When I was a newly minted college professor in New Orleans in the winter of 2004, I began writing regular editorials for the Louisiana Weekly, a newspaper devoted to the city’s black community. Whereas the Times-Picayune society pages bore little resemblance to my adopted majority-black city, the writers and editors of the LA Weekly ensured the faces and voices of local heroes like the late activist Dyan French Cole, better known as Mama D, were well-represented. Whereas mainstream publications in the city might report on issues of race, the Louisiana Weekly was an outlet for blacks to express their particular point of view. In 1956, the segregationist sports editor for the Times-Picayune railed against the integration of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, calling Robinson a “persistently insolent and antagonistic trouble-making Negro” who should have been “muzzled long ago.” Robinson, in turn, published a letter in the Louisiana Weekly, replying, “Am I insolent, or am I merely insolent for a Negro (who has courage enough to speak against injustice such as yours and people like you)?”
“The point of view of the dominant media in the day-to-day press at that time was one of the ruling class,” said Ernest Jones, a board member of the LA Weekly in a video honoring its editor-in-chief and owner, Renette Dejoie Hall, at a recent New Orleans Press Club celebration. The LA Weekly stayed in the family; Dejoie Hall is a third-generation owner. And it stayed committed to local news.
The ruling class, which included the Times-Picayune’s editorial board, endorsed charter schools, and encouraged their expansion in New Orleans. LA Weekly editors and reporters generally took a much more cautious and critical approach to charters, spotlighting the resistance of black students and parents. But the LA Weekly’s criticism was lost during a time in which black organizations struggled to find their footing in a post-Katrina environment and when all local media took a hit because of inability to adapt to technological change. Typically, black media took it much harder. As the saying goes, when white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia.
Over the decades, journalism’s power has eroded, buffeted by the rise of the Internet, the wide availability of free content, and the siphoning of advertising dollars by Internet giants Facebook and Google. If there have been any gains recently, they have mostly gone to big names such as The New York Times, which surpassed four million total subscribers in 2018, a milestone for the company, and The Washington Post, which set company records by crossing the million subscriber mark in 2017.
More reporters uncovering government and corporate malfeasance is a good thing, but I, for one, would like to see a resurgence of local news, and in particular, ethnic media, which serves audiences that are mainly comprised of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. As syndicated news and articles with big city datelines crowd out local ethnic media, voices already ignored by local mainstream media go to the wind. If there’s truth to power to be spoken, marginalized people of color must have more news outlets.
Into the breach stepped big pocketed national foundations, who on the issue of education reform poured hundreds of millions into communication firms, national journalism associations like the National Association of Black Journalists and online news outlets in an attempt to uplift pro-reform stories, drowning out local dissent. In the absence of a daily paper that counters the pro-charter narrative, the Walton, Gates and Broad Foundations found it relatively easy to make New Orleans a positive case study for the rest of the country. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)* In December of 2018, the New Orleans Public School Board voted to turn over its last remaining school to a charter network, making the city a 100 percent charter district.
So it made me nervous to read that now Facebook plans to “spend $300 million over the next three years on news partnerships and programming.” The effort will be overseen by Facebook executive Campbell Brown, founder of the pro-education-reform news site The74. In addition, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has donated (read: wasted) $100 million to the city of Newark, New Jersey, to reform its struggling schools, eschewing the help of local groups like the NAACP in favor of reform organizations. This latest effort brings back bad memories of powerful people in faraway places pushing agendas that will ultimately harm the community. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)*
I’m worried because I still don’t see how Facebook’s latest effort invests in the ethnic media, which in places like New Orleans is more likely to give underrepresented voices a chance to be heard. Local news outlets generally still reflect the views of the ruling class. Committing dollars to black and brown media outlets and alt-weeklies in general ensures that local voices will be heard.
We also need the firewalls of journalistic standards to differentiate between an outlet that’s essentially an infomercial for wealthy foundations and one that authentically represents the perspective of individuals. I’ve always said that it’s too easy to put a black face on a white agenda. Education is rife with paid bloggers, publishers and outlets who are paid to endorse a particular sector. Facebook exec Brown created one such organization in The74.
Influence on policy should not be reserved for wealthy elites who can sway public opinion with the stroke of a pen on a checkbook. As the A.J. Liebling saying goes, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. So while people are cheering Facebook’s belated investment in news media, I’m waiting for an investor to focus on uplifting local and ethnic media.
*This story has been updated with disclosures identifying The Hechinger Report’s funders.