Essay: A Graduate of The Black Press

Send by email

By Thomas A. Johnson (view Biography)

For many black journalists of my generation, the big city, white daily newspaper had been the goal.

They were rich and the black weeklies for which we struggled were poor.

The dailies were respected. The weeklies, for the most part, were not respected. This was true even - or especially - among blacks. And our publishers, handing out our lowest in the industry salary checks (often late, often post-dated) reinforced our, and their own, lack of respect for this specialized craft.

The dailies were white. Right.

Many of us stayed with the black media because there was simply no place else to go in the field. The big city school systems, welfare departments and post offices sustained many of our families while we now and again tried to earn a living in the black media.

We stayed. And we stayed.

And the white dailies, from our have-not perspectives loomed bright, shining and out of reach across a chasm of either outright, hostile denial or the polite and unspoken understanding that it was simply not for us.

There were, here and there, some black journalists with the white media. The fact that Carl T. Rowan, Layhmond Robinson, Bob Teague, Ted Poston, Orrin Evans and some others had cleared that chasm encouraged a number of us to submit our applications to the dailies and later, to the radio and television news departments.

"We'll keep your application on file," the young personnel clerks used to tell us at the big city dailies, "but we can't hold out much hope. We have so many applications."

At the New York Times they would invariably say: "We have so many applications - we have Ph.D.s waiting for jobs as copy boys!"

The most interesting interview, of a sort, in my own experience, came when I applied by mail to the Long Island Press in late 1954 or early 1955. This was just after a black public relations firm I had been the writer for, the International Service Bureau, went, predictably, out of business.

An editor from the Long Island Press telephoned me at home in response to my letter.

Perhaps he listened to my Tampa, Florida tones or, probably, he surmised by my South Jamaica, New York address (nobody but us, hardly, lived there), because, within a few minutes he asked, with care, "Are you colored?"

I was at the time so I told him, "Yes."

Then, sounding relieved, he said: "But if we hired you, we would have to assign you to colored neighborhoods and that would be discrimination too, don't you see?"

I asked if that meant they would never hire any "colored" reporters and he answered, with some resignation, "Yes, I suppose it does . . ."

Well, it did not.

Things changed.

Black people began taking their programs into the streets and many things changed. Many of us got a lot of jobs out of the changes.

Most of those who went into the streets, however, did not later go to work for the New York Times, Foreign Service, International Business Machines, nor Eastern Airlines, but that's another book.

It was during the summer of 1963 that the late Louis E. Lomax, the author, telephoned me at an early a.m. hour. This had been his habit.

Greeting me as he often did, "Nigger, I say that because I don't want you to think you're anything else," he then went on to tell me to call William McIlwain, then the managing editor of Newsday, in Garden City, "because they are looking for one."

They were.

McIlwain, a balding, husky, plain-spoken man who had lost none of his Wilmington, North Carolina accent during his years in the North, told me "We keep on writing in this paper about integration and all that and I looked around and we ain't got a single Negro reporter - and we never had one."

Now I was sort of amused. At that time I had become something of a media-fringe hustler. I wrote a column "Long Island Topics" for the New York Courier (or New York edition of the Pittsburgh Courier) as well as several articles a week.

I had also set up a photography studio (the best selling photos were pictures of pretty girls) and I handled a few accounts, in black area interests, for white public relations firms. I had the feeling I was building something and I wanted to stay with it.

So I was amused that McIlwain was offering me a job.

I was amused until he said: "We'd start you at $150 a week - naw, naw, les make that $165."

I was no longer amused. I was trapped. So I went to work at Newsday for about $65 more a week than I was earning.

About a month later, by the way, Pat Patterson, a very sensitive and creative newsman came to work for Newsday. Pat, as you may know, was later to become the editor of Black Enterprise magazine.

About two and a half years after I started at Newsday, I had an interview with A.M. Rosenthal, managing editor of the New York Times, who was then that newspaper's metropolitan editor.

We argued.

It was his contention that the New York Times did a good job of interpreting the social revolutions going on in the United States. I suggested that he was wrong.

I was hired anyway.

So, there I was, just 12 years out of journalism school at Long Island University and starting at the New York Times.

Now to me, the obvious advantage of a paper like the New York Times is that it has the resources and large staff to take longer, deeper looks into a given story and provide the reader with a more complete picture.

And, obviously, the New York Times and some others of the major media, will often do this. And from time to time the stories will deal with race, and/or with the American conditions touching on black people.

Some outstanding examples, to me, have included Paul Delaney's documentation of the plight of black colleges; Jon Nordheimer's report on the life and death of a Detroit Medal of Honor winner; and the humanizing of Harlem by Charlayne Hunter Gault.

Earl Caldwell was able to travel with the late Dr. Martin Luther King continually and was a few feet away when an assassin's bullet ended Dr. King's life and the New York Times put teams of reporters into Cleveland to document the background on the shootout between Ahmed Evan's group and the police. Later, a team documented the fact that the six black men killed during a night of rioting in Augusta, Georgia, had each been shot in the back.

