branding itself as a voice for blacks throughout the country. By taking this approach, it was able to build up circulations in various cities that had their local Defender editions and successfully copy the circulation-is-king model of U.S. newspaper icons James Gordon Bennett and William Randolph Hearst. The increased circulation drew advertising, which led to development of ad-only sections and greater reliance on advertisers for revenue. The Afro American soon began to imitate this model, which continues to this day in certain states and metropolitan areas with large black populations (The Atlanta[Georgia] Daily World, for example, started as a weekly in 1928 and became the first black daily in 1932; it expanded to include 60 Daily Worlds across the country until economic realities and politics [it did not support sit-ins of downtown Atlanta restaurants in the 1960s] reduced its influence to only Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; and Memphis, Tennessee). By 1918, white advertising agencies were representing black papers to white advertisers, and black newspapers enjoyed an economic “golden age” until 1930 (The Defender grew from 21 columns of advertising per printing in 1917 to more than 61 columns in 1919).

But many black papers, despite their flourishing thanks to the advertising and the growing black middle class, also reflected the pro-protest position (i.e., that blacks should oppose and doubt whites’ views) advocated by activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and other intellectuals. Such papers—often carrying fewer commercial advertisements because their advertising space promoted socialistic ideas—joined their more commercial peers in condemning race-based policies; but they also tried to promote a certain kind of united black identity rooted in reform, dissent, equality, and integration. Partly because of Washington’s heavy-handedness (via his own news and distribution service; his influence in gaining grants for black papers that refrained from certain criticisms of him or his political contacts; and his covert efforts to economically damage independent, critical black newspapers), however, these papers were dwarfed by those that urged self-betterment, domestic life, gradual social progress, schooling, and economic enhancement via conventional channels. Few editors could resist Washington’s financial support and thus his influence, not even T. Thomas Fortune, who was befriended and later politically castigated by Washington.

World War I, meanwhile, assisted black economic progress by driving African Americans into the work force to fill the job vacancies left by whites going into the armed forces. Chicago (aided by The Defender‘s continued encouragement of migration) became a magnet for blacks; two of every three copies of The Defender were sold outside Chicago, primarily in the South, indicating that Chicago beckoned as a black oasis in the United States. Headlines such as “Call the White fiends to the Door and Shoot them Down” did not endear the paper to whites. Not surprisingly, the paper became a target of war-time investigation by federal agencies and lasting southern ire.

The war added equal treatment for black soldiers to the newspapers’ agenda, putting the black press in the position of having to protest while simultaneously being a patriotic war supporter. As a result, the federal government—through flattery and legal threat—tried to monitor and control anything the 200 or so black newspapers did that approached war-time criticism. Anti-German and pro-patriotism materials, speakers, and events sponsored by the black press were not enough to pacify suspicious Justice Department officials, who often surveilled, interrogated, and occasionally jailed black editors and publishers, but never prosecuted them, for fear of seeming hypocritical—fighting for freedom and equality for non-Americans while some within its own borders weren’t allowed the same privileges—to other countries.

Setting the Table for Civil Rights

At war’s end, the black press resumed the struggle for civil rights. The federal government—led by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s vigilance against any perceived collaboration between civil rights and communist groups soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917—never relaxed its scrutiny of the black press and attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to pass peacetime antitreason legislation. Black newspapers, for their part, renewed the fight against lynching and the resurgent KKK while reaping the benefits of still-increasing black literacy and postwar black yearning for social progress. Soon many of the nearly 500 black newspapers, most of them published weekly, fostered a protest movement initially based on the ideas of Jamaican intellectual and editor Marcus Garvey, who believed that only self-reliance by African Americans could break the bonds of racism. Garvey also stressed the importance of the liberation of Africa from colonial powers and global black pride. These ideas inspired similar-thinking groups—such as the National Urban League, the NAACP, and the National Negro Congress—to call for mass black protest—notions that took hold not only in Chicago but also in the many other northern cities that benefited from black migration, such as Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York.

