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The Afro forges into the future
[November 28, 2006]

The Afro forges into the future

(Baltimore Sun, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Nov. 28--For John J. Oliver Jr., the ebullient publisher of The Afro American, it is only a few strides from the portrait of his great-grandfather, John H. Murphy -- a former slave who in 1897 bought the newspaper for $200 -- to his office next door, where a gleaming computer screen displays a harbinger of the future: the paper's new electronic edition.

Oliver, whose 114-year-old weekly paper, with editions in Baltimore and Washington, is the second-oldest black-owned publication in the country, has no time for people who say newspapers are dying.

"We have nothing to do but go up," he said. "The world is right at our feet."

Despite the travails afflicting most urban papers, Oliver said, "it's a great climate for black newspapers," at least those that are successfully capitalizing on their role as advocates for their communities.

At a time when general-interest newspapers are trying to evolve from dropping editions on driveways to delivering news via the Internet and hand-held gadgets, some industry analysts say publications that serve niche groups may face an easier future.

"The only area that's growing in journalism is ethnic papers," said Jeff Jarvis, who teaches interactive journalism at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

"Black newspapers still have their franchise," said Richard Prince, who writes about diversity in the news business for the Web site of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "People can still find out things they can't find in other places. And black newspapers don't exist to be objective. They have a framework of advocacy."

For Oliver, it's all about keeping pace with technology.

"There are opportunities for those newspapers that embrace the changes," Oliver said, as he demonstrates the intricacies of The Afro's weeks-old electronic edition, which is a separate entity from its Web site that was launched in 1994.

Unlike the Web site, which has its own visual language, The Afro's electronic edition is an online facsimile of the paper's print edition. It enables readers to text-search the whole paper, access advertisers' Web sites and print articles or pages. Readers can turn the paper's pages with their mouse -- an act accompanied by the crackling sound of a turning page.

"We're still testing it," Oliver said as he scrolled through the facsimile. "We haven't begun to explore all the bells and whistles."

In another display of confidence, Oliver recently dispatched a correspondent to Iraq -- at a time when many much larger newspapers, including The Sun, have pulled back on overseas coverage in an effort to cut costs. "We have nothing to retrench from," Oliver said.

In The African American Press (McFarland & Co., 1998), author Charles A. Simmons estimated that, since 1827, some 4,000 newspapers have catered to black readers. Now, the number is down to about 200, according to the National Newspaper Publishers' Association.

The Afro has succeeded where many others have not. Its annual revenue is about $4 million, enough to keep publishing, pay a small staff and maintain its modest headquarters on North Charles Street. The Afro's print circulation is between 25,000 and 35,000 copies a week, Oliver said, a far cry from the combined circulation of about 250,000 during the 1940s, when the paper operated bureaus and was publishing 11 editions, including Richmond, Va.; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; and New York, in addition to Baltimore and Washington.

"Those were the glory days," in the sense that The Afro and papers like it had a near-monopoly, Oliver said. In the white press, he added, news about blacks was confined to crime or lynchings and, occasionally, sports figures.

"That was a separate world," he said. "There was no place for blacks to go but the black papers."

At its height a half-century ago, The Afro was second only to The Pittsburgh Courier, and ahead of The Chicago Defender and New York's Amsterdam News, among black-owned papers. It even had subscribers in Africa.

When The Afro, which is still owned by Oliver's family, was launched in the late 19th century, Baltimore had one of the nation's largest free black communities. But blacks were "consigned to segregated and inferior schools, excluded from the police and fire departments, and relegated to the most menial municipal jobs," Hayward Farrar wrote in his book The Baltimore Afro-American (Greenwood Press, 1998), a chronicle of the paper's history. "Deprived of a sympathetic ear in the local white press, Baltimore's blacks turned to their own newspapers."

Thirty-one black-owned papers appeared in Baltimore between 1865 and 1900, including American Citizen and True Communicator. In 1887, Baltimore's black community was served by six weeklies -- "an excessive number," Farrar wrote. "Consequently, most of Baltimore's black newspapers barely survived."

The Afro managed to make it. "There weren't a lot of black folks who knew how to read, so it was quite a daring adventure," Oliver said, recalling his ancestors' fortitude.

The paper grew rapidly. By 1923, The Afro had a circulation of 17,632 and gross revenues of $84,623, more than six times its income in 1915, according to Farrar. The paper's revenue reached $1.5 million in 1950, at the end of a decade in which black newspapers had prospered as blacks sought news about black soldiers overseas and stirring editorials about racial discrimination.

Indeed, the paper's success was propelled by its crusades for racial reform, starting from its early days all the way to passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. "It also covered and commented on international issues as they affected its readers, especially during World War I and World War II," Farrar wrote.

Historian Rayford Logan covered political unrest in Cuba for the paper in 1932 and 1934, and during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, The Afro employed novelist and playwright Langston Hughes as a correspondent in Spain, where he befriended fellow author Ernest Hemingway. Other Afro correspondents covered the Allied campaigns in World War II. Much of The Afro's military coverage has traditionally focused on black units.

Leonard Sparks, a 41-year-old Afro reporter who was sent recently to Iraq on a three-week assignment, relished the experience. "I'd love to come back over here," Sparks said in a telephone interview from Quarrayah, southeast of Mosul, where he was embedded with the Army Reserves 298th Transportation Company.

"I looked at this as an opportunity," said Sparks, a Baltimore native and former copy editor. "As a reporter, you want to see it for yourself, to experience it, as crazy as it sounds. It's been sort of a whirlwind: Two years ago, I had no idea I'd be in Iraq. Next year, it might be Afghanistan."

Sparks, who was mostly restricted to the unit's base, focused on what he called "human-interest stories about some of the black soldiers."

Oliver said it made sense for The Afro to send a correspondent to Iraq. "All we were getting in the black press were death notices and pictures of dead people," he said. "We wanted to report it in our own way. I'm interested in the humanity of it -- what the troops do when they're not on patrol, how they feel."

During his time in Iraq, Sparks was prolific, often having four or five bylines in a single edition.

The Afro, which has just six staff reporters, several months ago sent one of them, James Wright, to Afghanistan. The paper has not incurred great expense on such missions, Oliver said. "The Army puts them up," he said, "so we basically pay only the airfare."

Oliver, a member of both the New York and Maryland bars who has been The Afro's publisher and CEO for almost 20 years, said his goal is to "beef up black newspapers" in general and to make The Afro's "content richer by including international reporting."

He said also that he hopes to expand the paper's readership nationally "as a result of what we're doing electronically." Because most users of electronics, computers and other present-day gadgets are young, he added, The Afro's electronic features could act "as a doorway to access the younger generations which are not basically our readers in the print editions."

Jarvis, the CUNY journalism professor, said he found Oliver inspiring. The Afro has the same challenges as any other newspaper, "but too often in this business we're looking at the challenges and not the opportunities," he said.

The Afro has "the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we need to reinvigorate journalism," he said. "It's exciting to see what he's doing, and his spirit. He understood immediately the value of bringing the community into the conversation."

That enthusiasm is reflected in the newsroom. Marc Warren, the paper's arts and entertainment editor, applauded the recent improvements -- and looks forward to more.

"The Afro is not going to disappear, the way some people thought it would," said Warren, who once worked in the news research library at The Sun and has been at The Afro for 16 years. "We have ups and downs, just like any publisher. But The Afro is a big cultural institution, and it has a great reputation, and that keeps people interested."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun
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