So in this aspect, we were not entirely wrong in our concept of that white media-what it is, what it can do. I use the New York Times examples because I am most familiar with those. Of course, one can argue that the examples are overstated since the New York Times is not typical of any other daily, but then you knew I was going to use the New York Times as the example when you started reading, didn't you?

For some black journalists, myself included, the white media has been a particularly good instrument with which to examine the conditions of blacks and the facts of social revolutions. Some of us have been allowed wide latitude for pursuing a very special interest in many parts of the world.

Again, the money was there. Our employers had staffs enough to spare us from the daily grind of police courts and watermain breaks. Their own prestige required too that a bit of detailed exotica be sandwiched among the repetitious stories of war, political wrong-doings and government handouts. And we did, I would imagine, bring a somewhat different set of attitudes to the newsroom. I would imagine.

For some of us, beyond a doubt, the experience has been a good and a profitable one. For some of us who graduated, fled, escaped, sunk, defected, sold out or moved (choose one) to the general media, the exercise has been positive in the main.

For some others the move to the white media has been something akin to prison sentence.

Frustrations, far beyond the lack of income, respect or expense accounts of the poor black media, have been their continuing conditions.

Some found the overt, neanderthal kinds of racism in their cityrooms that was no different from what the first black police officers, firemen, truck drivers or sheetmetal workers found in the other traditional, white working class "clubs."

Then too, some others found their roles so limited by the fact that they were considered only for the coverage of riot stories ?¢‚Ǩ' black riot stories ?¢‚Ǩ' that they simply never grew as journalists.

Not all the racism encountered was of the latter day, overt and the "keep them in their place" variety.

Many an anxious black journalist arrived in the big white city room, experienced up to his eyebrows in weekly newspapers and clutching at least a masters degree and additional studies because he had been long convinced that, when the big break came, he would have to be "qualified."

In the city room he quite often found that he was the only one so qualified.

His editors and fellow reporters, to a great extent, had been pharmacists, cartoonists, salesmen, teachers, truck drivers, drop-outs and, often, the relatives, friends and friends of friends of the publications' management, editorial and delivery staffs.

"Qualification," the black journalists learned, was really the fact that someone on the newspaper already wanted someone else brought onto the newspaper. "Qualification" really meant we want you hired.

In addition, the black journalist learned two other very important lessons. Probably, it would be more accurate to state that I learned two very important lessons in moving to the white media.

One is that black America needs somebody in all areas and at all levels of the general or white media. Second, there is a need for the strongest possible black media.

Should such propositions seem unusual, and I am certain some will find them so, I would submit that there is hardly anything that is usual about black America -either historically, psychologically or in terms of its needs, wishes or potential.

To myself, the need for blacks in the white media is a forgone conclusion in a society where blacks can hardly allow themselves to be kept out of the forward motion of the general society if they are to feed, house, clothe and educate their families. Separatism from the rewards of the American gross national product, and from what it can do, is a luxury that very few blacks can afford to take seriously.

This is not meant to say by inference, that all black journalists should be in the white media. They should not be.

For the basic problem with the white media, in the context of black America's needs, is that it is white. And while it can indeed work up and promote a strong interest in black America's needs, it can also be easily lead away to pursue as strong an interest in marsupials, the rotary engine or soybean farming on the tundra. Black America's media needs go far beyond the now and again special of Newsweek, CBS or the New York Times, good though they generally are.

This is an abiding and permanent need and it will also require a media of abiding and permanent interest.

The black media needs are for a great variety of communications instruments that would do a great variety of things for a people as varied and complex as is humanly possible. These instruments would report, interpret, criticize, praise, satirize, encourage, debate and chronicle our walk through today. Some would do all these, some two or more, and some others one, or a piece of one.

But most of all, these publications, radio or television stations, books, pamphlets or, flyers would invariably shout, scream or whisper to black Americans: "I am here 'especially' for you! I am here to make certain that 'your' interests will be protected. I am your communications instrument, your special aid for your special need. I am your advocate."

One example of what I mean.

For this example I will use, again, a personal experience. I choose it less out of vanity and more out of the greater knowledge of these facts. Besides I would probably have some difficulty in interpreting someone else's experience, and, again, you knew I would use a personal example anyway.

The example had its genesis for me in the sweltering headquarters of the Charles Evers campaign headquarters in Fayette, Mississippi, a few years ago.

The town election officials, in the two-room, red brick firehouse down the highway, had just completed their count of the ballots that declared that Mr. Evers had defeated the white incumbent in the race for mayor of this town of about 1,800 people.

History?

History!

So I sat in a corner of the headquarters with a small time margin ahead of deadline and I searched my notes and memory for a accurate description of Mr. Evers.

"Orchestrator."

That had been a local man's term for Mr. Evers. And it fit. He was an "orchestrator" who blended an impressive group of northern blacks and whites and an impressive group of rural blacks into a winning team of campaign workers. "Orchestrator."

It fit.

So, buoyed by the description and pushed by the deadline I began to write.

At that point I was interrupted.

Now all journalists develop techniques for discouraging interruptions when they are working for a deadline. They range from politely asking to be left alone to outright violence.

