Black Media’s Next Steps: An Interview with Benét J. Wilson
By Maurice Cherry
With the current rapidly changing technological advances, traditional Black media is in a state of flux. Black media in 2010 faced the same sorts of challenges as mainstream news organizations have also faced, and many outlets have started plans to upgrade their online presence to reach out to readers and form communities. But with newspaper and magazine circulation decreasing for Black media outlets, is it too late to innovate?
Maurice Cherry: Among magazines, television, and blogging (and other forms of media), what is the current state of Black media right now?
Benét J. Wilson: I think it’s a mixed bag. There are some great examples of what’s good, likeDallas South, theGrio and The Root, just to name a few, but I also see the traditional Black press struggling to keep up technologically and financially with all the rapid changes in journalism. I see it as a lack of human and financial resources to create and maintain web sites that attract and keep those all-important eyeballs, especially when there is so much content to choose from these days.
MC: Given the fast-changing technological landscape, what should Black media do to keep up?
BJW: I say take a page from Ebony and do a redesign. After decades of dormancy, I became a subscriber again. My timing was great, because it happened to be the first issue under its new design. I found the new design to be easy to read, with many articles that related to my life. Of course, no publication is worth its salt these days without a strong companion website and an iPad app. Black media organizations need to train their existing staff on topics like search engine optimization (SEO), content management systems (CMS), social media, etc., to ensure that they are targeting the correct audience. Most importantly, they need to find a niche. “Black people” is a very broad demographic, and what a 40-year-old, college-educated, East Coast suburban working mother likes is completely different from what a twentysomething urban West Coast black man will like. Black press can no longer afford to be all things to all Black people.
MC: Are there any Black media outlets that are doing it right?
BJW: The three sites I mentioned earlier are a great start. The current state of media reminds me of a scene in the Pixar movie Up. All the dogs in the movie seem to be focused on their task, until someone yells squirrel. Then, their attention is distracted and it’s hard to get them back on focus. I see that as a dilemma faced by all media though, not just the Black media. Getting readers to focus on their publication when there’s so much out there to distract and tempt you is difficult.
MC: Do you think there is a gap between professional journalists and bloggers when it comes to Black media? Can they sit at the same table?
BJW: I do see a huge gap. I have been a journalist for more than 20 years and a blogger for more than five years. Journalists tend to focus on all the training they’ve received, which is the right thing to do. There are good and bad bloggers out there, but many of my brethren tend to lump them all together and look down on them as a whole, unless they are also journalists. But the last time I checked, unlike doctors or lawyers, there isn’t a credential that specifically identifies someone as a journalist, like Benét J. Wilson, PoJ (practitioner of journalism).
My feeling is if you follow the rules of journalism and create content that readers find useful (whether you agree with the content or not), there should be room at the table for journalists and bloggers. As co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism Task Force, this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and I have even submitted an amendment to NABJ’s constitution to broaden membership to include bloggers.
BJW: The future is what each publication makes it, but those that do make it will do so when they create that balance of news and content that readers find relevant. And I see that coming to those who create a particular niche among Black people, rather than trying to be all things to all people. They also need to make sure their online game is stellar, with a good website, active social networking channels like Twitter and Facebook, and an interactive iPad app. In the end, Black media will have to adapt or die.
Benét J. Wilson is the co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism Task Force. She also write about travel and aviation at her blog, Aviation Queen.