Friday, July 17, 2009

Bolstering the Banner

Let us chuckle over the outcry at Boston Mayor Tom Menino's offer to lend (not give) the town's black-owned newspaper money to keep it temporarily in business. In an environment of slavishly boosterism by nearly all other weeklies and the dailies, a range of folk have free-press indignation.

Over at one of my favorite spots, Universal Hub, the headline on this runs, "BRA loan to Bay State Banner: Hush money?" It links to the Globe piece on the proposed loan. Also, most of the comments are what a terrible idea this is. Likewise, Massachusetts Liberal blogs about what to him is a conflict of interest.

Prima facie, there is a whiff of impropriety. There's nothing generating any smell though. Consider:
  • The loan would be to give Banner Publisher Melvin Miller time to arrange long-range financing or sell it.
  • The money is in a fund administered through the Boston Redevelopment Administration, but is certainly not his, nor the city's, nor the BRA's.
  • The cash would come from the Boston Local Development Corporation. This has lent similarly to many small businesses, mostly woman or minority owned. Some get more than the proposed $200,000 for the Banner.
Absent the media factor, the Banner is the sort of local business that this fund has helped for years. Throw in the newspaper angle though and folk around here are understandably exercised.

Much, too much I think, has been made of Miller's April 16th editorial slamming Da Mare. It was harsh, unusually so for a paper whose opinion pieces tend more toward warnings to its readers to get their act together to dine at the capitalist table.

Miller was (livid is not a good word) fulminating over Menino's drive to remove the Emma Lewis Partners LLC as developers of a BRA parcel near police HQ. She was justifiably revered in the local black community, so her name on the project was a memorial as well as realty deal.

The editorial concluded, "After the Elma Lewis decision, no self-respecting African American can vote for Menino if he chooses to run again. It is time for Menino to step down so that he will be remembered for his many achievements. " Also, the rest of the piece was as nasty — he'll appoint black women but not black men, and he ignores African-American activists and pols.

Droopy cartoonBoston political legend is that Menino is far too prickly to take such criticism. That seemed to have been his record. Yet, I was repeatedly surprised four years ago when Councilor Maura Hennigan ran a down-and-dirty campaign against him that he kept his Droopy dog demeanor. Moreover, at Left Ahead! he joined us for a podcast and seemed likewise unflappable. I think he's aged well.

I see no indication that he is angry at Miller and the Banner, nor that he wants to buy their loyalty, even from such a remove. What is strange is all the suggestions of impropriety here.

The Banner is an important voice. It's disappointing but not surprising that the Miller family was one of many publishing groups unable to anticipate and adjust to the changes in technology and economy that has driven so many out of business.

However, this is different and personal. I'll note here for those who are not regular readers that I used to be editor-in-chief of the black weekly for Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital. There as here, the local daily and weeklies did not cover the black community well or at all beyond crime stories. There is a real, continuing need for the Banner here.

Also, the Banner's editorials are not the biggest factor in this from any angle. The reporting and analysis of the local and government news are.

In fact, Miller's pieces are often pretty old-fashioned and socially conservative. They tend to favor the personal responsibility and bootstraps lingo popular with the NAACP a couple of decades ago. While Miller has recently criticized that organization for not keeping up with the times, that's amusing coming from him.

You can check the Banner archives for their editorials and matching (terribly drawn) cartoons. I grabbed a couple to illustrate:
  • January 8th, A major strategy for the future is to mobilize the black community around the importance of education so intently that more students will become academically qualified for the more sophisticated jobs. It must also be a national policy to bring much of the manufacturing capacity back to America.
  • March 5th, Despite the surviving vestiges of bigotry, Obama’s election as the nation’s 44th president offers an extraordinary lesson. Talent, hard work, discipline and a well-conceived plan can overcome racial discrimination. It is now more advisable to be the best at what you do than to worry about the racial hostility of others.
  • July 9th, The real message for African Americans from the New Haven firefighters case (Ricci v. DeStefano, et. al.) is that it is time to become more aggressively competitive. Be aware that an action favoring blacks is perforce an inconvenience to others. If remedial action is generally considered to be unfair to whites, then it will harm public support for affirmative action.
Literary aside: Miller self-publishes How to Get Rich When You Ain't Got Nothing.
I think Miller is more conservative than Menino and much more so than I. He had one that seriously lambasted the Mayor, really not much for a weekly. I can't see that motivating any reprisals or purchases of favor.

I say this proposed loan is at least two arms' lengths away from dirty. It's a loan, not a gift and would come with only financial strings. The aims are to keep local jobs as well as the voice for a local community. If it's useful for those purposes, it looks clean enough.

Saturday Update: Miller said, "Only a fool wouldn't take it," reports today's Globe. He also said he hadn't met with the administration to get the loan offer and that it wouldn't compromise the paper.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the most intelligent piece I've read so far on this topic. One clarification - the Banner has adjusted to the changing times (website, enewsletter, changing distribution, magazines, sponsoring events job fairs, etc.) and have a solid business plan to move forward. We did not anticipate a 75% drop in ad revenue - did anyone? We have a strong business plan and investors very interested in buying the paper - it just requires due dilligence which takes more time than we have - we need to be up and running soon. THis is a bridge loan - one that was denied by a big bank. We are not a basketcase business - we've just faced increase in healthcare costs for employees, increase print costs, and an unforgiving advertising climate which hits black press and small papers even harder. Funding sources need to be found for other struggling small papers as well - that needs to be discussed.

GGW said...


"These loans can be used when buying a new business property, purchasing equipment and machinery, constructing an addition to an existing plant, making leasehold improvements or providing working capital to grow your business."

It makes no mention of anything along the lines of "These loans can be used to stave off bankruptcy."

I challenge you to name a single other enterprise which EVER declared it was going out of business, and THEN got a BLDC loan.

massmarrier said...

I'd like to name the companies and what they got/used BLDC loans for as well, but I can't find it. However, I see that the National Center on Education and the Economy describes the purpose of these loans as "The projects often have a strong job creation/retention
(Page 7) That fits what the Banner needs and the mayor says. Plus the fund and its various descriptions all include "...or to provide working capital to grow your business." If the aim is job retention in this dreadful economy, a short-term loan seems to fit. One can be too literal.

massmarrier said...

A piece into today's Globe indicates they were able to get names and amounts of similar loans from the BLDC. Examples are Boston Common Coffee ($100,000) and Geekhouse Bicycle Co. ($70,000).

Judy Meredith said...

I agree with anon above

Thanks for the most intelligent piece I've read so far on this topic.