Assembling an Archive

A new digital project will look at differences in health coverage among the nation’s black newspapers
Thursday, February 17, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Health Communication Research Center at MU plans to create a digital archive of black newspapers from across the nation.

In a joint effort with Saint Louis University, the research center will use a grant from the National Cancer Institute to fund the project. It is meant to help researchers, scholars and residents further understand how black newspapers provide health information to black communities.

The Missouri School of Journalism and the Sinclair School of Nursing run the Health Communication Research Center. The center’s goal, as noted on its Web site, is to use its grant-funded research capabilities to find new and effective forms of communication between health care providers and the community.

The archiving of black newspapers is also an arm of a larger study with Saint Louis University. A grant summary for the larger project said its aim is to analyze black newspapers’ impact on health issues in black communities, namely cancer.

Jon Stemmle, cancer communication specialist and director of strategic communication for the research center, said Saint Louis University introduced the entire project.

“SLU was given more than $10 million to work on various cancer-related communications projects, of which the black newspaper study was one,” Stemmle said. “SLU brought the HCRC into this project because of our expertise in journalism.”

According to the larger study’s grant summary, black newspapers tend to more effectively cover issues valued by the black community than mainstream media. Black newspapers, however, remain a “largely untapped” source to disseminate health information to the community, it said.

The archiving project seeks to examine coverage trends in black newspapers. Researchers will be able to use the archive as a tool for media and market comparisons.

“(Historians will) be able to see what the prevalent issues of the day were according to the black press and compare those to mainstream papers,” Stemmle said. “As for journalism students and professors, there are many opportunities to do research on a national scale, looking at the types of coverage stories get, ads that are printed. It is really going to be a wonderful resource.”

Earnest Perry, an associate professor of journalism at MU, will work closely with project researchers, using his background in journalistic historical preservation to promote the archive to other researchers. Perry said he hopes more black newspapers will want to become involved.

“Our hope is to branch off to other newspapers across the country to also get material from them that could also be archived here,” Perry said.

“What we are hoping is that we can build an archival research center here in which anyone who is interested in the African-American press or material that deals with the African-American press can come here and actually use it.”

The archive will be among the largest of its kind. It will contain four years of issues from 24 black newspapers, totaling about 5,000 papers. Stemmle said extensive planning goes into creating such a large resource.

“A lot of the nation’s black newspapers are smaller operations without huge budgets, so they don’t have the resources to do this themselves,” Stemmle said. “Some black universities have smaller archives, but it’s a significant task to attempt to round up all the black newspapers from around the country and then digitalize them. We’re only doing 24 papers, and that’s an expensive proposition in itself.”

Glen Cameron, an MU journalism professor and co-primary investigator for the research project, identified those who might benefit from using the archive.

“Anyone who wants to see the public record and the nature of journalism in 24 predominately black communities or markets will have access to papers that often are not kept or systematically catalogued even by the papers themselves,” he said.

The two dozen newspapers were selected for inclusion into the archive by meeting certain criteria, Cameron said.

“The communities they serve had to have notable disparities in health outcomes between black and white populations,” he said. “The papers had to be stable and pretty well established.”

Beyond being a research resource, the archive will allow these black newspapers to be preserved.

“The reason why we think this is important is because it’s a part of American history,” Perry said. “It is one way in which to get at the part of the American fabric that is seldom represented as a part of the mainstream media.”

Workers at the Missouri Bibliographic Information User System, a library consortium for the state’s colleges and universities, will begin digitally scanning the newspapers this month. The files, which will be housed at the Missouri School of Journalism, will be scanned into PDF format. If more money becomes available, the files could be converted to HTML format and would be full-text searchable public records.

The project is scheduled for completion when its grant expires in 2008.

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