Interview with Dr. Ben Chavis
In the digital age the Internet is competing for the attention of black people and advertising dollars. Black media has evolved with the Internet producing numerous relevant sources of information. But are African-American newspapers keeping up with the times? Are they still relevant to the community? Are they being challenged by the Internet to remain a leading, reliable and up-to-date source of community news for black people? Can black newspapers and the Internet co-exist?
Civil rights icon and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association Dr. Ben Chavis faces these questions everyday. Dr. Chavis believes that the Internet enhances African-American newspapers and that black newspapers are still a vital source of community news.
Founded in 1940 by John H. Sengstacke of the Chicago Defender the NNPA was born from a meeting of publishers of African-American newspapers. From this meeting came the National Negro Publishers Association. The organization became the National Newspaper Publishers Association 1956.
According to Dr. Chavis the NNPA membership includes more than 200 black newspapers in the United States and the Virgin Islands. Fifteen million black people read African-American newspapers. The NNPA has also launched its own Internet presence with the BlackPressUSA.com web site.
Dr. Chavis has the NNPA in his blood. “I started writing for NNPA when I was 12 years old. Starting with the Carolina Times in Durham, NC while I was still in junior high school. So I have been with the NNPA for over 50 years. Still, as the president and CEO of the NNPA, I am still a columnist. I still write a weekly column for our news service BlackPressUSA.com.”
When asked about the relationship between the print and digital press Dr.Chavis believes strongly that black newspapers and the Internet can indeed live together. “In general the Internet, for the black press, is an additional mode of communication, mode of distribution, of the content that we produce. So we see the Internet as complimentary rather than supplanting the print press.”
Dr. Chavis has high confidence in the current state of black newspapers and their ability to grow and thrive in concert with the Internet. He acknowledges that many black newspapers have corresponding websites and believes that black newspapers must grow into content producing machines for African-Americans and other minorities.
“For the sake of the 205 members of the NNPA we see the Internet as complimenting what we do in print. It does not take the place of print it adds to the value of what we print. As you know the Internet is driven by content. We’re in the content business. Most of our newspapers are second and third generation owned newspapers and some of these newspapers have been in these families for well over a hundred years. The African-American community trusts the content. That’s what distinguishes us from some of the major dailies and some of the mainstream press. As the demographics change in the United States, more and more people of color are not only residing in the United States but building businesses, owning more of the infrastructure, rather than just seeing ourselves as consumers we also should be seeing ourselves more as producers, as distributors, as content specialists. I’m excited.”
But Dr. Chavis is well aware that not everyone sees the black press as a legitimate news source. He addressed this at a recent speech at the Washington Informer .
“I think that race still plays a discriminating factor in the political, economic, cultural and social spheres in American life. Now, I want to say, categorically, we’ve made a lot of progress in 50 years. However, given what just happened in Charleston, SC or in New York or Cleveland or in Baltimore or in Ferguson, etc. We see that race still runs deep in the American psyche. And so when it comes to the so called mainstream papers the point I was making to the Washington Informer, a leading African-American newspaper, was that I see the black press becoming more and more, for the black community, the main stream press. So I think its a matter of positioning the black press not only for black people to read and appreciate but I also know that whites, Latinos, Asians, and others also are trying to find our newspapers.
A media research report released by Amalgamated Research (API) supports Dr. Chavis. The report pointed out that 87.6 percent of readers of black newspapers read them almost exclusively and shun mainstream newspapers. The report also revealed that readers of black newspapers are highly educated with more than half holding a college degree or higher and have above average income. And most importantly these readers do not see mainstream media as reporting fairly on black issues.
Dr. Chavis continued to stress the vital importance and growing value of content. “I’m sure you have heard of Warren Buffet, a real trend setter in American business. He is buying up community newspapers right now. So what is it that Warren Buffet sees in these weekly community newspapers? What he sees is that they are content rich. And that’s where the black press comes in. We have some of the best photographers in the world. We have some of the best editorial writers in the world. And we have some of the best news reporters. And I think we are content rich. So it’s a matter of us innovating. A matter of us utilizing the Internet, utilizing technology to advance the entrepreneurial place of the black press in America as well as to better inform our base constituency, the African-American community.”