One such city, Pittsburgh, began to nurture a rival to The Defender with The Pittsburgh Courier. Improved reporting and interesting content (coverage of notable black achievements and political satire, for example) enhanced the paper’s reputation. Southern emigrant, lawyer, and Courier editor-publisher Robert Vann emulated The Defender‘s business model, as well as its sensationalist ways, but tempered its coverage of the lurid and scandalous with expansive investigative reports on the American South and Africa, earning it readers nationally and abroad. Its continuous front-page campaign to integrate the U.S. Army and to urge African Americans to contact their congressmen about the importance of integration only shored up its support in the black community—so much so that it came under FBI suspicion and investigation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Other black papers followed The Courier in lobbying for integration of the Army, to the point that in 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) signed a military draft bill that included a nondiscrimination section.

But the battle for military integration spilled over into World War II. The Courier started its “Double V” (double victory) campaign signifying that African Americans would fight for democracy abroad and at home for the war’s duration. The paper enlisted black and white celebrities—such as singer Marian Anderson, band musician Lionel Hampton, writer Sinclair Lewis, actor Humphrey Bogart, and broadcast mogul William S. Paley—and held Double V-related events, sold Double V pins, held congressmen-writing parties, and even once had a Double V song broadcast on a national network radio program on NBC. Meanwhile, other black papers highlighted numerous wrongs committed against African Americans in the military, culminating in a meeting of some black publishers and select Roosevelt aides who were threatening censorship via the courts; also at stake was federally supplied “patriotic” advertising—businesses were granted tax breaks in exchange for reinvesting the gains in the economy in a novel manner (such as advertising in the black press). The meeting ended with the government agreeing to make its war officials available for interviews while the black newspapers toned down their criticism of the federal government. Eventually, Roosevelt—under criticism from the black press for not making himself available to black groups—met with members of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association in February 1944 and—as a direct result—three days later a black reporter was finally allowed to join the White House press corps.

With the economic gains made by African Americans serving in the military and in civilian wartime jobs, the black press grew in stature. A 1944 national study commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation highlighted the black press’s role in developing black pride and unity and its importance as a pressure group that encouraged strike lines and protest rallies with integrationist aims. Ebony, a national black magazine focusing on middle-class lifestyles, debuted in 1945. But any feelings of complacency about having “made it” into mainstream America on the part of the black press didn’t last because of its continuing reliance on circulation sales (instead of advertising sales). This reliance on readership revenue would prove damaging amidst the growing civil rights movement.

Overcoming, but not in Business

The limited success of protest emboldened African Americans to step up the pressure for change. The courts served as a backdrop for many such efforts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education verdict that struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine used by state and federal governments since the nineteenth century to segregate blacks from whites. Although appeals and attempts to evade the ruling by recalcitrant southern states slowed its implementation, the federal government soon made it clear by distribution of funding and enactment of other, equality-driven measures in government agencies that full citizenship rights for African Americans were inevitable. The NAACP pursued several other education-related cases intending to increase black access to graduate and professional training between the 1930s and Brown. The black press highlighted the victories while criticizing and calling attention to the decisions’ deficiencies and the subsequent foot-dragging by the losing parties.

In the face of escalating civil rights protests in the 1960s, the growing impact of African American voters on elections, the clever manipulation of the news media by those in the civil rights movement (the use of peaceful confrontations and marches was ready-made news), and the violent riots that resulted in several major cities by the mid- and late 1960s, the mainstream press could no longer ignore black protests and politics. Major daily newspapers and the broadcasting networks began to search black press newsrooms for reporters who could gain access to black sources at the heart of the civil rights story. Black newspapers soon became training grounds for the prestige news media. The number of black journalists working in mainstream publications in the mid-1960s was relatively small—the National Association of Black Journalists, for example, began with 44 members in 1975—and no official statistics about the number of black journalists were kept until the late 1970s, when there were 1,700 minority journalists out of a national total of 43,000—constituting just 4 percent. That number steadily increased to—and then stabilized around—8,000, or about 14 percent, in 2007, despite the fact that minorities represent about a third of the U.S. population.

Black readership also underwent change. Prior to the 1960s’ push for civil rights, the centralized ghettoes of industrialized U.S. cities created a ready-made distribution area for the black press. But as literacy increased in the late 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s among African Americans, they also discovered and began reading mainstream newspapers as well as the black press. Ironically, mainstream advertisers felt no need to advertise in the black press—because African Americans also read the mainstream press. Increased literacy, more education, and better jobs among African Americans also meant a flourishing black middle class, many of whom could afford to leave the ghetto, thus complicating black press distribution and making it more costly; the local black paper now had to find a way to reach areas outside the central black community. By the 1960s and commonly by the 1970s, the national black newspapers, in order to save the costs of expanded distribution, began to restrain distribution of their editions to areas closer to their base.

