Trayvon Martin story revitalizes black press, mobilizes ‘new guard’

As George Zimmerman is released on bail from a Florida jail after being charged with the second-degree murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the case has ushered in “new guards” of black media, reports Jeff John Roberts, in a story that appeared on paidContent and CNN this month.

“African American news site has helped drive NBC’s coverage of the Trayvon Martin tragedy,” Roberts reports. “Since its first piece on March 8, theGrio has published more than 250 stories on Martin and many of its videos have landed on shows like the ‘Today’ show and ‘NBC Nightly News.’ The Grio’s success reflects the rise of a new generation of African American news as well as a new symbiosis between niche and mainstream media outlets.”

A look back

The U.S. black press began in 1827 when John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish started Freedom’s Journal in New York. Black newspapers were most popular during the 1920’s and ’30s, when major papers virtually ignored black America.

During that time, major newspapers wouldn’t even run African-American obituaries, writes Larry Muhammad for the Nieman Foundation. Black newspapers and magazines were once the dominant means of communication for African Americans, as depicted in the documentary “Soldiers Without Swords.” But with circulations in free fall, their continued relevance had been questioned in recent years.

Martin’s story is turning that idea on its head.

Trayvon Martin coverage

The black press has the freedom to stay on top of stories like Trayvon Martin’s, even when other news happens, a freedom that may not exist at other types of publications, said Nisa Muhammad, chairwoman of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Black Press Task Force.

“Black audiences, in particular, are not going to get everything they need to know about this story from the mainstream media,” said Muhammad, who is a staff writer at The Final Call newspaper. “Passion and commitment to the story to the end is what readers get from the black press. We’re going to stay on this story until justice is done.”

The black press was started so that black journalists, black people, could tell their own stories, stories that were often overlooked by mainstream publications. Martin’s story, ironically, was initially overlooked and ignored by mainstream news organizations that didn’t connect with the big picture or think Martin’s plight would resonate with its audiences.

George Zimmerman, left, walks out of the intake building at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility with an unidentified man on Sunday, April 22, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., after posting bail on a $150,000 bond. (Brian Blanco/AP)

It was black websites and black bloggers that helped bring attention to the story. But just as mainstream media lagged behind in reporting on the unarmed 17-year-old who was killed by a neighborhood watchman, so did black newspapers.

Black newspapers missed the story because of their production cycles — many are weeklies and don’t have strong online presences. Publications that do have websites update them on a weekly basis, according to their print production schedule. The cycle fits the papers’ shoestring budgets, but it also means black newspapers are often late to the story.

The future of the black press

Black websites, however, including The Grio, and TheRoot.comall niche publications that are not black-owned — operate on 24-hour news cycles, just as their parent companies do. The Grio is a subsidiary of MSNBC, Black Voices is owned by Huffington Post and The Root is a part of The Washington Post Company.

While national coverage of Martin’s story has waned, the niche sites continue to publish key developments in Martin’s case and are also connecting it to larger stories and issues that are similar to Martin’s case. While mainstream publications debate whether the hoodie Martin wore led to his death or whether racism played a role in his killing, black publications see an opportunity to fulfill a greater mission. They are also more focused on the specifics of Martin’s case than more mainstream news organizations.

Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for The Tampa Bay Times, said on “Morning Edition” last week, “I think at some point, this story became different things for different media outlets, depending on how they galvanized audiences.”

For the black press and its audience:

They recognized this story as an opportunity to say that sometimes there is a suspicion that the institutions in society don’t work for people of color the way they work for white people. The central concern here was maybe the police and prosecutors who were initially involved didn’t do as thorough a job as they should have.

