HANDING OFF: Bay State Banner editor and publisher Melvin B. Miller (left) hopes “a younger generation [will] come up and start running the Banner.” Harvard Law School professor and Banner contributor Charles Ogletree (right) is “convinced” the paper will survive.
If Melvin B. Miller has his way, last week's shutdown of the Bay StateBanner — the African-American-focused weekly paper Miller ran as editor and publisher for nearly half a century — won't be the end. It will, instead, inspire a would-be successor or two to come out of the woodwork and bring the paper back to life. "I'm of an age where I think it's appropriate for a younger generation to come up and start running the Banner," Miller told the Phoenix last week. "That hasn't been able to materialize because of the downturn in the economy. So we just decided to generate greater interest, let's put it that way."
That's a pretty risky strategy. Right now, after all, the newspaper industry as a whole is struggling to stave off extinction amid the same economic downturn that devastated the Banner — and the Globe, Boston's paper of record, faces an especially uncertain future. What's more, thanks to a multitude of factors — including the enduring gains of the civil-rights movement, the mainstreaming and mass commodification of black culture, and the vanishing distinction between black and mainstream politics — the very future of the black press seems uncertain. Johnson Publishing, which runs Ebony and Jet, recently mortgaged its Chicago headquarters to its printer to secure its debts. King magazine — "The Illest Men's Magazine Ever!" — shut down earlier this year. And Vibe, the urban music-and-culture mag, closed late last month. (Founder Quincy Jones has spoken of retaking control of Vibe and reinventing it as an online-only publication; whether he'll succeed remains to be seen.)
The Banner may yet survive: Harvard Law School professor and Banner contributor Charles Ogletree says he's meeting with an array of community leaders this week and next, and that the paper could resume publishing as early as next month. ("A lot of things have to work" for that to happen, Ogletree tells the Phoenix. "But I'm convinced that they will work.") If that doesn't happen, however — and if this issue of the Banner proves to be the paper's last — what, exactly, will be lost?
The cynical take would be: not as much as you might think. It's true that, over the course of its 44-year history, the Banner has provided a unique, often invaluable perspective on major local stories, particularly ones in which race played a central role. (The busing battles and the threat posed to the South End and Roxbury by a proposed extension of I-95 spring to mind, along with the recent legal travails of State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner.) Frequently, though, the paper's prime editorial space has been devoted to wire-service treatments of national stories that easily could have been followed elsewhere. On July 2, for example, the Banner's main front-page story was an Associated Press (AP) piece on Michael Jackson's complex racial self-identification. The week before that, it was an AP piece pegged to the one-year anniversary of Governor Deval Patrick's Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. And on June 11, it was an AP write-up of President Barack Obama's ballyhooed speech in Cairo, Egypt.