As a typical small business, the weekly black newspaper could not compete with daily news media. If an event occurred after the weekly deadline, the newspaper had to find another way to report about that event; this would take extra time for most reporters. Moreover, losing “star” staffers to the higher salaries and greater prestige of the mainstream press made finding experienced replacements difficult and costly. The black press’s conservative (i.e., advocating gradual political change), middle class, integrationist editorial stances and approach to news also disagreed with many younger black journalists who often sought the faster-paced change that mainstream news media could potentially offer.

In the modern era, what remains of the black press varies by locale. Some major cities, such as Houston, New York, or Los Angeles, may have multiple black newspapers—many of them unknown to (because they are too small to afford membership dues) or not members of the 200-member National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the self-proclaimed “black press of America.” The two remaining black dai-lies—the Atlanta Daily Worldand The Defender top the NNPA membership list; the rest of black newspapers are weekly or monthly. The Defender‘s circulation dropped from a prewar high of 157,000 to about 30,000 in 2008 while The Daily World saw circulation fall to 16,000 in the mid-1960s from its peak of 75,000. Meanwhile, the NNPA has partnered with Howard University in Washington to expand its operation to the Internet with, a daily compendium of news, art, sports, entertainment, and history. Developments such as this one suggest that the black press now finds itself a complement to the mainstream press, rather than a substitute for it.

Balancing Politics and Revenue

Lack of money perennially plagues the typical black newspaper, usually considered a “small business” with 50 or so employees (and most with perhaps two dozen or fewer). Advertising staffs are relatively small and typically solicit advertising from businesses that make products specifically for blacks. As national black newspapers’ circulation began to dwindle in the 1960s, black press advertising staffers lacked the expertise and resources necessary to effectively promote the black press to advertisers. Indeed, only three local black newspapers undertook costly verification of their readership to assure advertisers of their audience’s size.

By the 1970s, black publishers had to walk the line between becoming too strident in tone (satisfying younger or more race-conscious readers) and too dependent on sales (and thus seeking more advertising from mainstream businesses that want to try to sell to older, more conservative, and middle-class readers). This spawned a division in the black press between traditional and profitable integrationist-yet-critical newspapers and the more “militant” newspapers that increasingly appeared to have become somewhat obsolete protest vehicles.

Still, a successful business must make a profit to exist, which meant black newspapers had to more assertively start seeking advertising and appealing to readership in more interesting and diverse ways. With the gains made by the civil rights movement, African Americans en masse began to join the rest of the country in consuming products of the U.S. market economy. As a result, by the 1970s businesses took note, advertisers began to notice blacks’ brand loyalty, and black entrepreneurs (along with the rest of the mainstream media) responded by trying to reach various segments of the black audience. For example, the first issue of Essence—a monthly publication targeting black women—appeared in November 1945. Its editors designed the 50,000 copies to foster readers’ confidence in their physical appearances and supply an outlet for discussion of such issues as workplace politics and personal experiences.

Ebony publisher John Johnson also took a cue from the change in black readers’ tastes. Johnson had simultaneously tried to promote his Negro Digest, a broad, integrationist publication (started in 1942) that had changed in the 1960s to cover black nationalism and related issues via content linking literature and politics. But lack of sales prompted Johnson to close the publication in 1970 and place greater emphasis on Jet, which he had started in 1951 as a general, small, and easy-to-read news magazine that immediately became nationally popular.

Earl Graves, a former aide to President John Kennedy (1961-63), used his experience and exposure to how wealth and power worked to inspire his creation of Black Enterprise in 1970. Graves had also been a consultant to many companies on economic development and urban affairs and parlayed his idea for a newsletter that detailed the successes of black businesspeople into Black Enterprise, which initially depended on tobacco and liquor corporations for advertising before eventually convincing technology and other business sectors that he had a viable audience.