For example:

  • The Root produced a multimedia package entitled “Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed,” which looks at 17 unarmed black men who “lost their lives to law enforcement officers or others who decided that they were dangerous enough to die.”
  • Black Voices reported on whether Martin’s death, and the initial response to it by Sanford, Florida police, where Martin was killed, is part of a practice and pattern of law enforcement in the small town.
  • The Grio routinely stuck to using wire copy, posting opinion and some daily news updates, along with the site’s reporting. Its managing editor, Joy Ann Reid, landed on news TV programs such as the “Today” show and “NBC Nightly News.” David Wilson, The Grio’s executive editor who helped launch the site in 2009, told Roberts the niche publication’s influence on its parent company was “…the trickle-up effect.”

Wilson said websites such as his, are now the “new guards” in black media. Based on this coverage, he may be right. Meanwhile, the story is also revitalizing the old guard.

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  • Mike Green

    A cursory look at history may be informative. From the start of the media industry, there has been White media, White journalists, White associations, White power, White this and that. Non-Whites were prohibited. As the inevitable evolution of society occurred, the White media, which is still 96% owned by Whites, incorporated a few non-Whites to gain access to information and stories during the Civil Rights Movement that it did not have access to without Black journalists and photographers. Still, Whites controlled the narrative, the issues, the national discussions and debates … and the stereotypes perpetrated upon an influential public.

    The Black Press formed in the 19th century to tell the stories of Black people that Whites viewed as caricatures when they weren’t being ignored as nonexistent. You may be unfamiliar with the prolonged struggles to ingrain diversity as a norm in the business of media. That 40-year effort has largely failed. You might ask the question, why? But you would have to ask the White owners of media who control the landscape you suggest should also have a White press and congressional caucus.

  • Mike Green

    The Trayvon Martin story is a seminal moment in time for the Black Press, but for different reasons than those mentioned above, in my opinion. While it is true, Black Press newspapers publish weekly, they missed the Martin story for several weeks. And publishing weekly doesn’t preclude getting stories told in a timely manner online. And if online isn’t a priority investment, then there won’t be a Black Press to speak of in the next decade.

    It makes me recoil a bit to think that the White-owned media platforms of The Grio, The Root and Black Voices would ever be considered the “new guard.” All of those platforms exist at the pleasure of their White owners. And all businesses have life cycles. The Black folks at those orgs don’t control those life cycles because they don’t own anything.Additionally, while doing exemplary work on Trayvon Martin stories, those aforementioned platforms completely missed the most significant story with historical impact in this generation. Although owned by MSNBC and The Washington Post, The Grio and The Root both missed coverage of the advent of “crowdfunding” as a historical 21st century transitioning of the American innovation process, which opens formerly closed doors of access to those historically prohibited from participation. The WaPo and MSNBC have many stories on the crowdfunding issue. Black media are silent.The problem with such silence is it reveals a journalist and editorial disconnect with the impact of economic legislation upon Black America. In an era in which a Black president signs into law a historic opportunity for Black Americans to participate in the American economy in a way that has never been allowed in the history of the nation, it is ironic that Black media and Black Americans remain disconnected while White Americans race past us into the new economic frontier to stake their claims.It is good for Black media to assert coverage of important controversies that depict the stereotypical problems resulting from the manner in which young Black men are perceived. Still, it is most assuredly important that Black Americans are informed about the economic opportunities emerging as this nation evolves. To be certain, the White media landscape has little regard to how economic policies impact non-Whites. And thus, it is crucial that Black media ALSO use their platforms to inform, engage, discuss, debate, investigate and conduct all the due diligence on the JOBS Act and its crowdfunding opportunities for developing urban innovation ecosystems, job growth and new wealth. It is a stark contrast to see how much traction the crowdfunding issue is gaining across America while Black folks remain largely disconnected from the historic transitioning of the American economy occurring in their favor. And in case anyone wonders why I haven’t provided such information to Black media outlets, I have two responses:1. I have tried. It would be helpful to know how to engage media orgs that don’t respond to outreach.     2. I have written on the issue several times myself:

  • gary

    why isn’t there a white press? Or a white congressional caucus, or a white entertainment channel. It seems that some black people may be racists