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8050: The Haitian Times: Small Paper, Wide Reach (fwd)

From: jeancharles6@ftnetwork.com

The Haitian Times: Small Paper, Wide Reach
by Amy Alexander 

    I first met Garry Pierre-Pierre in 1992, at the annual gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists. We wound up squeezing around a small table in a bar at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, where the convention was being held. At the time, Pierre-Pierre was a reporter at The Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, and I was about to start work at The Miami Herald. As these things go, we chatted about our business - reporting for daily newspapers and the politics of working in mainstream media. My best recollection of Pierre-Pierre from that night - there were, of course, drinks being consumed - was that he seemed admirably mature and somehow calm. And while many convention-goers at these kinds of gatherings (particularly but not exclusively, the male ones) often appear to be on the make, professionally or personally, Pierre-Pierre struck me back then as a sublimely confident individual who enjoyed his work but didn't seem overly stressed out. 

Over the next year or so, after I'd moved to South Florida from California, our paths crossed a few more times. But by the mid-1990s, Pierre-Pierre decamped to New York, where he became a general assignment reporter at The New York Times. And then, in 1999, Pierre-Pierre took a leave and launched a newspaper called The Haitian Times, a bold move in a time of mega-media-mergers and the decline of readership for most news periodicals. To his credit, Pierre-Pierre had a vision, a calling, you might say. For all the hundreds of "alternative" and weekly papers published in America, for all the ethnic newspapers and websites, no one had managed to produce a newspaper with high journalistic standards that was aimed at the growing Caribbean population in the United States. That is how Pierre-Pierre came to preside over what I see as one of the most exciting and meaningful new publications to come down the pike in a long time. Based in Brooklyn, The Haitian Times is nearly two years old and filling a gap that desperately needed filling. 

I have a lingering obsession with Haiti, since I always regretted not visiting the island while I lived in South Florida. And so when I read of Pierre-Pierre's starting up The Haitian Times, I had high hopes. Now, having read several recent editions of the newspaper, I am truly excited about its mission: to cover the news in Haiti in an objective manner, and to cover the Haitian community here in the United States. As you might expect of a fledgling publication trying to compete in a crowded market, The Haitian Times is thin - it usually runs around 30 pages, including staff-written reports from Haiti and South Florida and other American cities where Haitian-related news is going on, along with wire reports from other Caribbean nations and Europe. The paper's masthead bears out what I suspected, in terms of the publication's staffing; aside from Pierre-Pierre, who also writes along with serving as editor and publisher, there are fewer than a dozen editorial workers at the paper. When I phoned Pierre-Pierre recently, he told me that the biggest challenge he faces now is on the business end of things - selling enough ads to keep the paper afloat. "Actually, the business end is the toughest part right now," Pierre-Pierre said. "And that's primarily because advertisers are leery of small community papers." It is an ongoing battle to produce advertising revenue, but recently a couple of large accounts began appearing in The Haitian Times, and Pierre-Pierre is in the midst of beefing up his sales staff. "That's just the way it is," he told me. "Until we get the numbers, its going to be a constant struggle. But I'm determined to make this work." 

Indeed, through force of will and some distribution connections he'd made while working at The New York Times, Pierre-Pierre does appear to be making it work. Certainly from an editorial standpoint, The Haitian Times is as good as it gets, for small independent newspapers in America. It's classy, with a clean tabloid design and articles written in the inverted pyramid style that gets the job done. Oh, there are other Haitian news publications out there, mostly in South Florida and in the Northeast, the two regions boasting the majority of Haitian immigrants in America. But many of these publications are blatantly biased - all extolling some political bent or another, and usually so poorly written and designed that they are barely comprehensible. The Haitian Times avoids this - which isn't to say that the paper lacks direction, for clearly it is all about advancing the causes of Haitian immigrants in America and of Haitians in the Caribbean, but that's the not the same as having a particular political leaning. In Boston, for example, there is a sizeable Haitian community that only seems to get covered in our big newspapers when something awful happens; a recent story, for example, covered the sad news of a Haitian immigrant murdered in Boston and how the murder may have been tied to some political scrape in Haiti. For Pierre-Pierre, though, his charge is to demonstrate the full range of lifestyles (politics and otherwise) for Haitians in the 21st Century. He had written about the Haitian community during his eight years at The New York Times, but always felt that mainstream American papers couldn't possibly do justice to Haitian and other Caribbean communities simply because that is not what big papers do - focus on one particular ethnic community. "I had a great time at the [New York] Times, but I'd always wanted to do this because there was just so much that wasn't being covered," Pierre-Pierre, 38, told me. "I'm not knocking the Times, I'm just saying that they're not going to cover ever single thing about Hait
at their readers expect." 

The four issues of The Haitian Times that I read between late February and the end of March sure enough gave me a good sampling of not only what's going on in Haiti, but news about Haitian immigrants here and elsewhere; the paper's coverage of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the inauguration of the country's new prime minister, Jean-Marie Cherestal, was clear cut and analytical in a non-partisan way. Stories about ongoing unrest on the island are told in an unsentimental fashion that makes them all the more effective, in my view. And a story about Marie St. Fleur - a Massachusetts state representative and the first Haitian to win a statewide seat in America - struck an appropriate tone of a sympathetic profile designed to inform readers. There aren't a lot of curlicues in The Haitian Times, and the editorials are sparse and tend to be predictably moderate. On the other hand, the paper's coverage of the shooting of Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian immigrant killed last year by a New York City police officer, has been stellar; its follow up expertly detailed a march that Haitians recently held in New York commemorating the first anniversary of Dorismond's killing. In fact, as I read through several issues of The Haitian Times, I felt like I'd been missing out on plenty of interesting Caribbean-oriented news by having spent so many years relying on The New York Times and other large American papers for news of the Diaspora. 

Now, The Haitian Times is available at roughly 600 newsstands in the tri-state area, and online at www.haitiantimes.com. Its circulation is at 15,000 and growing. Garry Pierre-Pierre lives a leaner life than he did before he became an editor and publisher of a startup ("I gave up the mortgage but kept the wife and kids," he told me), but he is making an important contribution to American journalism. When I asked him if he missed the benefits of working at The New York Times, he laughed. "Oh yes, somewhat, I mean, they take good care of you over there, they're like the state department, you get in and get out quickly and rarely have any problems doing your job." But he added that right now, even with all the headaches inherent in trying to keep his paper growing in a healthy way, he is starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The crucial two-year point, the hardest time period for any news business to survive, is nearly at an end, and Pierre-Pierre says he's in it for the long haul. "This needs to happen, this is a growing community that needs to be served," Pierre-Pierre said. "Right now, it's hard to see beyond the bottom line, but I'm not planning to quit." Like my Mama always says, you gotta watch the quiet ones. 

Amy Alexander is a Boston journalist who has written for the Miami Herald, the Village Voice, and the Fresno Bee, and is co-author of Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans (Beacon). She can be reached at amyalexander@africana.com.

First published: March 12, 2001

Jean Charles

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