Running a local newspaper for more than half a century is no small feat, but Melvin Miller isn’t one to brag.
“The question of legacy is always for other people to decide,” Miller said. “I’m just a ditch digger. I just do the work.”
After nearly six decades, Miller says it’s time for someone new to take over his life’s work: the Bay State Banner, Boston’s oldest Black-owned newspaper. Miller announced Wednesday he is handing the paper over to new owners as part of a larger expansion and redesign of the publication.
The new owners, Ron Mitchell and Andre Stark, are veteran journalists with close ties to their Boston communities and long-standing family relationships with 88-year-old Miller, a Roxbury native.
“We’re journalists, we’re filmmakers, but we’re also people who have been telling the truth about our community,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to take [The Banner] into the next half a century. We’re going to transition it in many different ways to make it more amenable to a younger audience.”
Mitchell, 61, who previously worked at GBH News, resigned last week from a nearly 30-year career at WBZ-TV to prepare for his role as publisher and editor of the Banner, a return to his roots. Mitchell’s family — including his aunt Jean McGuire, a former METCO director — had generations of ties to the Miller family.
“We are living up to the responsibility that our families birthed us into,” Mitchell said, “to take responsibility for the communication in our community.”
Stark, 63, who will serve as the paper’s chief operating officer, is another GBH veteran who produced documentary films for PBS documentary series Frontline and NOVA. He serves as a board member at the Roxbury-based Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit that provides resources to young people from local communities of color.
Stark says he read the Banner as a child, the son of West-Indian parents who steeped him in Black cultural history and enrolled him in school at the Freedom House established by Otto and Muriel Snowden. His mother, a close friend of Miller’s, brought Stark to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from his Roxbury neighborhood to the Boston Common in 1965.
“I think one of the reasons Mel felt comfortable transferring the mantle over to us is that he knows both of our families,” Stark said. “It helps close the circle as he knows both of us from years ago.”
Kenneth Cooper, another GBH News veteran with decades of experience at newsrooms including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Dispatch, will join the Banner as an editorial consultant, overseeing a major expansion and transformation that lies ahead. Longtime Banner senior editor Yawu Miller has agreed to stay on (despite his uncle's departure) to manage the Boston edition of the paper.
Financing for the transition came from private contributions from community members around Greater Boston and the Mill Cities Community Investment, a community development financial institution based in Lawrence. Both Miller and the new owners declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal.
Within the next year, the Banner plans to distribute in other regional markets, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and Northern parts of Massachusetts, and positions will open for bureau chiefs in those areas, Mitchell said. The change of guard comes with plans for a new website and app, weekly 30-minute investigative news shows, wider coverage of sports and local business briefs. The expansion of online content will be overseen by Colin Redd, a 30-year-old Boston native who helps run Blavity, a Black-owned media company with an understanding of young audiences.
The new website will include community services including access to loan applications, scholarships, a calendar of community events and other educational resources, Mitchell said.
“It’s going to be an interactive resource, a portal of opportunities,” Mitchell said. “The website will be true community outreach, not just a physical rendition of the paper.”
The goal, Mitchell says, is to reach new audiences and expand coverage while preserving the publication’s integrity as a source of local news for communities of color.
“This is an extension of African-American culture going back hundreds of years, community storytelling that transformed into Black publishing,” Mitchell said. “Dating back to emancipation, Black papers told the truth about the Black community.”
The Banner has always stood out as a source of straightforward information, Mitchell says, representing an on-the-ground approach to issues directly impacting communities of color.
“The Black community is not a monolith,” he said. “That's why it is important to have a paper that understands the complexity of our community and tells us that's the only way you get the true story.”
Miller founded the Banner in 1965 to fill a void left by the folding of The Guardian, a newspaper led by civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter. His goal was never objectivity — an idea he dismisses as “nonsense” — but to be fair and honest, and to help readers understand “the complexity of American society” with nuance and clarity.
“People would come up to me sometimes and ask me why we didn’t cover some shooting, and I said, 'Hey, there are many places you can find that,'” Miller said. “I’m not going to spend ten cents of my budget giving any attention to a brutal government. Not going to happen.”
Miller’s hope for the paper is the continuation of his work highlighting the fabric of life in communities of color, emphasizing “positive, helpful and uplifting” coverage whenever possible.
“If we focus on the wrong things perpetually, then what we're doing is we are building that culture around those ideas, on the ugly angels,” Miller said. “I like to appeal to people’s beautiful angels.”