By Elinor Tatum
Publisher, The New York Amsterdam News
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” That was part of the inaugural editorial penned by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm in Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the United States.
Recently the Black Media Initiative of the Center for Community Media at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism released a study, Why Black Media Matters Now.
In 182,7 when Cornish and Russwurm founded Freedom’s Journal, our county was in a time of turmoil. There were more than 2,000,000 slaves and fewer than 300,000 free Blacks. The Black population had no voice of its own, so these free men spoke up and spoke out. Fast forward almost 200 years, and the representatives from hundreds of Black media outlets still heed that call to “plead our own cause.”
Black publishers have been in the trenches with the community and spoken out for the community. This study just highlights what we have been saying for decades and puts scholarly attribution behind what we have always known. We applaud the Center for Community Media on their work.
The Black Press is paramount in telling the stories of our communities. If we don’t tell it, others won’t tell it in ways relevant to us. We can’t continue to let others speak for us and at us. Our newspapers allow us to speak to our own communities on our own terms with our own voices.
According to the report, when it came to the coverage of the coronavirus and the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic, Black media wrote five times more stories about the issue. They also wrote twice as much about frontline and essential workers. In general, when it came to health, pandemic aside, Black media covered more health issues that had a higher relevance to their communities than “mainstream” media did.
The Black Press has always been there for the community, telling the stories no one else could tell. However, it was not until the 1950s and ’60s that Black reporters covered race in any form or fashion for mainstream newspapers. And as my father would tell me when I first started working for the Amsterdam News in 1994, the only reasons they let them cover race were one, because the white reporters didn’t want to do it, and two, it was too dangerous. He said in some cases, the copy boy was sent out into the riots to cover them because that would be the only Black person they had on the editorial staff.
While those times have changed to some extent, the truth is there are still far too few people of color in the seats of power in mainstream media. The Black Press is a crucial part of the community. Black-owned, black-run, it employs, it trains, it uplifts, and it inspires. So many of the leading journalists of our time started off at Black newspapers across this country, and there they learned the community’s humanity.
The Black press has been critical in the movement of Black people. It has helped inspire change, provided hope, and shown all sides of black life — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. It has made mayors and taken down leaders. It has uplifted families and raised children. It had celebrated with us and grieved as well, but most importantly, it had been with us, struggled with us.
The Black press means something. It is essential; it must be supported, as it has helped the communities it has served for decades.
Elinor Tatum is the publisher of The Amsterdam News
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” — Shirley Chisholm