Black Broadcasting

In the 1970s and 1980s, around the same time that black newspapers began to be challenged by their readers’ exodus to the suburbs, other black-owned news media also started appearing with more regularity. Although the first radio station to be owned by blacks was bought in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia, only 16 such stations—out of several thousand in the country—existed by 1970. By 1980 that number increased to 140 and by 2000 it jumped to 211 stations, many of which featured gospel, rhythm and blues, rap, and other modern formats. Unlike the black press, black radio attracts white, Latino, and Asian American listeners as well; still, more than 75 percent of the listeners are black.

For many radio stations, however, ownership doesn’t automatically mean programming reflects that ownership. Noncommercial radio stations tend to use this programming approach more than commercial stations that simply play music as a way of attracting advertisers. Such “community” stations usually are listener-supported, nonprofit organizations that try to represent alternative voices on various public issues. For example, during the 1980s, KUCB in Des Moines, Iowa, established a reputation for strong, community-based activism on racial matters and particularly stirred controversy in its crusades against police brutality.

Still, the role of black radio in African American progress is significant. Led by pioneers such as vaudevillian performer Jack Cooper and actor-scholar-athlete Paul Robeson in the late 1930s and early 1940s, black radio journalists, educators, and entertainers played an instrumental part in ending racial discrimination in federal agencies and defense plants and educating black and white audiences about each other in an effort to promote racial harmony at home during World War II. But postwar racist resentment returned and combined with cold war and “Red Scare” activities—such as allegations and campaign rhetoric by politicians that American Communist Party members (and, by association, communist Russia) were behind U.S. integration efforts—forced black broadcasters to find alternative channels in which to combat ignorance and discrimination. For example, New World a-Coming premiered on a local, non-network outlet in New York City and showcased dramas or documentaries on local and race issues, while Chicago’s WMAQ-produced Destination Freedom presented similar programming. In the process, such local productions helped rouse black community identities across the country and black radio began to emerge from its blackface-and-minstrelsy origins and rival the black press as a particularly local force. During the 1950s and 1960s, black radio helped marshal blacks to attend civil rights protests, marches, and rallies as no newspaper could because almost every black household had a radio. That influence continued into the early 1970s, reaching full fruition particularly on the eastern seaboard, in cities such as New York and Washington, where several stations employed numerous journalists to cover local black issues.

This also was around the time of the first black-owned television station, which began to broadcast in Detroit in 1973. In the decades since, Congress has urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the agency that issues broadcast licenses—to find ways to increase minority-group ownership. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) created the Minority Telecommunications Develop ment Program to specifically focus on the problem. But by the mid-1990s, such “affirmative action” programs began to encounter political opposition in Congress and stricter federal court interpretations as to what constituted legal, proactive FCC behavior on behalf of minorities. In 2007, while blacks constituted 13 percent of the population, they owned only 3.4 percent of commercial radio stations and 1.3 percent of commercial television stations.

Changes in broadcast ownership policy to allow more conglomeration reduced the odds of African Americans making gains in broadcast ownership. Black-owned stations are usually one-owner establishments and can’t compete with conglomerate-level efficiency. Such difficult-to-beat competition prompted many black owners to sell their stations. Not surprisingly, the government reported that the number of black-owned television stations declined from 1995 (28) to 2000 (20) so that only 10 percent of the country’s larger markets featured minority-owned TV stations. An independent, nongovernment report in 2006 put the number of black-owned TV stations at 18. Most of those stations are in areas lacking substantial black populations—such as Syracuse, New York; Salem, Oregon; and Rhinelander, Wisconsin—-suggesting blacks may be buying stations where they are least expensive. Put another way, black-owned stations are found in just 5 of the 59 urban areas where African Americans constitute a majority of the population.

