The new Black press is changing the game
Readers are rightfully frustrated with “Black media.” The Black press, however, is distinctly different.
Newsrooms nationwide are desperately searching for unique ways to attract new audiences as younger readers shift away from the news brand loyalty of older generations. Jay Taylor and Ryan Sorrell of the Kansas City Defender believe their outlet has “the sauce” that’s turning it into one of the fastest-growing news organizations for young, Black audiences.
The Defender, a Black-owned outlet founded in 2021, has made national headlines for the way it covers the Missouri city: unflinchingly and unapologetically. “We definitely don't operate like legacy news outlets,” explained Taylor, a native of Kansas City and co-CEO of the Defender.
The website is perhaps best known for breaking the story about Ralph Yarl, a Black teen who was shot by a white man after he mistakenly went to the wrong home to pick up his two younger brothers. The story went viral on social media and was later picked up by major news organizations — even the BBC. The mayor of Kansas City heard about the shooting after being tagged in the comments on the Defender’s Instagram page.
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The small staff are true digital natives — they’ve grown up with the internet and know how to package their stories online. “We are probably one of the only news outlets in the country, local news outlets specifically, that regularly reaches Gen Z because over 60% of our audience is between the ages of 13 and 30,” added Sorrell, the founder of the Defender. “We mostly use social media to inform our community.”
It feels as though hundreds of other Black and Black-focused media outlets are using social media platforms to share news. But in the proliferation of what is known colloquially as “Black media,” you’ll find no set of shared standards, ethics, or guidelines among the Instagram pages, influencers masquerading as journalists, or gossip websites that the average reader tends to lump into the category. The lack of standards was clearly evident during the trial of Tory Lanez, where clickbait and misinformation reigned supreme — and frustrated readers who were searching for accurate information.
The new Black press, however, is distinctly different.
Outlets like the Kansas City Defender, Capital B, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, The Black Wall Street Times, The Emancipator, Hammer & Hope, The Grio, Scalawag Magazine and more are using social media to grow their audiences and share their stories. But they pay homage to the old Black press, which captured the fight for civil rights, equality, and the everyday lives of Black people, accurately and fairly. These new Black press outlets have editors, style guides, a code of ethics, and issue corrections when something is incorrect.
But that’s not all that separates the two. Whereas the topics Black media covers skew toward online discourse and trending topics, the new Black press is still in the community, the essence of what made Black newspapers and magazines of old so important.
That history isn’t lost upon Tiffany Walden, co-founder of The TRiiBE, a Black-owned digital media platform based in Chicago. Her outlet covered the campaign of Brandon Johnson, the current mayor of the Windy City, and pushed back against the disinformation surrounding it.
Soon after The TRiiBE was founded in 2017, Walden and co-founder Morgan Elise Johnson began hosting TRiiBE Tuesdays, monthly events to engage the community in the form of workshops and panels. In May 2018, they held “TRiiBE Tuesday: Protect the Hood at All Costs,” a panel discussion about home and business ownership, and protecting against gentrification in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods.
“It was our way of just getting people together. We would normally go to a bar or host it with friends who would own an establishment. We would have drinks, food, and we would invite people who we've interviewed in our stories to come and basically talk about their experiences that they laid out in the story,” said Walden, a Chicago native.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the events shifted online to Facebook Live and video conference calls. In September of that year, the outlet held a virtual town hall with then-mayor Lori Lightfoot, where she answered questions about her administration.
“We are very much in the community, and we're also thinking from a multimedia point of view so that we can reach our audience where they are because people don't just get their news in one way,” Walden said.
“Some people are on Twitter; I'm a Twitter person myself,” she continued. “But at the same time, my mom is not on Twitter. My nephews aren’t on Twitter, so we have to meet people where they are. That's really a big part of our mission at The TRiiBE.”
RELATED: CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism created a database of over 400 Black-owned media outlets across the United States.
Nehemiah Frank shares that view.
The founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times is unapologetic about his outlet’s involvement in civic engagement and social justice. It makes sense — he is a descendant of families that survived the race massacre that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921. That history resonates today, as three of the last known living survivors of the massacre are still fighting for reparations.
Tulsa residents have long held a mistrust of the local newspapers that stemmed from the racist press coverage that blamed Black Tulsans for the destruction brought on by white mobs. Frank sees it as his mission to ensure the Black community in Tulsa is fairly represented, from a digital lens. “We as Black people don’t have the luxury to be concerned about objectivity,” Frank explained. “Not when people are trying to create policies that are going to kill us and incarcerate us and suppress our voices.”
“Everyone wants their audience to be engaged, but we want our audience to be physically engaged with the events that are taking place in their community, whether it's a school board or a protest. It’s the biggest thing that separates us from [traditional outlets].”
Accessibility also separates the new Black press from other outlets. A growing number of “news deserts” — communities where local newspapers have shuttered — are disproportionately affecting urban and rural communities. And even though many get their news from social media and the internet, Black communities are hurt most by the “digital divide,” or the lack of internet access.
In Baltimore, residents can choose several news organizations to read, from the 186-year-old Baltimore Sun to newer digital outlets like The Baltimore Banner and Baltimore Brew. But Lisa Snowden-McCray became editor-in-chief of the Black-led Baltimore Beat to ensure Black stories are being told and that Black readers are able to read them.
“Baltimore still has a very drastic digital divide. There are lots of folks that aren't online. We have places like the Banner or The Baltimore Sun that are great at giving news, but a lot of their news is behind paywalls,” explained McCray, who has been reporting on Maryland’s most populous city for 20 years. “I wanted to make sure that our news is as accessible as possible to Baltimore's black population.”
The news outlet created “Beat Boxes,” which are newspaper boxes placed in neighborhoods around Baltimore for residents to pick up a free copy. But they’re not just newspaper boxes. Beat Boxes also serve as community pantries, so people can place masks, COVID tests, feminine hygiene products, and more inside. Several groups recently came together to create care packages for the boxes. Readers can also publicize events, like renters’ rights meetings or other community organizing, in the outlet for free.
Despite all of these efforts, the Black press still struggles to find funding for its journalism. The news industry as a whole is under pressure after a noticeable downtrend in advertising dollars and subscription fatigue. The Beat, like other Black-centric outlets, receives funding from grants. But according to Snowden-McCray, any support can go a long way.
“People should just support. More than likely, if not a complete organization like the Beat, there’s probably a Black reporter somewhere working really hard to do the best they can. I know there’s always these conversations online where people are very frustrated with these outlets that are not actually journalism. But look out for the people instead,” said Snowden-McCray.
“Maybe it’s a Black reporter on your local station or maybe it’s the one at your local paper, but just support us. Like our stuff, share our stuff. If they’re a nonprofit and you have a little bit of change, chip in. Even if it’s not money, the support means something to [the editors of Black journalists] when they’re trying to get our stories told — even if they’re working in a traditional white newsroom.”