African-American owned newspapers thriving amid industry slump

African-American newspapers thriving amid industry slump (KXAN Photo)
African-American newspapers thriving amid industry slump (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Newspapers nationwide have drastically cut down on production, a result of a slump in advertising and a drop in readership.

That’s not the case with part of the industry — African-American-owned newspapers — which are still going strong. Much of the success comes from changes in one of Austin’s mostly-black communities.

For 44 years, East Austin’s “The Villager” newspaper has been free of charge. That’s what Tommie Wyatt wanted when he started publishing the weekly, and he says it’s going to stay that way.

He says it has nothing to do with making money, and everything to do with news a community can use.

“Many people are shocked that we’re still surviving,” Wyatt said. “We’re stronger than ever because we’re printing news that you can’t get anywhere else. If we don’t print it, nobody will print it.”

Wyatt began the paper with no background in journalism. In fact, he was selling insurance at the time and used money from that business towards the nascent newspaper. But, what he noticed back then was something that people in east Austin — the city’s historically-Black part of town — craved.

“In the daily newspaper all of our news was bad news,” he said. “Bad news was on the front page. Good news was on page 35 or 40, if it was reported at all. That affected how the broader community thought of the African-American community. [The Villager] took off almost immediately.”

Before Wyatt knew it, he was folding the insurance company. And, advertisers, mostly small neighborhood stores, came knocking.

“They had no way to get the word out. The daily paper was too expensive and they couldn’t afford TV or radio,” Wyatt said.

“The Villager” has given readers a front-row seat to historic events in Austin. For instance, when the University of Texas started integrated its football team in 1970. Most mainstream newspapers barely mentioned the names of the Black players. “The Villager” made sure east Austin knew their names and their highlights on the field.
Another beat the newspaper insisted on covering was politics.

“At one point we had nobody in this community who was elected to any position,” Wyatt said.

It backed Wilhelmina Delco, Austin’s first African-American school board member.

“We think [Wilhelmina] had a little help,” Wyatt said of Delco’s election. “She was elected the weekend after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, we think that assassination had an effect on Austin. It was so traumatic that people who wouldn’t vote for her otherwise just stayed away from the polls.”

Soon other African-American elected leaders followed, including Berl Handcox, Austin’s first Black council member and Travis County’s first African-American judge, Sam Biscoe. Wyatt says besides their platforms, there was another reason why his newspaper supported these candidates.

“Just getting people to accept the fact that African-Americans can serve and serve with dignity and honor in those positions,” Wyatt said.

But times are changing at the weekly rag. Mostly because east Austin is. More whites and Hispanics have moved into the area; and, many Black homeowners have moved out.
Former residents blame the change in neighbors on a push towards gentrification that bring high property taxes. Wyatt says as a result, the newspaper’s readership is wider than it’s ever been.

“We’ve had to start delivering our paper to areas we didn’t go to. We go as far as Highway 79 in Round Rock,” said Wyatt. “That’s where the people are. If you’re talking about Montopolis, Pflugerville, Manor, Bastrop. All of those people out there are reading out paper.”

“The Villager” prints 6,000 copies every week. But, Wyatt believes each paper passes though at least three hands, tripling the number of readers.

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