In a world of media suppression and authoritative rule, the media landscape has become all the more challenging for Black journalists.
On March 25, the Black News Channel (BNC) aired its final broadcast before closure the very next day. BNC President and Chief Executive Princell Hair sent an email effectively laying off their more than 250-member, almost completely Black staff. After initially reporting delays to meet payroll, the former CNN U.S. operations head informed employers they would not be receiving their last paycheck that day. To date, a purported solution is underway to get workers their last three weeks of earned pay. Reportedly, benefits expired and no severance has been offered.
The mass termination follows months of lay-offs—like a massive wave in December 2021—and resignations after failing to economically break-even despite months of trying to lock in alternative financing. As well, the company told employees they were filing for bankruptcy.
“[Very painful workforce reductions] ha[ve] forced all of you to do more with less, and your contributions have been remarkable,” read an office memo from Hair to staff. “Unfortunately, due to challenging market conditions and global financial pressures, we have been unable to meet our financial goals, and the timeline afforded to us has run out.”
The brainchild of former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK) and media executive Bob Brillante, the Tallahassee-based BNC secured funding through a $50-million investment by Pakistani-American billionaire sports tycoon, Shad Khan in 2019. This made the Jacksonville Jaguars head, who is the NFL’s sole majority owner of color, BNC’s majority shareholder. Thus, shifting their status from Black owned to Black-targeted.
Nonetheless, they say their mission was to serve Black and brown communities with coverage that was representative of their needs and concerns; whereas the mainstream media often underreported said narratives. Amidst Black History month and the pandemic, BNC launched on February 10, 2020.
That year, the outlet offered in-depth coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial in the murder of George Floyd, as well as the trial of three white Georgia men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery. Recently, they were reporting the U.S. Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearings of hopeful Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, which broke viewership records.
Ultimately, the organization faced a plethora of structural and financial hurdles. In analyzing the network’s demise, some like the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) saw cracks in the foundation. Interestingly enough, the NABJ warned BNC of workplace culture back in January after former employees alledged gender-based harassment and discrimination in a class-action lawsuit. Included in the complaints were gender-based pay disparities, too.
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Others saw the writing on the wall, as many Black spaces in journalism are limited. “When you have a sole investor you have to protect every single dollar,” explains Roland Martin in his breakdown of BNC’s fate. Insiders say the billionaire is unwilling to invest further–some say, this is business as usual for Khan. Why? Well, frankly–not enough people were watching.
Although the station reached over 50 million cable or satellite-having households, average audience rates totaled fewer than 10,000 viewers according to Nielsen data. Hence, not generating a large enough audience to justify operating costs. Additionally, most people get their news from social media, so accessibility issues arose for BNC.
Firstly, newsrooms are largely male and white as per Pew Research, leaving minority counterparts in marginalized, uncertain places in regards to readership and revenue. Moreover, there are almost 300 outlets that primarily serve Black U.S. populations, according to the Center for Community Media at the CUNY School of Journalism’s Mapping Black Media Project.
Indeed, they say Black media has historically equated to print circulation, or newspapers. Yet in the more modern, pandemic-era, publications have transitioned to the internet to save money on production costs. All around, almost 90 percent of major players are owned by six umbrella corporations. Nevertheless, they have been gradually bleeding out over the last decade despite innovations like intrusive paywalls or membership fees.
Most in the media are struggling, BNC is no different. Unfortunately, neither Disney nor what is left of the cable-watching public was there to back them.
“Remember that we built something great here,” expressed Hair in the final memo. “BNC, or something very close to it, will surely return at some point, because the world needs it, and all of you have proven it can be done.”
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