The interrupter was Earl G. Graves, a former aide to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Well, first, Earl is too big to punch in the mouth. And, second, he had, as the Evers campaign manager, helped to win an election.

I decided to allow him 45 seconds to brag about how he had run the campaign.

Surprisingly, however, he wanted to talk instead about an idea he had for a magazine.

Now all journalists develop techniques for discouraging the many non-journalists with "ideas" for new magazines. But Earl's Idea was good enough to take five minutes or so on the dangerous side of my deadline margin.

The idea, designed to fill a vacuum and to capitalize on the proven success of controlled circulation, was to produce a monthly "How-to" magazine to assist blacks with information on business and on careers. It was to be a Fortune or a Business Week, "for us, especially for us."

So we talked, and after, I wrote and dictated the Evers story to a man at the New York Times national news desk by telephone.

We talked. We talked for weeks following and then for months.

And I watched Earl Graves turn his idea into what has become Black Enterprise magazine. Essentially, Black Enterprise is a commercially successful monthly that gives vital, specialized information on business, economics and careers to a portion of the black American community.

It is hardly the total answer to the blacks' media needs, no more than a black man reading the 7 o'clock news or black men and women assigned to Lagos or Moscow.

There are many things wrong with Black Enterprise magazine (and here I risk a fist fight) but, at this time its failings are best discussed with the people running it and not with the world.

The great strength of Black Enterprise is the fact that it exists as a communications instrument and now provides a vital service to black America! It exists! It functions!

Obviously, it is not the only such instrument.

And in cooperation with many others - black radio, television, cable television, newspapers, magazines plus whatever input can be made by blacks in the general (white) media - it can help to inspire and assist in the founding of other such communications tools for a black community that is awakening to its condition and its potential.

These communications tools will have to be strengthened by the support of blacks so that they can overcome a major deficiency of the traditional black media, that of under-capitalization.

They must, where this is a part of their make-up, be able to share in the advertising dollars spent in their general community. (Yes, that means white money. Their message, of course, must be of sufficient interest to their black community's needs and aspirations so as to win, and hold, their readership and loyalty.)

If this can be done - when this is done - then we would hopefully see more and more black communications tools providing some very positive services for their community. Some of these services, while best performed by the black media, were not generally provided to any effective extent during my own experience with the black media.

These services would include a wide ranging and well organized training program for young people interested in the field of communications - both from the "J-schools" as well as from the community."

Another "service" to the black community would be the independence of the black media. if it were indeed a financially viable entity there would be (theoretically) no need to surrender its independence - as some have - to a variety of special interests who have money to spend.

It is not necessary, here, to state that still another service would be to raise the salaries in the black media to a level that would be competitive with those in the general field, is it? No, of course not, that's why I won't even mention it.

Another "service" would be to provide an effective and ongoing liaison between black communications people that would include those from the electronics media, the white media and the student community.

While such a liaison would be necessarily loose, it could provide some important contacts and cross fertilization and keep black interpreters of our times more aware of their larger community.

I am aware of the attempts by black newspaper publishers in this direction and, in the main, they must be applauded.

But, again, I would rather use an example with which I have a greater familiarity, to point up some recent attempts by black media people at providing general services to, the black community.

The New York-based organization of black journalists, Black Perspective, sparked a Black Media Week in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1972 that had the following components:

- Howard University's School of Communications brought professional black journalists into two days of dialogue with black students of the field.

- This was followed by two days of the professionals, from around the nation, meeting among themselves.

- And this, in turn, was followed by a three-day hearing in the same city on "The Mass Media and the Black Community" conducted by the National Congressional Black Caucus.

A month later, Black Perspective, in cooperation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, brought black people in the white media to a New York City conference with representatives of the black media.

The point is simply that Black Perspective attempted to use the skills and experiences of its members, in the black and white media, in combination with the strengths of Howard University, the Congressional Black Caucus and the N.A.A.C.P. to further black communications interests.

The general thinking of the participants was that black America should be made aware of and kept alerted to the importance of communications and the mass media in their lives.

This is yet another "service" required by blacks and requiring the participation of that growing list of black communications tools.

The hope, of course, is that these tools will serve the best interests of the black community. Some will, some will not. And there is the long, tedious and-to me-unnecessary argument (for this text) about "just what is the best interest of the black community."

Given black America's history, location, economy and particular personality, black America's communications interests although grouped by the adhesive of blackness, need, and a condition of struggle - will necessarily be broad and varied.

No single publication, theme nor concept of specialized journalism will suffice.

The viability in black America of Ebony, Black Scholar, Muhammed Speaks, the Chicago Daily Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, Essence, Like It Is, Soul, the St. Louis Argus, and Houston's Voice of Hope, to mention a few, gives but indication of the range of our current specialized interests. These instruments show just a hint of the tip of the iceberg of our communications needs.

And for the so-called "graduate" of this specialized field, it seems to me that there is really no such person.

It seems to me that one never really graduates from this field, either in terms of interests in it or responsibilities to it.

The graduate, in my opinion, must remain one of the black media's most serious students, most willing resources, most consistent supporters and most reliable aides in helping to meet the black communications needs.

Reprinted with permission of the author.