The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A local newspaper focused on the Black community is defying the odds. It’s growing.

The Washington Informer has added subscribers and staff in an era when many local newspapers are struggling

Denise Rolark Barnes is publisher of the Washington Informer, which has grown since its founding by her father in 1964. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As owner and publisher of the Washington Informer, Denise Rolark Barnes faces many of the challenges putting local newspapers out of business: fickle revenue streams, aging readership and the rise of social media as a primary source of news, just to name a few.

Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors, according to Margaret Sullivan, media critic for The Washington Post and author of the book “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” Since covid-19 struck, she says, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications.

And yet in the past five years, the Informer, which is focused primarily on the region’s Black community, has been undergoing an impressive expansion. Readership for the D.C.-based weekly has nearly doubled to roughly 50,000. Unlike some local newspapers, which have shrunk to the size of a supermarket supplement, the Informer has grown from an average 36 pages per issue to 56 pages.

Asked what was driving the Informer’s resurgence, Rolark Barnes said: “People are finally waking up to the importance of local news. As a result, local newspapers like ours are becoming eligible for grants, partnerships and other philanthropic dollars that weren’t available before.”

The Informer is also part of a consortium of 10 legacy Black newspapers that recently created a content-sharing website called Word in Black. “We’re the youngest paper in the group; that kind of cooperation really helps us,” Rolark Barnes said.

But there has been something else drawing readers in.

“The covid pandemic and the death of George Floyd made a lot of people start focusing on things in our society that they had overlooked or taken for granted, like racial disparities, voting rights and even the Black media,” Rolark Barnes said. “As many Black people became more anxious, they began looking for stories that made them feel better and for perspectives from trusted sources that could help them shape their opinions.”

That was the role that the Informer was intended to fill when it was founded by her father, Calvin Rolark, in 1964. Dissatisfied with the portrayal of Black people in White-owned publications that employed few, if any, Black journalists at the time, Calvin Rolark wanted a newspaper that would amplify community voices for justice and spotlight Black people going about their everyday lives. That was the father’s dream, but not initially the dream of the daughter.

Denise Rolark was a student at Rabaut Junior High in Northeast Washington when her father made her a columnist and youth editor of the Informer. He sent her to cover the girls’ AAU track and field national championships in Los Angeles, where she got to interview track legend Wilma Rudolph.

“But I just wasn’t into it,” recalled Rolark Barnes, now 67. She wanted to be a lawyer, like her stepmother, Wilhelmina Rolark, a graduate of the Robert H. Terrell Law School in the District and a four-term member of the D.C. Council representing Ward 8.

To please both parents, Denise studied mass media as an undergraduate at Howard University, learning from such journalistic luminaries as Tony Brown, Sam Yette and Wallace Terry. Then she enrolled in Howard’s law school and became editor of its student newspaper, the Barrister.

By the time she graduated in 1979, she had learned the importance of media ownership, especially for Black people. “We need to be able to control our own narratives, our own images and make sure our voices are heard,” she said.

Instead of taking a job offer with the Federal Communications Commission, she went to work for her father at the Informer, as managing editor with a staff of three and a circulation of roughly 30,000. The job also called for her to serve as reporter, copy editor and photographer, among other positions. She couriered the newspaper proofs to a printer in Southern Maryland, returned to pick up the finished copies, and then helped distribute them to various outlets around D.C. and Prince George’s County.

When her father died in 1994, she took over as publisher. Of the roughly 200 Black-owned newspapers in the United States, about a third are owned by women.

Rolark Barnes also served as chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group that represents the interests of Black publishers. Their mission is essentially the same as it was for the nation’s first Black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, which was founded by freeborn African Americans John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish in New York City in 1827: counter the racism that appeared in the mainstream media and highlight events influencing the daily lives of Black people.

In the District, many Black-owned newspapers have come and gone. Only two of note remain: the Washington Afro-American, which is headquartered in Baltimore, and the Washington Informer, which is located in Southeast Washington, in Ward 8.

As the pandemic worsened and violence spiked, readers could turn to the Informer for uplifting stories that provided a look at the full spectrum of Black life. A Black lifeguard teaching kids to swim, a Black centenarian’s life of community service, a profile of the winner of a spelling bee — a contest that the Informer has sponsored for years.

The Informer also has adapted. It is now reaching a new and younger audience through a weekly podcast, a monthly TV show created by Rolark Barnes’s oldest son, Lafayette, 36, and a daily newsletter produced by her youngest, Desmond, 33.

The newspaper also launched an upgraded version of its website. New hires include experienced journalists with deep knowledge of the Washington area.

But even as the Informer attracts a new audience, it is still working hard to serve longtime readers. Rolark Barnes’s mother, Vera Abbott, 88, still lends a helping hand. She was founder of an AARP chapter in the D.C. region and still advocates on behalf of senior citizens. “She wants to make sure that the elderly still have a voice in the newspaper,” Rolark Barnes said. “Even as we work to bring in a younger generation of readers, she’s saying don’t forget about the generation that got us here.”

That voice serves only to make the newspaper better.

Informer readers are like readers of any local publication, Rolark Barnes said. They want a news organization to help them understand the world around them.

“We are seeing a lot of White people moving into formerly all-Black communities, and longtime residents still aren’t sure what to make of it,” Rolark Barnes said. “Everybody wants to know what’s going on. When it comes to gentrification, the old-timers want to know if they’ll still be around to enjoy the amenities. The newcomers want to know: What is it about the neighborhood that people are fighting so hard to keep?”

Says Rolark Barnes: “This is where local news is critical. By helping people answer these kinds of questions, we are helping them build a sense of community.”

It is a challenge she has always accepted. And that, as much as anything else, is what’s keeping her newspaper alive.

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