By Ernie Suggs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In 1971, Wilbert “Bill” Tatum was part of a group of Black investors who pooled their money together to save the New York Amsterdam News, the venerable Black newspaper and Harlem institution since 1909.
Tatum became the paper’s sole owner in 1996 and when he died in 2009, his only daughter, Elinor, took over the family business as publisher and owner.
Black newspapers “have been the voice of Black America for more than 100 years,” Elinor Tatum said. “We have weathered so many storms and still covered our communities, whether the mainstream press had even seen those movements or not. We always saw the writing on the wall and we have continued to carry on the legacies of our forefathers who started these papers.”
But over the last few years, while print media has struggled, Black newspapers have suffered disproportionally struggling to find investors, advertisers and subscribers.
That is why Tatum and her paper have teamed up with nine other Black newspapers to create a new online collaborative, Word In Black, to “amplify the Black experience by reporting, collecting and sharing stories about real people in communities across our country,” according to the company’s website, which had its soft launch in May.
Along with the New York Amsterdam News, Word In Black will publish content from The Houston Defender, The Washington Informer, The Dallas Weekly, The Baltimore-based AFRO, Michigan Chronicle, The Seattle Medium, The Sacramento Observer and St. Louis American on its website and newsletter.
The Atlanta Voice, the 56-year-old Atlanta newspaper, is also a member of the coalition. Janis Ware, the publisher of the Atlanta Voice, could not be reached for comment.
Veteran journalist Nick Charles, who is serving as the managing director of the project, said it is all about one thing that is becoming common: Media consolidation.
“In this day and age, when you have so many local and ethnic press closing or teetering, you have to find innovative ways to move forward,” Charles said.
At one point, there were hundreds of Black newspapers scattered across the country, offering extensive coverage on the stories like the Emmett Till lynching, Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycotts, while also covering local weddings, births, church news and cotillions that major local papers ignored.
Today there are fewer than 250.
In 2012, Atlanta’s oldest Black newspaper, The Atlanta Daily World, merged with Real Times Media, the owner and publisher of the Chicago Defender. Real Times Media publishes six Black newspapers including the Pittsburgh Courier.
Charles said the new partnership is part of the Fund for Black Journalism, which was founded in 2020 by the Local Media Association and the same 10 newspapers to support coverage and create solutions around issues that affect Black communities.
Initially, they received funding from the Walton Family Foundation to report and publish stories about the COVID-19 pandemic and education.
The project grew to create the website, Word In Black, to curate stories from the 10 newspapers about those issues as well as stories about racial equity, K-12 education, police reform, healthcare disparities, social justice, politics, opinion, sports and LGBTQ.
Charles also has a team of reporters who publish original content on the site and in the newsletter.
In addition to LMA and the Walton Family Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google News Initiative and the Local Media Consortium have also funded the project to the tune of about $750,000 combined. Charles said overall, the project has raised nearly $1 million.
The newsletter has about 2,700 subscribers and Charles said he wants to build a subscriber base of 500,000 over the next two years. Tatum said the newsletter and the content on the website are free for readers.
Curated articles from each of the 10 papers will also contain links directing readers to each of the individual websites.
A sampling of articles this week included a profile on Michael K. Williams from The AFRO about the late actor who is so associated with Baltimore; a story from the Texas Tribune about Texas’ new abortion restrictions; and a column by Donald M Suggs, publisher and owner of The St. Louis American on the possible ramifications on Blacks with the California recall election.
The 10 different publishers “sometimes have different mindsets, different politics, and they live in different parts of the country. So, people in Texas don’t have the same ideas about a lot of things that people in New York may have,” said Charles. “But their affection and love for communities are what binds them. Collaboration is going on because people realize that to survive and to meet our mission as journalists, we have to band together.”