A recent Pew Research Center Report indicates that many Americans are not reading the printed media as much as they used to and many have switched to the online and digital news. But Dr. Chavis pointed out that the same couldn’t be said of black newspapers. “I think one of the myths is that black people don’t read. We do read. If you go to any home, particularly in the southern part of the United States you’ll find newspapers from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s still in some of these homes. So when someone purchases one of these newspapers what they get is a newspaper that is not discarded after it’s read once. That newspaper is read four or five times in the home. Sometimes more than that. That’s why we are able to say, on a weekly basis, we reach about 20 million people in print. Which is phenomenal.”
A Pew Research Center report revealed that in 2014 African-Americans were second only to whites in newspaper readership.
But, as the president of the NNPA, is he happy with the current state of black newspapers? Dr. Chavis answered by pointing out that his task is to push the NNPA and its member’s forward.
“I’m always attempting to push the envelope so we make more progress. I think all of our newspapers are attempting to improve what they do. I think we can gain a tremendous amount of inspiration from the historic legacy of the black press. But we should not just look backwards. We have to look forward. To me we learn from the past, not necessarily to repeat the past, but to learn from it. And one of the things we learn from the past is that to the extent that African-American owned newspapers have innovative leadership, it has the ability to not just adapt but the ability to set the trend for the community.”
“We now have a lot of millennials from the African-American community, young people, flocking to the black press. That is not only because of the content, but because young people today want to know something, yes, of the history, but they want to know how does the history apply to 2015? How will our history apply to 2016 when they have the next presidential election? After eight years of having an African-American in the White House which way is America going? And I guarantee you the black press will have a better sense of, and be able to articulate the issues at hand. Not only the political issues, the economic issues and the cultural issues, better than any other press in America. That’s why I am enthusiastic when I write. Sometimes I have to defend the black press because I think the black press is treated as second-class newspapers rather than first class newspapers. Not because they are not first class but it is how they are treated. That is because African-Americans themselves are treated as second-class citizens.
More than 80 percent of African-Americans are online in one form or another. Dr. Chavis was asked if he believes it’s a detriment when black people use the Internet as a news source rather than picking up an African-American community newspaper?
“No, I don’t think it’s a detriment. And again, I don’t think it will take the place of the print press. I think people on their mobile devices want a quick hit, a quick sentence or quick headline. But to find the substantive detail they are going to the printed press. To me the Internet is a pointer to the more substantive review in print, a longer review, and more in-depth review. We need analysis, a perspective. That’s where the value of black owned newspapers comes in. The Twitter accounts, Facebook, Instagram, to me those are pointers to the rich content that the black American press currently has.”
Are black newspapers facing a choice between surviving and going online or remaining on paper and seeing themselves slowly die?
“I think they have to make a choice and that is how to stay in business. And the way you stay in business is to continue what you do in terms of the print press but you also add a digital compliment to what you do. You also make sure that some of the news you put in your print paper has some mobility. The fact that people have devices should not be seen as a detriment to the black press. I can tell you right now in many of our communities the circulation of the black press is on the increase. The fact that people have a mobile device does not mean that they still don’t want to have that periodical, that written document, at their disposal.”
But does the ability for African-Americans to interact with the author or the topic, or to give comment almost immediately on a story make a difference? Do you think African-American newspapers see this as a greater advantage compared to being in print?
“It depends on your base. It would be a mistake for the black press to begin shutting down the print presses and try to exist only in the digital format. I think what makes good business sense is that we continue to print but utilize multi-media platforms to attract people to the value of what you do in terms of the print world. To me it’s not either or, it’s both and all of the above. I think we have to become proficient, certainly in print, but we also have to be proficient in digital. They work together. They compliment. One of the things about the mainstream press is that they always try to build a dialectic where one lives and the other dies. No. I think they all live together and compliment and supplement one another.”
The NNPA and Pew Internet Research Center published a report that showed that African-American media, despite the over $1 trillion in buying power of black Americans, are not relied upon to advertise to black Americans. The report showed that the money spent on advertising in the black media should be substantially higher.
“The truth is we are getting advertising dollars but we are not getting our fair share of advertising dollars. That’s the issue. Given the fact that African-Americans, on a 12-month basis, spend $1.2 trillion in the U.S. economy. Very little of that money, from the consumerism of African-Americans, very little of those advertising dollars, in terms of percentage, are actually spent with African-American owned newspapers. For example, In 2015 African-Americans purchased 28 percent of all Mercedes-Benz’s in the U.S. But Mercedes-Benz very rarely advertises in the African-American print press. But there are exceptions. The question should be; how can black media, print media, get more advertising dollars that are more representative of the percentage of consumerism of African-Americans? I think that is the challenge, n0t just for the black press, but a challenge for corporate America. I think the time is coming, probably quicker than some Fortune 500 companies realize, that their margin of profits from African-Americans, from Latinos and other people of color, those profit margins are going to grow.”
