Business transformation and the Black press: 5 questions with Larry Lee, Sacramento Observer publisher and president


With an understanding of how to combine editorial excellence with new media style, Lawrence (Larry) C. Lee is leading The Observer Media Group into the 21st century as a multimedia voice for the African American consumer. Lee — who has a lifelong career in ethnic media and marketing — inherited a dedication to quality, community, work ethic, and excellence from his late parents, Dr. William H. Lee and Kathryn C. Lee, founders of the award-winning Observer Newspapers. The Observer has received more than 700 awards for journalism excellence and community service and celebrated its 58th anniversary in 2020.

In his role as president and publisher, Lee has taken their legacy and applied it to a number of exciting products that influence, inform and impact the African American audience in Sacramento. He recently joined the Local Media Association board of directors and participates in several LMA projects including Word in Black, a collaborative of Black publishers focused on solutions “by us and for us” when it comes to racial inequities in America, and the Lab for Journalism Funding, designed to empower news organizations to find ways to fund local reporting via philanthropy.

In this Q&A, Lee shares more about business transformation and challenges and opportunities for local media and the Black press.

Tell us about the Sacramento Observer: How it transformed since your father first founded it in 1962. And, especially in these last two decades, as newspapers have undergone digital business transformations?

Lee

My father, Dr. William Lee, founded The Observer, along with two other gentlemen, John Cole and Gino Gladden, in November of 1962. At the time, Sacramento was a small community, probably of about 10,000 to 15,000 African Americans in total. Our experience was not being told and was not being documented anywhere of any significance. My dad, who was actively involved with civic and community affairs as a real estate agent, was called to do it by the community. 

What’s changed in the last two decades is just the absolute volume of information out there and how it can be very confusing, disorienting, and misleading. I think that the Black press helps to give balance to the fullness of the African American experience. We don’t just document a story; we try to provide a full context to it. The last 10 to 15 years have been challenging. Not unlike other newspapers, finding our place in space in the digital environment has been challenging for our newspaper. But we’ve stayed the course, we’ve always tried to be very fresh, and we’ve always loved innovation.

Let’s talk about that a little bit more, you’ve been involved in many initiatives in the last couple of months. Which initiatives do you feel will have a positive impact on the Sacramento Observer’s future?

As I was looking at our future, I was mindful of the landscape that we were facing and wanted to make sure that we stayed in front of the curve in regards to the challenges that our papers were dealing with, recognizing that there’s still an underserved audience whose needs just go unmet by mainstream media. We’ve had some success with Report for America, and some philanthropy funding assisted with our newsroom. We are in the midst of our digital transformation, launching our new website with Newspack. (Editor’s Note: Newspack is a digital content management system supported through Google.) And we just got accepted into the Facebook Accelerator Digital Reader Revenue Accelerator. I’m looking forward to the next year!

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the media industry today? And the second part is what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the Black press today? 

First is, sustainability models for local newsrooms are critical. I look, unfortunately, at the landscape here in Sacramento. Over the last seven to eight years, the Sacramento Bee has become a shell of itself. I think that trying to find how to do the work and be recognized for the value of the work is one of the most important things that local newsrooms have to figure out how to do. 

I think the biggest, one of the biggest things for the Black press is being a greater megaphone for the work that we do. Many of them are trying hard to do good work. But they are limited with resources. And when they do good work, it often doesn’t get supported in the way that is commensurate with the work they do, which is part of the beauty of the Word in Black collaborative. 

What do you think is the most significant opportunity then for the media industry? 

When I see my daughters engage with content, I get excited every day, and my daughters are on TikTok. So, imagine, you’re still delivering your content digitally on a website, but I’m also thinking: is there something that needs to be developed that’s not here? Should some organizations stand themselves up based on platform and then talk about the content… versus content first, platform second? Content is highly aligned with the distribution method, which is where we go to write the story. As opposed to if I said to you tomorrow, well, we’re native on TikTok, and I’m going to produce a story.

Why are you excited to join the LMA board?

One of our publishers in Word in Black, Janis Ware, told me about LMA in September of 2019. I did not know what LMA was. The following week my dad passed. So, I kind of almost forgot about the conversation that Janis and I had had. And fast forward to COVID last year hitting. I started to ask Sonny Messiah Jiles how to get back out there because she knew that I was a publisher trying to change what we’re doing at the Sacramento Observer. And so, I was introduced to Nancy Lane last year about this time, and I was blown away by LMA and the work that they were doing. They are trying to lift media outlets, local media outlets around the country, and I am so thankful that I have become part of the LMA family and now a part of the LMA board. I think LMA is probably the premier advocate for newsrooms around the country. And I believe that the work that they’re doing is beyond noble. I’m excited to be a part of the board to help and serve, and however I can and help uplift our local newsrooms around the country, that’s an opportunity.