The AFRO-American Newspapers, also known as The Afro, was founded in 1892 by John H. Murphy, Sr, with the goal of highlighting stories that advanced the African American community in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area. Now, 130 years after its founding, the paper’s fifth generation is looking to expand on its iconic legacy in the 21st century.
“Oftentimes, we’re referred to as the paper, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember my grandmother used to read that paper,’” said Dana Peck, director of digital solutions at The Afro. “We’re not your grandparent’s newspaper anymore.”
Alongside a celebrity-studded gala in August, the paper is celebrating its 130th anniversary by bringing its impressive archives to the social media era. In the 130 days leading up to the anniversary in August, the paper has chosen an image from every year to post on its social media accounts.
Staffers scoured through the paper’s archives of the Baltimore County Public Library to find both momentous and everyday clippings. Peck said they were deliberate when it came to iconic historic events — Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, the election of Barack Obama — but other times pulled “random” photos, ads or articles that gave a sense of the era.
Peck said she got the idea for the countdown from another news outlet, who she worked with in a journalism lab. The team at The Afro has benefited from a plethora of programs, labs and grants to help them build and grow, she said, including the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding. They’ve updated their online publishing with Newspack, hosted Facebook HBCU fellows to help with their social media offerings, and are a founding publication of Local Media Association’s Word In Black.
“We’re just really enjoying the collaborative season that we’re in now,” Peck said. “Working with Word In Black has been really productive. It reveals that we’re not the only ones struggling, or having success in certain areas. So we can share those successes with others and then we can learn from our peers. We don’t have to be experts in everything; we can really leverage the expertise from these various labs to propel us.”
These conversations spurred the team to survey its audiences and learned that readers were interested in expanded coverage of cooking, sports and faith. Plans were already underway for a 130th anniversary cookbook; now, the paper is adding cooking and sports-themed online shows, as well as a faith-focused newsletter and calendar.
The Afro is also taking advantage of its unique role within the African-American press. As the first Black-owned company to have its own printing press, the paper has continued to print a legacy publication. It is now exploring whether it can offer printing services to other companies.
And Afro Charities, the paper’s nonprofit arm, is renovating a mansion in Baltimore that will house its archives and operate as a community space. The building has been purchased, and they are raising funds for the restoration.
The paper’s legacy continues in part because it remains a family affair. Publisher Toni Draper is the great-granddaughter of the paper’s founder.
“We’re being very intentional,” Peck said. “Every two years, we have a reunion, and part of that reunion is updating everybody about the paper and what kind of opportunities are available to them. What kind of skill sets can they offer? Because you really need a joint effort. We’re not letting it stop on our watch.”