Adrian Walker

Saved, but at what cost?

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / July 21, 2009

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The Bay State Banner has been saved, but at a steep price.

The news late last week that the city would step in and loan the black-oriented paper $200,000 was greeted with relief by the many people who see it as an important voice in the city. But that loan is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and it raises more question than it settles.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino spun the deal as his effort to save a small business. But a newspaper isn’t just any business. He saved an institution esteemed by thousands of people who figure to vote in the mayoral election this November. The Banner, meanwhile, is now literally indebted to the mayor it covers.

“This is not a question of integrity,’’ said Banner executive editor Howard Manly. “This is a question about the state of the newspaper industry in general and the black press in particular.’’

I’m not about to argue with the assertion that these are hard times in the newspaper business. A community paper like the Banner is especially hard hit in a downturn like this one.

Only an ideologue would say that the Banner should have chosen death over salvation. The Banner is a vital community voice serving a community with a distinct shortage of voices. The only other media outlets geared to the black community can’t do the job. WILD-AM (1090) broadcasts only half the day. There is also a low-wattage FM station in Grove Hall, Touch 106.1, but the signal travels just a couple of miles in each direction. And there’s the Banner.

From a political standpoint, Menino made a great move. He saved an important community institution. That the Banner often opposes his policies only gives him cover.

Who says Tom Menino is petty and vindictive? Menino has stood up - with cash, no less - for a publication that criticizes him constantly.

Mel Miller, the Banner’s publisher, can’t really be faulted for taking the money. His first choice is clearly to sell the paper, but he hadn’t found a buyer.

The spate of meetings of activists and investors that erupted after the Banner’s woes became public might not have ever yielded any hard cash. He took the money in hand, as any business person would have.

Still, its independence is the only thing that makes the Banner worth saving, journalistically speaking. There is simply no getting around the fact that it will return to the stands as a less independent voice.

When I talked with Miller a couple of weeks ago, as he was shutting the paper down, he declared that either of the mayor’s primary challengers would be preferable to Menino.

Will the Menino-financed Banner say that in its pages? Will it endorse Sam Yoon or Michael Flaherty for mayor on the city’s dime?

I’ve known Miller and Manly for years, and I would never question the fierce integrity of either of them. But it’s not that simple, and they must know that.

It’s too soon to know whether Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree can line up the investors to secure the Banner’s long-term future, which will cost at least $ 1 million, perhaps considerably more than that. But certainly if the Banner is going to have a real future, it can’t be tied financially to city government.

Even if one is glad that the Banner is soon to be up and running again - which I am - this has been a sobering episode. It’s sad that the city - by which I mean Boston’s residents, not the mayor - couldn’t or wouldn’t come up with the relatively short money to keep the Banner running. Miller has opted for the lesser of two evils. But why were those the only choices?

For all the talk of a New Boston and an empowered black community, it took Tom Menino to save one of its most important institutions. That is not a sign of transition. Boston needs the Banner to survive. But the Banner needs to survive in a position of strength.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at