Dr. Chavis understands the future of African-American newspapers relies upon black youth. Young black people, unlike their parents and grandparents, have grown up with the Internet and social media. Dr. Chavis was asked how African-American newspapers are serving black youth?
“I’m going to give you five short answers to that question. Number one; African-American owned newspapers, that are members of the NNPA, pro-actively reach out to younger readers. Number two; the content of our newspapers is relevant to the lifestyle and to the cultural aspirations of black youth. Number three; we employ youth. All of our newspapers are required to have apprentices, mentorships and interns. So we are building the new generation of journalists, the new generation of publicists, the new generation of publishers, of distributors.”
The final two points Dr. Chavis made when addressing the needs of black youth included ground breaking announcements aimed at doing exactly what he said earlier in this interview. He is pushing the envelope and integrating the digital with the print.
“I’ll announce this during this interview. You’ve seen Getty Images? We are creating NNPA Images. I’m going to put a lot of these young photographers to work and make sure they get paid for their photographs. I’m developing an NNPA app. The app is based on the print content. We’re going to aggregate the content of all the 205 newspapers in the NNPA and have an enterprise app that pushes out the information to our constituency. That will increase the value of what we do in the print world. For us it’s not dialectic of having to choose between print and digital. For us they both have to work together. Number five; we have found increasing response from young African-American readers who, yes, they began their journey of searching for information with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But they don’t stop there. This is a good thing. There is a hunger and thirst for information among young people. That’s where the ‘#Black Lives Matters‘ hash tag caught a lot of people off guard. It wasn’t just because they had video cameras on their devices but because of what is being witnessed. Keep in mind that there is much more that is not caught on video. Young people see that everyday. So when you have an African-American owned newspaper that not only covers these stories differently, but also gives young people a voice. A lot of time when you look at so called mainstream coverage of the news its almost a put down of young people, almost a put down of their swagger, a put down of the way they dress, a put down of the way they interact with one another. In the African-American owned newspapers we lift up our young people. We give them positive images. We give them positive role models. While they are young. Young role models. Not someone who is aged. They want to have fun and make a difference while they are young. It’s our role in the African-American press to engender their aspirations. Young people, after they’re finished on their mobile devices, they turn to print. They are very happy to see their photographs, their poems, their lyrics, or something about their latest video or their latest hit songs or sports.”
In this age of information overload, with so many competing interests for African-American attention, radio, television, Internet, do you believe that black interests are being drowned out at the local level where they matter the most?
“No. I think just the opposite. I think the media interests of black people are under served. I want to say that again. If you look at what is projected, the content, the substance, the depth, we are under-served, as a community. The reason why is because if we were better served you would not have a lot of the contradictory, self-destructive behavior that still goes on in too many of our communities. Behavior is a function of consciousness. Consciousness in one’s community is determined by the information they receive. We talk to young people they’ll tell you that they not only want to hear something or see something, they want to feel it. That’s why all the young people are coming out with hit songs; you can’t have a hit song without a hit video. This is a visual, young generation. We talk about the oral tradition, you now have to also talk about the visual tradition and also the print tradition and all these things come together. This is a complex matrix of interests that have to be served. The African-American community is not monolithic. We have a lot of diversity within our community as all communities are not monolithic.”
“I think one of the mistakes that some of the media organizations make is, if you notice, you turn to certain channels you see the same thing over and over again. It’s not much diversity. African-Americans as well as African people in general created music, created dance, created art forms. Are we inundated with that? No. We are under served. Our young people will tell you in a minute, they find a lot of the information they receive is irrelevant, very surface; it’s without depth, and to many of them, without meaning. So here comes the black press. Our task is to make sure that what we do is relevant, is meaningful, and is useful, so people will come back. That’s the whole purpose of the black press in America. It’s not just to report the news, that’s what we do. We’re not stopping with just reporting. Our job is to change lives. Our job is to improve the quality of life of our community. That’s our job!”