The phone rang.
"California Voice," I answered.
"Hello, Mr. Bailey, this is Kenny. I want to cover the Diana Ross show Saturday."
(Oh my God, I thought, this is the sixth call for that concert.)
"Sorry, we've got that covered pretty good . . ."
"All right, then, bye . . ."
"Wait. How'd you like to cover the board of education tonight?"
"Heck no. That stuff's too boring . . ."
"But you can't learn journalism by only writing about what interests you."
"Yeah, I know, but, well, I take lousy notes . . ."
"Oh, yeah? I had you in mind for the Commodores concert next weekend . . ."
"Wow. The Commodores. I have all their albums . . ."
"But since your note-taking is so bad, I'll get someone else."
"Well, I could do better with some practice . . ."
"Great. The board meeting starts at 7 p.m."
My experiment to inspire more black inner-city youth to consider journalism as a desirable career was called the "Urban News Team." I left a reporting job with UPI in Chicago to become editor of the Voice, a black-oriented weekly in Oakland. "The Oldest Black Newspaper West of the Rockies, founded in 1919," noted a line in the masthead. I was the only writer. To recruit help, I offered official Oakland Police Department Press Cards to anyone who wanted to write.
The Urban News Team grew. A dozen writers. Thirty. Forty-five. Soon I realized I had created a journalistic Frankenstein. Something uncaged. Uncontrolled. Sometimes we would conduct a survey or break a story before the metropolitan media got onto it. But we never got credit for these scoops.
But other problems vied for attention.
Our circulation department was receiving complaints that bundles of newspapers were being discarded in parking lots by young carriers. Some merchants were selling newspapers to their customers even though the Voice was freely distributed. The Post Office requires the listing of a price on each paper in order for the Voice to get a clearance for bulk mailing. Without a price, we would have beenclassified as a shopper, not a newspaper.
Money was already hard to come by. The large white advertising firms insisted most blacks read regular metropolitan newspapers, so placing ads in the black press was a waste of money. "When the quality of your newspapers improves," one executive would sermonize, "then more ads will come."
But without ads for salaries, how can a newspaper improve? That question was always met with stone silence.
The better writers were easily lured away by better offers. Universities urged journalism students not to serve internships with black newspapers because of their high degree of unprofessionalism.
One day, I took a handful of newspapers and boarded a public bus. I wanted to witness what blacks thought of the black press. Most of them had never heard of the paper. Others were ashamed to be seen reading one in public. They felt it was too offensive to white people. However, I learned most middle-class blacks don't read the black press because they don't want to be reminded of the problems other blacks are still faced with, even though they, too, might be the victims of discrimination.
Blacks tend to treat the black press as a social service agency. They call on it when the regular press has failed to respond to a story that needs to be told. So blacks in the black press, already underpaid and overworked, feel exploited, and in time they are burned out and leave.
Black newspapers came into existence because blacks felt they were not getting a fair shake from the regular press. In 1846, a black, William Hodges, wrote to the editor of the New York Sun complaining about its coverage. "The Sun," replied the editor, "does not shine for the Negro." Hodges launched the Ram's Horn, a black newspaper.
Years before, in 1827, John Russwurm, the first black American to graduate from a college in the United States, started the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal. "For too long," he wrote, "others have spoken for us."
But gallant ideas often die. Since 1827, there have been 3,300 different black newspapers published in America. Many have come and gone with little fanfare. Today about 200 are in operation. This means the life span of a black newspaper is about 10 years.
Black newspapers have waged consumer boycotts on behalf of blacks and then folded following economic backlashes from white advertisers. In the 1940s, whites seeking public office in large cities would start black newspapers, and then print political endorsements. After the elections, the papers would disappear.
Very little is being done to get more blacks into American journalism. A recent study by Ohio State University said only 5 percent of blacks now studying journalism want to work in the print media. Most will be washed out as they seek the few jobs in broadcasting. Meanwhile, the black press will remain crippled. The Urban News Team showed, however, there is a large, untapped reservoir.