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<i>Amsterdam News</i> Offers Local Perspective to New York's Harlem - 2002-08-14

For 175 years, African Americans have published their own newspapers, providing voices to discuss issues important to their own communities. Today, there are more than 200 weekly newspapers for the black community. One of the most prominent members of the black press is the Amsterdam News, based in Harlem in New York City.

Robert Davis was a child growing up in Harlem when he got his first job. That was in the 1940s, during the Second World War. "They used to bring the papers down to us on St. Nicholas Avenue. That is where they were. They would bring the papers down and we delivered them," Mr. Davis said.

Robert Davis was a carrier for the Amsterdam News. Now, more than half-a-century later, Mr. Davis still lives in Harlem, and the Amsterdam News remains the neighborhood newspaper.

It was founded elsewhere in New York City in 1909 but within a year settled in Harlem, where it gave a voice to one of the most important African American communities in the United States.

The Amsterdam News' headquarters are still located in the heart of Harlem, just off of the main, bustling shopping street, where vendors play recordings of African American musicians and speeches from black activists, including Malcolm X.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the key struggles covered by the paper. The Amsterdam News backed the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was one of the first newspapers to focus on the new Black Power movement. The controversial activist Malcolm X had his own column.

Amsterdam News Publisher and Editor in Chief, Elinor Tatum, said that while some of the issues of the day may have changed, the newspaper's objective has not.

"The mission is to get news about our community out to our community. And news that affects our community. While the other newspapers may tell stories about our community, they are not from inside our community and do not see it the same way that we necessarily do. Also, if you look at the other newspapers in the city, when you look at the visions of African Americans, it is usually in the negative not necessarily in the positive," he said.

The Amsterdam News staff of about 50 focuses on subjects of particular importance to African Americans, which these days include education, the relationship between police and minority groups, and the effects soaring housing costs are having on Harlem residents.

Like other newspapers, the Amsterdam News had reporters on the scene on September 11 and during the aftermath. But the Harlem paper had its own angle.

"Another story that we did that was really overlooked by the rest of the press was the fact that there were 13 black firemen killed. Now, that may not seem like a lot but that is five percent of all black firemen [in New York], and that was a big deal for the African American community," Mr. Tatum said.

The Amsterdam News has faced its share of challenges, in its 93 years. In 1971, Elinor Tatum's father, Wilbert Tatum, was one of a group of investors who rescued the newspaper from financial collapse. Mr. Tatum later bought out his partners. In 1997, he passed the job on to his then- 27-year-old daughter, who had worked her way up at the paper, starting as a jounalism student intern, getting coffee and running errands.

Now, Elinor Tatum is trying to modernize the newspaper by bringing in computers and increasing advertising revenue, a task made difficult by the sluggish New York economy and new competition.

And she is trying to adjust to the times. A new "Caribbean page" caters to Harlem's growing West Indian community. Coverage of new musical styles aims to attract younger readers. Ms. Tatum said that one of the main obstacles the Amsterdam News faces is the low literacy rates in the African American community," she said.

"I worry about the black press because I worry about our education system. And when our kids can not read, there is no reason for them to pick up a newspaper," Ms. Tatum said.

The political stance of the Amsterdam News is described as moderate. But in the past, the paper had a more militant reputation.

Criticism comes from both within and outside the Harlem community. Some African Americans have accused the paper of being elitist. And despite its early efforts to foster a dialogue between blacks and Jews, the newspaper's coverage and its editorials have been labeled "antisemitic" by some prominent Jewish organizations.

Editor in Chief Elinor Tatum is the daughter of an African American father and a Jewish mother. She wears a Jewish star around her neck and says she is proud to be both black and Jewish.

At its peak, the newspaper printed about 100,000 copies per week. Circulation has dropped to about 30,000 in New York and other major U.S. cities.

Indeed, while Robert Davis delivered the Amsterdam News years ago, he said he rarely reads the paper today. Nevertheless he considers himself aware of the goings-on in the community.

"Nowadays, I think we rely more or less on television. At least I do anyway, particularly for the news. I catch the news in the morning before I get up, and I catch the news in the evening. And the way the news is coming through, that's enough," Mr. Davis said.

But for Ronald Fisher, a local security specialist, the Amsterdam News remains a must read.

"I look for them to give an accurate report of what is going on in Harlem from the Harlem perspective. The eyes of Harlem through Harlem," Mr. Fisher said.

The new generation at the Amsterdam News is determined to extend the paper's reach in a changing time. The newspaper is now available worldwide on the Internet. But at its core, Editor Elinor Tatum said the Amsterdam News remains a Harlem institution.