Is newsprint on its way out?

MSR News Online/MSR News Online

The Chicago Defender, a storied Black newspaper, has announced it will stop printing newspapers. As of July 9, the 114-year-old beacon of Black news will be entirely online. Those making decisions at the Defender say the move is an effort to go where the readers are — the Internet.

Just last year, a Pew Research Center study found that Americans get news more often from social media than newspapers. According to the study, newspapers are the last place to get information. People rely on TV the most, then news websites, radio, social media, and, finally, print newspapers.

As an 80-year-old Black Press newspaper like the Defender, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder was motivated by this information to hit the streets and ask our community members what they think: Is there still a role for the printed community newspaper, or has this centuries-old tradition been supplanted by the Internet and social media?

“To me, print is dead and gone,” said Abdi Ali, the first person we addressed that question to in our street survey. The 29-year-old search engine optimizer said he primarily gets his information online via his phone. If he does grab a newspaper, it’s to seek out specific information on local events and news.

“Nobody uses [print] unless you’re 50 or older,” Ali added.

On the same sweltering summer day, Betty Ellison-Harpole, 82, was tending to plants in her front yard just down the road in South Minneapolis. One of the first things inside the entryway of her home is a large stack of magazines.

“It’s alive,” said the retired teacher of print newspapers. Ellison-Harpole said she gets her news from the radio and TV, but she prefers the physical page, in part, because it can be easily preserved. Though online resources have archives, they can sometimes be unreliable — especially older stories.

“You can store it for historical purposes for the children,” said Ellison-Harpole. “Unless a person knows their history, they cannot know their present and cannot plan for their future.”

“I’m a chronicler,” said Kwasi Nate, board member of the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent. For decades, he’s collected print editions of Black papers wherever he’s lived.

“I’m a proud owner,” said Nate during a quick stop at the MSR to purchase a two-year subscription. “I’ve been buying this paper for 30 years. I cut the articles out and take them to people at meetings so they know the Black Press exists. I make sure I get the digitized version as well as the hard copy.”

Nate said people need to read not just the paper, but more books in general. “You can never read enough,” he said, in order to learn more about Black history and different perspectives.

Amina Danzi, 50, is a truck driver and a Chicago native who still visits her mother regularly. She expressed dismay at the news of the Defender ceasing its print edition.

Though Danzi periodically checks her phone for fresh news, she gets almost all of her news on the radio. When she does read print newspapers, it’s nearly exclusively Black publications. Mainstream publications, she said, “never put voices of our fearless [Black] leaders in the right way.”

Another of our interviewees, Leslie P. (last name withheld at her request), told the MSR that if she is going to read a print newspaper at all, she similarly relies on Black papers. When she goes grocery shopping, she said she makes sure to grab the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. On the way, she might glance at headlines from other newspapers.

Photos by Stephenetta Harmon (l-r) Maurice Boswell, Abdi Ali, Betty Ellison-Harpole and Kwasi Nate

Nevertheless, print newspapers now make up a smaller share of her go-to news resources. “It’s about 20 percent print, 80 percent everything else,” she said.

Maurice Boswell, a 29-year-old recently released from prison, said print newspapers also play a small part in his news-gathering habits. He said the last time he picked up a newspaper was maybe two months ago. Boswell gets the bulk of his news online, but he always returns to newspapers for news.

Print is not dead, he said, but it may be on life support. In the digital age, news coverage continues to shift along with technological advances and new platforms like podcasting and social media.

Publications like the Chicago Defender will continue to feel pressure to pursue online traffic. But, even as newspaper influence wanes, print editions still hold value for many people and are still trusted by news seekers.

“Dr. John Henrik Clarke said, ‘All history is a current event,’” said Nate. “If we had all the Black educators and they all got a subscription and passed them out to students — got papers in the hands of children — that’s how you maintain readership. That’s how you build history.”

About Solomon Gustavo

Solomon Gustavo is the editor-in-chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He welcomes reader responses to sgustavo@spokesman-recorder.com.

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