April 23, 2012

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 theGrio.com 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, BlackVoices.com 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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