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By Regina Brown Wilson
California Black Media
This is a direct appeal to Governor Newsom, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez and our entire state legislature. I’m writing this on behalf of the more than 20 African American-owned newspapers that operate in cities and towns across California.
As the leaders we’ve elected to represent and protect the interests of all Californians, we are asking each of you to search your hearts, look beyond blind spots, step in, and do the one thing that will prevent Assembly Bill 5 from putting the Black press in California out of business.
That is: Exempt the contract couriers who deliver our newspapers from being reclassified as employees under AB 5.
The bill Assemblymember Gonzalez is proposing intends to bring definition to our Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision and defend the rights of working Californians.
But in our push to create a more equitable California for all, we must not lose sight of the specific needs and priorities of our most vulnerable communities. Our best intentions may sometimes harm some Californians while uplifting others. We must always be as cautious and fair as we are forceful and deliberate in approaching our most challenging problems.
Shouldn’t AB 5 be helping to narrow the immense wealth gap that exists in the richest state of the nation? The disparity between the ultra-rich and the almost 20 million people in California who live below the poverty line – or who fight to hover just above it - is growing. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example, the average household wealth for U.S. born Whites was $355,000 in 2014. For U.S. born Black families that same year it was only $4,000, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
For African-American newspaper owners surviving in an industry the emergence of the internet has almost put on life support, Assembly Bill 5 would do the exact opposite of what Gonzalez wants it to achieve. She might as well just pull the plug on our businesses.
Although our publications reach almost 2 million Californians of all races, most of our operations are still family-owned businesses. We are small shops with multi-tasking staff members who struggle to attract advertising, grind to meet deadlines and tighten belts to remain profitable. None of our papers can afford to offer full-time jobs with benefits to the part-time delivery people who work, on average, about four hours on the days our newspapers are published. Many of our papers are weeklies.
My dad, Hardy Brown, former publisher of Black Voice News in Riverside, remembers a time when he had to gather the news stories, type them, take the copy to the printer and then deliver the published papers by himself throughout the Inland Empire at night. He would drop them off at churches on Sunday morning, too, because he could not afford to pay a courier. AB 5 would take Black newspapers back to those difficult days.
Although some of our publications in California have websites, more than 60 percent of them still publish only print editions.
We’ve done the math. Having to hire couriers as full-time employees would force us to limit our circulation areas or raise the prices of our papers. Either option would hurt our revenue so bad, it would no longer make sense to stay in business.
We all know the backbone of our democracy is a free and independent press providing truthful, objective and balanced information critical to the lives, health and overall wellbeing of all our citizens.
Since Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, was published in 1827, the Black press in the United States has played a central role in the lives of Black Americans as an advocate, trusted source of information and rallying point for issues (often life-and-death ones) directly affecting our communities. From the years of legal slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation, through the Civil War and the eras of Jim Crow and lynching - on to the fight for civil rights and economic improvement - we have always depended on the Black Press for news crucial to keeping our families safe, informing our decisions and shaping our opinions.
Today, Black newspapers across the country have a combined circulation of about 15 million.
Americans read Black publications even though mainstream newspapers exist. Those national or citywide papers often overlook or under-report very important issues vital to the lives of African Americans. Our papers bring unique perspectives to the news, pointing out how news stories may affect Black Americans differently. We expand the base of knowledge on every topic we cover and bring untold stories to the historical record. Most of us also write in familiar and relatable voices, and from points of view, that resonate with our readers.
In California, the cost to live in our coastal cities has become unaffordable for the majority of African Americans. More and more, we see our families migrating to distant suburbs or inland cities and towns east of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, the Central Coast and San Diego. While many of our papers are still located in historic Black neighborhoods near or our around those major metropolitan areas, our drop-off points have become more far-flung and the radius of our circulation areas have dramatically increased. Now, more so than ever before, the role of our contract delivery drivers is an essential aspect of our businesses.
We understand the importance of passing AB 5 to introduce guidelines for implementing the Dynamex decision. But we also need your intervention to protect the legacy and livelihood of our publications as we live up to the responsibility upon us that we never take lightly: That is to strengthen and maintain freedom and democracy in our state and across our country.
In the words of educator and journalist Ida B. Wells, "The people must know before they can act and there is no educator like the press.”