Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another kind of Banner year

The Bay State Banner laid off its 12 employees and shut down on July 9, a week ago tomorrow. If you lived outside the Boston-Cambridge metro area, you probably never heard of the publication, a reliable editorial voice for the interests of African Americans in Boston.

The Banner (a weekly) was one of a rare breed, a black-oriented newspaper that had the obstinance, maybe even the sheer nerve, to survive this far into the Internet age first and foremost as a print product. Other newspapers have done the same thing before finally going under, but they were the subsidiaries or divisions of major corporations with presumably deeper pockets. It's a tribute to the pluck and drive of The Banner that it managed to survive longest than some of its better capitalized counterparts in the mainstream media.

The Banner was out there on its own, the plucky little engine that could and did, for 44 years. And may do again soon, if one Harvard man has his way.

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“The severe reduction of advertising during this recession has placed a burden on the resources of the 44-year-old weekly newspaper,” Editor and publisher Melvin B. Miller said in a statement, one first released on July 6. “Publication is expected to resume once financial arrangements have been completed.”

The paper had a print circulation of about 34,000 and a readership of about 150,000.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino told The Boston Globe that, while he sometimes disagreed with the Banner’s position on various issues, he saw the paper’s closing as “a loss’’ of the “voice of the community.’’

“Losing that voice is not helpful,’’ Menino said. “It’s a fabric of the community that people look forward to every week not just because of the news stories but . . . all the stories that are covered by the Banner . . . not covered by other folks.’’

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told The Globe that The Banner was “a channel that has been enormously important to me.”

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The Banner was launched in 1965, one of the more critical years in the life of the civil rights movement, and went on to chronicle the city’s painful first trial with court-ordered desegregation of its public schools, and the chaos that followed.

“It chronicled the biggest stories in Boston’s black community, among them the school busing crisis in the 1970s and, in the 1990s, the successes of local pastors’ work with police to reduce crime,” The Globe reported on July 8. “More recently, the Banner criticized the Boston Police Department for a lack of black officers. It called out politicians who Miller believed didn’t have at heart the black community’s best interests.”

In today’s carnivorous media climate, what goes around comes around fast. The Banner fell victim to a disease that’s been hitting daily and weekly print publications across the United States all year, from the Ann Arbor News (which is reconfiguring itself as an online entity) to the Rocky Mountain News (whose editorial staffers did much the same thing, independently, when the Rocky went belly-up early this year).

If you’re a black or minority independent publisher, what goes around comes around even faster. Already financially disadvantaged by complete dependence on advertisers (usually local), and with no corporate parent to blunt the economic impact to any degree, black newspaper publishers are being more deeply affected by the current downturn.

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But maybe the Banner has a shot. “Publication is expected to resume,” Miller’s statement said. And they’ve dodged a bullet before, about a year after they launched in September 1965. “But when the community called for its return by pressuring local businesses to advertise, the paper resumed printing,” The Globe reported.

For African American journalists, the loss of such community-oriented publications reinforces the sense of professional despair some of them already feel, as exiles from mainstream publications. Historically, it’s been hard enough for black journalists to get hired at newspapers in the first place; the idling of the Banner doesn’t reinforce confidence in the ability of the black print media to make the pivot necessary to survive in these rapaciously interesting times.

To its credit, The Banner has had a Web site in place for some years now, one that draws a healthy 1 million new visitors a month. The paper has also made efforts at community outreach; three different magazines — published monthly, quarterly and annually — examine aspects of the health and well-being of African Americans.

It’s a good bet that publisher Miller will get the Banner to make like Lazarus and rise from the crypt once more. The Banner fills a screaming need for Boston’s black residents.

Charles Ogletree apparently gets this. The celebrated Harvard law professor, author and television commentator is apparently taking point in an effort to save The Banner.

“A lot is being done,” Ogletree told Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix on Monday. “I’m meeting with a number of influential people, this week and next, with a goal of making sure that we have the financial support to get the Banner going again…. It’s a confluence of political, economic and even religious groups that are stepping up, and are going to make sure we get the Banner back on the stands, hopefully as early as next month.”

For a black press more economically beleaguered than the mainstream media, that’s as good as news gets.
Image credit: Bay State Banner logo: The Banner. Ogletree: Still from "Charlie Rose," Nov. 4, 2008 (election night).

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