African-American press retains influence

It's a familiar story: Print circulation numbers are down, and audiences are dwindling.

It's a familiar story: Print circulation numbers are down, and audiences are dwindling.

It could be applied to any segment of the newspaper or magazine industry. But for the African-American press, comprising established weekly papers, it especially rings true.

The 2007 State of the News Media report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that while Hispanic media have been growing, circulation numbers at some of the oldest African-American weeklies in the country have been dropping. New York's Amsterdam News experienced a 30% decline in circulation from 2004 to 2006.

In the general print market, newspapers have adapted to this changing environment by putting resources into the companion Web sites. Not so for the African-American press.

"It has been slow to adapt to online technology, and its audience appears to be aging and waning," the report says.

Latraviette Smith, national VP in the multicultural practice at Edelman, says there are several reasons for this media segment's lag in online migration.

"It boils down to a paucity of resources, mostly financial," she says. "A lot of African-American newspapers have rudimentary editorial staffs that are focused primarily on [finishing] the issue, and they're often working with slower and older production systems. That makes it more challenging."

But what do these changes mean for marketers who have traditionally relied on the African-American press to reach the community? Kim Hunter, president of Lagrant Communications, says despite the decrease in circulation, these publications should still be an integral part of a marketing plan, especially from a PR standpoint. One reason is because these papers and their staffs are often key influencers in their respective communities.

He cites the example of Elinor Tatum, editor-in-chief and publisher of Amsterdam News, who he refers to as a key stakeholder in New York's African-American community. "For us to ignore her publication would not be in the best interest of my clients," he says.

Smith adds that these titles are as important today as they were at the height of their circulation.

"African-American media is still one of the most integral components in the African-American social structure, and it's one of the most influential entities in the African-American segment," she says. "It's really capable of lending that credibility and validity to brands across industries.

"There's a trust African-American media has with the community," adds Smith. "It goes back to that credibility. They're still very much a voice within the community. They [provide] a forum for issues of concern that other media still aren't [covering]."

And while it's true that the audience for these publications tends to be older than the often-coveted 18 to 34 demographic, Smith says these younger audiences are still benefiting from the messages in such publications because of the word of mouth they generate.

Still, Hunter says current pressures and dwindling readership mean these outlets, like any other, must evolve in order to survive.

"African-American papers [will] have to step up to the plate, or they'll vanish," he says. "They have to find some way to increase their circulation. Many of them are not up to par. Many of them should no longer be in the marketplace."

If anything, Smith says, the shift in these newspapers should be a message to marketers that they need to explore other ways to reach the African-American segment. But she is confident that these publications will still be around for years to come.

"Despite any declines in readership or circulation, the power that African-American media has to affect and shift perceptions within their community is unparalleled," she says. "I don't see them as becoming extinct at any point."

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