African-American Newspapers Fall on Tough Times

Article excerpt

There are times Ovid Goode cannot fathom why he continues publishing the Arkansas Tribune.

Readership isn't as strong as it once was for the state's only African-American newspaper; neither is advertising. And at times, Mr. Goode can scarcely finance publishing the four-year-old, four- page paper.

"I feel like a doctor driving past a five-car accident," says Goode. "I feel a moral obligation to stop and help the black community, but you know you should drive on by and not get involved."

Even as Hispanic newspapers and glossy niche magazines such as Ebony and Teen People are seeing readership grow - in some cases dramatically - the fortunes of African-American newspapers have been less sanguine.

In a trend gaining momentum since the end of the civil-rights era, more and more prominent black papers are filing for bankruptcy. The number of newspapers in one major chain, the Afro-American, has fallen from six to two, and the Chicago Defender - often considered the most prestigious black paper - is up for auction.

In part, mainstream papers have made it harder for African- American papers to compete by hiring more African-Americans. They've also improved their coverage of topics relevant to the black community. And while these are signs of broader progress, scholars say, they are also imperiling a unique African-American institution that dates back to the most turbulent times of America's racial history.

"There is a need for African-Americans to have their own voice," says Clint Wilson of Howard University in Washington. "While the mission is different than in the days of slavery, the choice venue to voice concern and expose these stories is the black press."

The future of the Chicago Defender - and three other African- American dailies - is tied to owner John Sengstacke, who died in 1997. Sengstacke, the nephew of the Defender's founder, Robert Abbott, placed Sengstacke Enterprises Inc. in trust with instructions that it be sold upon his death, leaving his heirs with little say in the matter.

Recently, a $10-million plan that would have left the Sengstacke family with 49 percent of the company failed. But activists continue their push to save the paper.

"The Defender is the only daily newspaper that tells our story," says the Rev. …