Five thoughts about the Black press from the publisher of North Texas' largest Black newspaper
The PBS series "Making Black America" continues Tuesday night with a look at the Black press. So we asked Patrick Washington, publisher of the Dallas Weekly, to share some observations about the Black press, Black Twitter and Black joy.
In the new PBS series, "Making Black America: Through the Grapevine," host Henry Louis Gates Jr. looks at how African Americans built and preserved their community, their artistry, their social lives in the face of slavery and Jim Crow.
The four-part series is kin to Gates' previous documentary, "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song." There, Gates showed how deep the Black church goes — in music, in movement politics. Here, Gates outlines African Americans' invention of an entire 'counter-universe' to the predominant white culture. They forged networks and institutions like beauty shops, historically Black colleges — and the Black press.
The first Black-owned newspaper was established in America in 1827 — almost 200 years ago. The Dallas Weekly is only 67 years old, but it has been the largest Black newspaper in North Texas for decades. And it already has a third generation running it.
Tony Davis established the newspaper in 1955. James Washington bought it 30 years later, but when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the early 2000s, his son Patrick began to run it. James Washington moved to Atlanta and runs The Atlanta Voice, while Patrick and his wife Jessica now own the Dallas Weekly. We asked Patrick Washington to share his observations on the Black press today. Here are some takeaways:
1. The typical history of Black newspapers is not like the history of the Dallas Weekly. They resemble multi-generational infighting. Think of the HBO series, "Succession."
"What you got to understand," Patrick Washington said, "is unlike white corporate America, which when a publisher-editor retires, the next one moves up, it’s all good, a lot of these [Black newspaper] publishers, this is their livelihood — especially with the men. It's this business they built — or have become stewards of. And there's a lot of pride. There’s a lot of, ‘This is who I am.’ And y’know, I get it because I’m in it now. So that’s a common factor amongst publishers. Most publishers that I know got their paper because somebody died. I'm one of the few people in our industry that got it bequeathed down."
As a result, Washington said, "I’m a young person in this industry and when I say young, I mean ‘baby young.’ Cause I’m barely about to be 40 this year. The average Black press publisher has to be in their 70s– on average. There are some in their 50sbut more in their 80s."
2. Serving the Black community can be a double-edged sword: What kills a paper can also save a paper.
The Black press, Washington said, is "by media standards, a niche market entity. We cater to the African American community in a single market in a single city."
That means limited advertising dollars.
But that also means "we can go where the mainstream news can't go." Washington said. "We are abundant. We are all over the block. The churches, the barbershops, the Black independent businesses that are just like us. These are places where white mainstream media just isn't."
3. For the Black press — as for many small, Black-owned retailers — integration was a mixed blessing. As economic opportunities opened for African Americans, many moved to the white suburbs, leaving their neighborhood and its Black institutions behind.
"If this was Jim Crow," Washington said, "we'd be rocking and rolling, which is the saddest thing to say."
With white mainstream media unavailable to them, Black businesses would have to advertise in the paper.
"It just seemed like with integration and what Black people are trying to achieve — in sort of an image way — was more aligned to stepping away from the traditions of cooperative economics and circulating your dollars in the community and more toward moving to white spaces to feel like they're doing better," Washington said. "In actuality, the things that are championing them in their community, they're abandoning. And that’s everything from the Black press to the small business retailer."
4. Black Twitter doesn't mean the death of the Black press.
"It's hard to actually kill a newspaper is what I found," Washington said. "I mean, they keep talking about the industry being dead. But you notice, this thing ain't going anywhere. It's just that not everyone in the world needs a newspaper to read. When I'm about 80, I feel like there'll be no need for newspapers.
"But if there’s going to be no newspapers, there probably will be magazines still. The kind of niche market and couture nature of magazines makes them viable, you know? And that's all we did was change the style to a magazine and kept the same content. So far it's been working out. People want the magazine.
"It was like, 'I get it. The kids want flash.' But if the flash has substance, all of a sudden they're hooked.
Twitter, TikTok and other social media may grab eyeballs, Washington said, "but if people don't trust you as their their local source of truth, it doesn't matter. We definitely have our own guy doing social, but I also got a guy who gave birth to me who knows every single mayor in Dallas. He can call them on the phone if he needs something done. That takes years of service to the community and actual knowledge about how things change."
"And that's what I'm learning now. A lot of the things I use to complain about with my dad, I'm like, 'He was 100% right.'"
5. It's not enough for the Black press to focus on the struggle for equity and equality. It needs to find moments of "Black joy" — when African Americans escape the white gaze, shed any consciousness of race and just be themselves.
Washington said that readers "shouldn’t go home thinking, ‘Man, my community, it’s like murders every week.’ And also, y’know, you’re not going to see any positive information about you, your community, your people on mainstream news — unless if somebody won a championship or a Grammy.
"So part of Black press and Dallas Weekly is showcasing the entirety of the community. In the midst of all this chaos we’ve been put through, look at all this beauty we’ve achieved. People are creating businesses and schools and raising families as well as creating art and dance and they're moving the culture.
"Yeah, why wouldn’t you talk about that?"
Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.
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