This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. It is presented as part of the Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy which took place April 20-21, 2023.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
The Richmond Free Press, an African-American weekly newspaper, was established in 1992, but if it seems much older it may be because its late founder, Raymond H. Boone, was at the center of covering the struggle for civil rights for half a century.
Boone started out in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Virginia embraced massive resistance to desegregation and suppressed the rights of Black voters. Decades later he continued as a vociferous critic of “Liars’ Lane,” as he called Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where imposing, city-owned statues of Robert E. Lee and his generals stood sentinel in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Today his widow, Free Press President and Publisher Jean Patterson Boone, and her family carry on that legacy, putting out a hard-hitting paper in a city of 226,000 where almost half the population is Black and which – along with Charlottesville – was at the center of national debate over removing hundreds of statues across the South glorifying Lee and other Lost Cause “heroes.” The 60-foot-tall equestrian statue of Lee was owned by the Commonwealth and the rest including Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson were city-owned.
The going was tough after Raymond Boone’s death in 2014, even before COVID-19 played havoc with revenues and getting the free newspaper into readers’ hands. But Jean Boone, working from her bed at a rehabilitation center while recovering from surgery, said in a telephone interview: “We’ve managed to stay afloat [and] we want to get larger. We’re not folding up this tent right now, not at all. We’re going to keep on moving.”
The front page of a recent issue testifies to the continued need for, in her words, “an advocacy newspaper that is a voice for the voiceless – poor people, Black people, who can’t and don’t have a mechanism to speak out for themselves.”
The lead story was on the Richmond City Council’s declaration of a housing crisis. Other stories reported on civic groups’ and lawmakers’ call for easing restrictions on the restoration of felons’ voting rights, expanding city parkland, the swearing-in of a Black state senator, and the return to the Tennessee House of two Black Democrats expelled for a gun control protest.
And the front page also carried a signature feature of the Free Press: a photo of a 5-month-old in an Easter bonnet with her beaming grandmother and aunt.
“Every week that has been a part of our history, to shine a light on a positive photo of a child,” said photojournalist Regina H. Boone, the founders’ daughter, who said it reflects her parents’ desire “to celebrate children and the positiveness of our community,” and is also befitting her mother’s past role as a lobbyist for the Children’s Defense Fund.
When she was a staff photographer for the Detroit Free Press during the Flint, Mich., water crisis, her close-up of an infant whose face was covered by a rash from toxic water appeared on the cover of Time magazine in February 2016. She came back to Richmond in 2018 to join her mother and brother, Raymond H. Boone Jr., the vice president for new business development, in the family business. She is now among its photographers.
The paper’s last audit showed a circulation of 35,000. It runs between 12 and 16 pages on average. The paper has a full-time news staff of 10 as well as several freelance and part-time writers, photographers, and editors.
The intensely loyal staff includes some of the elder Boone’s first hires, including journalist Jeremy M. Lazarus and administrator Tracey L. Oliver, both vice presidents. Jean Boone brought in the revenues that fueled the Free Press as the longtime advertising director.
Raymond Boone got his start in journalism writing for “the colored pages” of the Suffolk News-Herald in his hometown. The Boston University graduate revitalized the Richmond Afro-American as a young editor in the mid-1960s and became editor and vice president of the African-American Newspaper Group (now the AFRO) based in Baltimore. He also was a foreign correspondent for the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
Boone became a journalism professor at Howard University, where he had earned a master’s degree, for nine years before returning to Richmond to start the Free Press. The Afro-American, which traced its history to 1883, was in decline and would close in 1996. Its forerunner, the Richmond Planet, was among dozens of Black newspapers launched during Reconstruction.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association says there are more than 200 African-American-owned community newspapers today.
BlackPast.org, an online encyclopedia of historical names and events in African-American history, wrote of Boone: “For the next twenty-two years, his robust reporting and stinging editorials spared no one in his relentless pursuits for racial justice. Black Enterprise Magazine termed his journalistic style a model for the survival of struggling black newspapers. Time magazine credited him with reinvigorating the black press.”
He was among the first to denounce the Washington NFL team’s name as a slur against Native Americans and demand a change – something that happened, like the dismantling of Lee’s statue and the rest on Monument Avenue – only years after Boone’s death.
His widow, who has kept his office intact since 2014, said what the Free Press brought from the start was “a balance in reporting, a sense of fairness and a perspective that the Richmond Times-Dispatch [lacked].” The Times-Dispatch and a sister paper, the News Leader, supported the state’s formal policy of massive resistance to desegregation. (The newspaper apologized in 2009 for championing that “dreadful doctrine.”)
Moreover, Jean Boone charged, the Times-Dispatch had a history of “unfair reporting on people of color.”
Today the Free Press faces the same challenges all newspapers do in this era when advertisers are spending their dollars online and the base of faithful newspaper subscribers is rapidly aging. The Free Press now has a strong online presence of its own that includes an easy-to-read replica of each week’s paper.
Bonnie Newman Davis, who became managing editor in May 2022, outlined the paper’s strategy for engaging younger readers.
“The Richmond Free Press is unique and as such, younger readers are drawn to its format [and] use of photography. It strives to be relevant to people’s lives,” said Davis, a former longtime professor of journalism.
Even those front-page pictures help because “after 31 years many of the children featured on A1 are now parents, relatives, teachers or other members of the community, often making the Free Press a part of the younger generation’s household,” she said.
Teaching for nearly 20 years “made me fully aware of social media sources such as Twitter that attract young audiences and readers, which they consider as go-to news sources,” Davis said. Increasingly, “older adult readers also get a majority of their news from social media and/or online. That means that in coming months, the Free Press definitely will explore ways to make more of an inroad into these areas.”
One thing that won’t change, said Jean Boone, is the philosophy that has guided the paper from its start.“You have to make judgments on what is important to your readership and then stick with it,” said the publisher. “Ray knew the business, all the way from the printing presses to sitting down with governors and presidents. He taught me a lot. And he said, ‘If you aim for the bottom line only, you’re aiming too low.’”