Lawrence C. Lee is president and CEO of SacObserver.com, the online version of the Sacramento (Ca.) Observer newspaper. The 41-year-old weekly paper serves the African-American community, and was started by his father, William H. Lee, in 1962. Lawrence Lee graduated from San Jose State University School of Journalism and Mass Communications. His achievements have been noted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the West Coast Black Publishers Association, and the University of Missouri's College of Journalism. He spoke wih JournalismJobs.com recently about what it's like to run an ethnic newspaper.
JournalismJobs.com: Why is there a need for an African-American newspaper? What if anything does this say about the coverage of the African-American community by the mainstream press?
Lawrence Lee: The black press has been around for more than 175 years and I think there will always be a need for it. People sometimes want specialized information and mainstream newspapers skim the surface of a lot of things. Often times things that are important in the black community are not mentioned, whereas papers like ours and other ethnic press cover issues with a lot more depth and sensitivity.
For instance, last weekend we had a Black Expo here in Sacramento. We had 35,000 people over three days attending. But there was no mention of it in any mainstream publication. Had there been any altercation at the event, I could very well see that appearing in a publication. I understand that newspapers have to cover news as it happens, but if you had an event of that magnitude that went so smoothly, that is newsworthy, too. Is it something that they're missing? Yes, but that's why there are publications like ours. It's a matter of value. Our community is not seen as valuable as some of the other communities. If you had an event like the Dixieland Jazz Festival, that would appear in the mainstream newspaper every day because it's seen as more valuable to them than an event like ours. It lends to the credo of the black press that no others will speak for us but us.
JournalismJobs.com: Is the Observer treated fairly as a legitimate member of the press?
Lawrence Lee: Historically, no. But we're continually working to chip away at that. We often get press releases late or we get notification of deadlines for credentials late. About two years ago at the Olympic trials, we had a bear of a time making sure we had credentials. It was extremely difficult. We're just sometimes seen as an alternative publication. People often don't see the value that you bring to the community. There are exceptions of course. But generally they don't view us as a credible news source.
JournalismJobs.com: In what ways does the Observer influence mainstream media?
Lawrence Lee: [In Sacramento], it has a tremendous impact. Other news services will pick up news stories from us. We're finding that happening a lot more especially from our website. A year ago, [California] Congressman Bob Matsui went before Congress and put on record a piece that we did on social security. We have an interesting role in the community that we serve. We wear lots of different hats, sometimes as a watchdog, sometimes as an advocate, sometimes just highlighting the positive things that are going on in our community. There are so many things that get overlooked.
JournalismJobs.com: What's the biggest challenge running an ethnic newspaper?
Lawrence Lee: Resources. It's difficult to maintain quality staff and have access to computer systems and software - all the things necessary for running a newspaper. So much of it revolves around capital. It's difficult to find young people who are interested in being involved in an ethnic publication because they're often lured away by larger publications with fewer responsibilities and bigger paychecks.
JournalismJobs.com: Is it difficult to get advertisers to use your newspaper?
Lawrence Lee: Advertisers have smaller budgets for smaller publications. That makes it very difficult. Let's just say if they have a $2 million national campaign, they might spend $200,000 of it in ethnic publications. That's a sad state. As California evolves, so do the ethnicities of the people here. Advertisers need to understand that. I think they will, as we prove that we have quality publications and we have impact in our communities. But often you have to get to the table long before their budget is set and convince them to allocate more to ethnic publications.
JournalismJobs.com: What percentage of your readers are African-American?
Lawrence Lee: About 75-80 percent.
JournalismJobs.com: Do you consider the Observer more of a local paper or national paper?
Lawrence Lee: I think our paper is extremely unique. We heavily cover our local community. Very rarely are there things that happen that we're not covering in our paper. However, we do have a very strong national feel. We see our paper as bringing black America to Sacramento. We feel like we do a great job of that. We've always been regarded as one of the country's best black newspapers. When you pick up our publication, you can get a good sense of what happened that week in black America.
JournalismJobs.com: When your father started this publication in 1962, why did he pick Sacramento? Why not cities where there was a higher percentage of African-Americans?
Lawrence Lee: He's seen the evolution of the African-American community from when there were 12,000 black people here to now 150,000 black people and growing. He's very proud to have served Sacramento because he's always felt closely tied to the community. Despite the racist environment, he's always thrived on the fact that his publication was having an impact by getting information out about the black community and breaking down those walls and barriers.
JournalismJobs.com: What percent of your staff is African-American?
Lawrence Lee: About 50-60 percent. I think our newsroom is a reflection of California and of our ability to be progressive. It's a model for what other newsrooms should look like. Yes, it's a black newspaper. Yes, the publisher is black. But at the Observer, whether it's advertising, sales, design, writing, editing, there's diversity. You might have two blacks, two whites, two Asians in a department. Ideally we'd like to have someone who thinks covering our community is important. I wouldn't want anyone black, white or any other ethnicity to not feel comfortable covering the black community. We've had white managing editors, white reporters and white photographers who understand how important what we're doing is.
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