African American Newspapers In The Digital Era

By Lillian Williams

With more people consuming news on multiple media platforms, African American community newspapers are moving to strengthen digital operations, while continuing to publish their print editions.

Bill Tompkins, President and CEO of National Newspaper Publishers Association

Bill Tompkins, President and CEO of National Newspaper Publishers Association

That’s according to Bill Tompkins, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of 200 African-American owned newspapers.  Publishers recently described their digital operations during interviews.

Last month the NNPA trade group held another training workshop about digital and social media strategies at its winter conference  in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The organization held a similar session in Atlanta, Ga., last June. In addition, three regional workshops were held last year in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C.

Tompkins, a former marketing executive for the Washington Post, said the initial goal was to have 100 NNPA-member websites up and running by the end of 2012, and to add more this year. At last count, more than 90 websites had been launched, he said.

The NNPA sites are in various stages of development, Tompkins said, adding, “Some are very dynamic, and some have a social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Others are a work in progress and still being developed as websites that you can count on for updated information.”

Consumer loyalty, however, is “still very strong on the print side,” said Tompkins, noting that distribution points for the print papers, such as churches, libraries, and community centers, provide convenient access points. But in this digital era, Tompkins said, news organizations need to engage consumers on multiple platforms, and on social networks, which is the reason the trade group is offering the workshops.

“We’ve got to be serious, extremely serious, about the changing environment,” said Robert Bogle, a former NNPA president and president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest black newspaper. “Digital plays a significant role in how people get their news. If you’re looking to survive in this business, then you have to participate.”

The Philadelphia Tribune distributes printed editions five days a week, and its website offers daily updates of local and national news, along with lifestyle features and visuals not contained in the print editions.

“We’ve adopted the attitude of digital first, so before it gets in the paper, it gets on the website,” said Philadelphia Tribune managing editor Irv Randolph. “Our visits to the website are up,” he said. Popular web items include lifestyle, education, and religious news, he said. “The great advantage of the website is that we have more space. And, we can put breaking news on the website.”

Though larger African American papers like the Philadelphia Tribune have developed digital and social media strategies, some other African American newspapers lack money and staff to quickly make the transition to digital, according to George Sylvie, a University of Texas at Austin researcher who studies technology and innovation in news organizations.

“It takes money to make these technology changes, and some of these papers operate on slim profit margins,” Sylvie said. “At the same time, they don’t have the collateral with which to borrow.”

Earlier this year, a joint study by Nielsen, the market research firm, and the NNPA, showed that media targeting black audiences received less than 2 percent of the more than $120 billion spent on consumer ads in 2011. This, despite the fact that African American consumers overwhelmingly prefer brand name products and believe products advertised in black media are more relevant to them, according to the study.

The mission of these newspapers, however, remains essential, Sylvie said. “There is no doubt that the African American papers are needed more than ever now. At a time when mainstream papers are laying off people, we need these papers. Their voices should be heard. They offer a different perspective on news events.”

No firm count exists about the number of African American newspapers, according to The Pew Research Center’s 2011 State of the Media Report . They are mostly weeklies, some of which have subscription models while others distribute free papers.

Of the NNPA-member papers, Tompkins said the goal is for another 70 publications to be on the Web by this June “with a very strong Web presence, both in terms of the digital website itself, along with a social media presence, Twitter, Facebook and other outlets.”

Technology initiatives that embrace social media and mobile apps are imperative, Sylvie said, because “you have to go where the consumers are, and they are on smart phones, tablets and social media sites.”

Underscoring Sylvie’s point, the NNPA/Nielsen study found: African American consumers use more than double the amount of mobile phone voice minutes than whites do-1,298 minutes a month compared to 606 minutes per month for blacks. Thirty-three percent of African Americans own a smart phone; and of the 23.9 million African Americans who used the Internet in July 2011, 76 percent visited a social networking site.

In Chicago, Crusader newspaper publisher Dorothy Leavell has plans to launch a redesigned website and apps for mobile phones and tablets in early 2013. “We’re excited about the opportunities that these new technologies offer us,” said Leavell. “We remain proud of our print papers, but now we can reach out to even more people.”

In Georgia, the Atlanta Voice newspaper recently trumpeted apps for IPhones and IPads in a banner announcement at the top of its website. The Baltimore-based Afro-American, which recently celebrated its 120th anniversary, has a robust website with local and national news, as well as a “Facebook Activity” social networking section.

The Mississippi Link newspaper in Jackson, Miss., encourages visitors to upload text and video stories to its website. “The Mississippi Link newspaper makes it possible for you to become a reporter,” a video announces on the paper’s website. Although the newspaper’s printed edition remains popular, publisher Jackie Hampton said digital technology offers an opportunity to update news and to reach an audience beyond Mississippi borders. “Because of our website, we have readers from throughout this country and beyond. It gives us a lot more exposure.”

In Missouri, Kevin Jones, chief operating officer of the St. Louis American, said that paper continues to concentrate on local coverage, and has recently hired another reporter with multi-media skills. The website features local, as well as national stories, along with features not contained in the print edition. Jones said a consistently popular Web page is the Partyline Gallery, which contains scores of photos of St. Louis residents at various social events.

In another initiative, the St. Louis American publishes a section each week with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) articles, graphics, and exercises for elementary-age students. That section appears in the weekly print edition, in addition to online. “This helps students in important STEM subjects, but it also introduces a younger generation to the value of reading news,” Jones said.

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