One Black Paper Shatters ‘Taboos’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Real estate developer and rookie newspaper owner/editor Michael Pittman cheerfully admits he’s no journalist. And maybe that’s why, he says, his monthly newspaper in Springfield, Ill., is becoming the talk of African Americans across the nation, barely 18 months after its launch. “We started out as an alternative press, if you will, with the understanding that we would talk about issues that nobody else was talking about,” he says. “We thought that that would set us apart from any other paper in this community ? and, for that matter, about 90% of black papers in the country.”

Since its July 2005 launch, the Capital City Courier has focused on an unusual news niche: African-American “taboo” topics. The black press, of course, has always been a forum where touchy subjects are raised. This summer, for instance, the Chicago Defender shocked many of its readers with a provocative front-page challenge: “TAKE A STAND. Black America, isn’t it about time we made up our mind about the word ‘nigger’?”

But no other paper takes as direct an approach as the Capital City Courier. “A primary aim of this newspaper is to raise issues that we as black folk talk about in private but don’t generally talk about in public,” says Pittman. Courier stories carry such headlines as “Why Can’t Blacks Work Together?” and “Light Skin Blacks vs. Dark Skin Blacks.” Another story in the works addresses the stereotype that wealthy black celebrities are cheapskates when it comes to helping poorer African Americans.

Often written by Associate Editor Kim E. Gordon, these are long articles that touch on history and sociology, but always feature the opinions and experiences of locals. Pittman says he’s a fan of long-form journalism: “There are only so many things you can say in a 500-word article; there are a lot of things you can say in a 4,000-word article.”

The Courier’s reports are fodder for chat rooms and blogs, as well as black radio talk shows across the nation. And the paper is finding an expanding local audience, too. “We see so many whites reading the paper because we talk about the things the black community talks about in private, things whites will never know about otherwise,” Pittman adds.

The free-distribution paper drops 15,000 copies each issue, and has expanded from 24 pages to 40 since its launch last July.

Pittman says the topics are not picked for their shock value, but to get a community dialogue going. Still, he seems tickled by the attention the paper is getting. On the other hand, the new editor says he is also learning about the disadvantages of being a journalist. He’s begun to notice that friends and business associates now dummy up when he’s around. “I’ll bet I’ve heard the expression ‘This is off the record’ more times in the last six months than Carter has liver pills,” Pittman laughs.

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