Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah-Jiles

FCC decision to expand media ownership will curb dissent

Black publishers view FCC ruling as a threat to independent voices

BALTIMORE (–At the June 12-14 annual convention here of Black newspaper publishers, the buzz this year was what impact the recent FCC ruling–allowing large conglomerates to purchase more media outlets in a city–would have on their ability to survive.


But John “Jake” Oliver, the outgoing chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), says the ruling presents an opportunity as well as a threat.

“We’re in jeopardy primarily because of that ruling from the perspective of the advertising revenues, which now are going to be far more difficult to get. The large conglomerates, with the ‘one stop shop’ approach, are going to be sucking all that up,” says Mr. Oliver, publisher of the Afro-American newspaper in Washington.

“I view it as a gigantic opportunity for the NNPA because we do reach nearly 18 million people each week, and on the basis of that, we are just as strong in many respects as some of those big conglomerates,” he says.

The NNPA is the trade organization for America’s more than 200 Black publishers and advertising concerns always dominate discussions in hallways and conference rooms at their meetings. The concern for years has been that national corporations shortchange Black publications, with many of them that are supported by the Black population not advertising in the Black print media at all.

As a result of the conglomerate doors now being open and “bigness” being the big deal, Mr. Oliver feels that ad departments of many of these corporations are going to be viewing more of the “magnitude” approach. And because “bigness” is in, “we’re going to be viewed differently because everybody else is going to be viewed differently.”

He says the NNPA must build on the group’s Internet capacity to “facilitate the advertising process and using it as a tool to present the entire NNPA group of papers as one unit.”

“The advertiser may individually check off, but he’s going to go to one site because he knows that if you want to talk to the Black population of this country, there’s only one place you need to go to–the NNPA,” he says.

Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer and the group’s 2nd vice president elect, says that while the FCC ruling presents a problem, NNPA papers must become clearer in addressing the issues that impact their readers.

She says the Black press is the last independent voice and it must operate in a way that delivers information so that “all the lines of defense” of the Black community are working together.

“It’s more critical now, since the effort to abolish slavery, that we have a voice and that our voice remains an independent and very loud and clear voice about the issues that affect us,” she says. “With affirmative action under attack, the plight of Black businesses, the prison issues, these are the issues affecting our community that we must get a handle on and make sure our front pages are addressing the way our community is addressing these issues.”

Ms. Barnes also agrees with Mr. Oliver that the NNPA’s Internet capacity is a key to the future.

“If it doesn’t happen on a printed page, our next horizon is the electronic age, which makes us more global. There are a lot of possibilities. I see the glass as one-third full with more yet to come,” she says.

The Black press “absolutely is the last man standing,” comments George Curry, editor of the NNPA’s news wire service.

He said the purchase of 49 percent of Essence magazine by AOL Time Warner and the ownership of and by the Tribune Company indicates the interest of media conglomerates in Black readership.

Whites can’t clone themselves, so the only way to grow is through the Black and Hispanic community, he says, “so you will see a continuation of what was done with the Black hair care and funeral industries. They’ll buy up our institutions and our voice in terms of the Black press.”

Mr. Curry suggests that Black publishers also consider merging among themselves into regional and national chains.

Among new publishers at the conference was Terry Artis of the St. Louis Limelight, a 17-year-old publication. He bought into the paper several months ago and admits it’s the kind of investment most would consider risky.

But he has a reason for doing so.

“It’s important that we always maintain our commitment to our communities, first and foremost,” says the 38-year-old drummer who has worked with such artists as Nelly, Lenny Kravitz and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

“As an entertainer, I preach multiculturalism as far as making America work, and making music work. But when it comes down to it, I have to be completely supportive of my community, and the Black press has been a vital part. I’ve always read the Black press for my information, because it communicates to me better than any source of news. It’s a difficult situation, but still one that’s necessary,” he says.

He adds: “The Black consumer is one of the greatest consumers in America, bar none. We buy clothes, car, real estate, jewelry É more than anyone else. Our struggle is making these advertisers realize and continue to put their dollars into our communities and our papers.”

NNPA chair-elect Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah-Jiles looks to get all NNPA members “on the same page” and take a united approach to the various problems before the organization.

Publisher of the Houston Defender, Ms. Mesiah-Jiles says Black publications must continue to serve in the traditional role of being the historical record, a catalyst for change and holding office holders and public servants accountable as well as informing the community.

The FCC ruling means that “we must become a stronger organization and shore up our products. We must accept the reality that other people will be encroaching on our markets, and we must be prepared to do battle,” she says.

“Our real power is in the written word, and we must develop a strategy to emphasize that power,” she adds.