Likewise, many black-oriented radio stations are owned by one or two large corporations. Some perceive that such ownership threatens African Americans’ chances of affecting and becoming viable actors not only in the music business but the news business as well. In fact, 43 percent of all minority-owned stations in 2007 were locally owned (i.e., owned by a resident in the station’s market). For many African Americans, black radio has replaced the black press as the central community information hub and the one medium that strongly advocates politically for African Americans. In 2000, 96 percent of African Americans age 12 or older listened to radio at least 20 hours a week. In addition, as with the black press, advertising remains a concern for black radio. In 2001, a New York radio station owner had to switch the format of one of his stations from urban contemporary—which aimed toward African Americans—to adult contemporary when some merchants told his advertising sales staff that they did not want African Americans in their stores. In 2007, Radio One, one of the top U.S. radio broadcasting companies, was the largest company to mainly aim at an African American radio audience. It owned and/or operated 69 radio stations in 22 U.S. markets and reached 12 million weekly listeners. Though it did provide news programming, it was generally embedded in other shows, particularly the morning drive-time shows. By 2008 the company was in what appeared to be a financial free-fall as stock value dropped in a difficult economic market.

African American radio listeners are also served by American Urban Radio Networks (AURN), launched in 1991. As of 2008, AURN provides programming—including a newscast and other political reporting—to over 300 affiliate stations across the country.

Blacks and Cable TV

Radio One also co-owned (with Comcast) the cable channel TV One. Launched in 2004, it featured reruns from previously popular shows as well as talk, celebrity, reality, entertainment, and news shows to about 2 million subscribers. In comparison, however, the efforts of former cable industry activist Robert Johnson stand out. He started Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable network in 1980, showing reruns, old movies, and infomercials on a part-time basis. Shrewd management allowed BET to flourish and eventually sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange, which added new investors that included media conglomerates Time Warner and Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI).

Initially, music videos made up more than three-fourths of BET’s programming, which had millions of U.S. subscribers. The company bought three other cable channels, published several black magazines, and created an urban radio network to add to its assets. These moves provided enough profit to allow BET to add public affairs programming (e.g., news and talk shows such as BET Tonight with Ed Gordon, its successor BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley, Lead Story, and Teen Summit) and original entertainment shows to its programming schedule and enable it to boast that in 2004, 9 of every 10 U.S. African American cable households subscribed to BET; also, in 1993, 60 percent of BET’s audience was non-African American. Still, some criticized BET’s role as a black voice in America because of its relative lack of original programming and suggested it was more about business than about politics. In 1999, Johnson sold BET to Viacom, a media conglomerate that owns several other cable networks, including Nickelodeon and MTV. In 2002, Viacom cut back the public affairs programming drastically and eliminated regularly scheduled newscasts to save money.


With the exception of BET and the Ebony-dominated Johnson empires, African Americans have struggled to reach media conglomerate status. Media, as labor-intensive businesses, require large sums of money to operate. African Americans, because of the longtime denials of equal opportunity, have struggled to amass such capital; few have succeeded. New technology has made it more feasible for many individuals to create their own websites to house their own publications. Black newspapers have not rushed as a group to the web, but black online news sites have proliferated (as of 2008, the entry “black news sites” in Google yielded more than 3,000 sites).

One of the black sites most widely read on the Internet,, belongs to the NNPA, a 200-member group collectively known as “the black press.” Some 27 NNPA members—of the 92 that offer online versions—in 15 states form the nucleus of the news provided by the site. An additional 14 locales (and their websites) in four additional states are to be added to the main site, which has 15 million readers at various times. But the fact that most African American newspapers are not online remains a concern, especially since although online site hosting is relatively inexpensive compared to running a newspaper, websites still require people to produce, monitor, and change content on an oftentimes more-than-weekly basis. This amounts to extra costs for African American newspapers, most already cash-strapped, so they have been slow to migrate to the web. Coupled with the aging of their primary audiences, the black press’ slow development of a successful Internet strategy probably is costing it potential new, younger readers, and in general reflects a decrease in newspaper and magazine reading among African Americans. Jet saw a 5 percent readership decrease in 2006, for example.

While African Americans in major U.S. markets are purchasing electronic technology or using the Internet in greater numbers than previously thought—broadband penetration doubled from 2005 to 2006, while 43 percent of black households in 2008 had broadband connections—many experts still worry that its cost may be too expensive for less-affluent African Americans. In addition, today there are many more media outlets than when the black press started, which means that more media enterprises—including, probably, alternative media such as black-owned news media—will likely suffer.

Despite the marketability, readership, and circulation woes of print media, African American news media remain a viable voice for the black community. The ability “to plead our own cause,” still resonates with many blacks, as it continues to do with other U.S. minority groups.