The Washington Informer has a mostly black readership and that appears to be why it was denied a District government contract which instead was awarded to The Washington Times, a right-wing newspaper with a mostly white readership. In an email to The Informer, Joseph Giddis, director of the D.C. Office of Contracts, said the newspaper was not qualified for the contract to publish ads for unclaimed property because it “serves a specific ethnic group” and therefore “does not meet the requirement of a newspaper of general circulation.” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray called the decision “ill-informed.”
“What constitutes a general circulation in the District of Columbia?” D.C. Housing Authority commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri asked at a rally last month of more than thirty supporters of The Informer. “I am astonished that the Office of [Contracts] could describe The Washington Informer as anything other than a ‘newspaper of general circulation,’” wrote Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. Johnny Barnes, an attorney representing The Informer, characterized Giddis’ statement to his client thusly: “You’re not qualified because you appeal to black people.”
The Office of Contracts is under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which is an independent agency. In years past, the Office of the CFO placed ads for unclaimed property in multiple outlets, which Gray is calling on them to do once again. “Given the significance of the regular publication of the unclaimed property list for all District residents, I am dumbfounded that a decision was made to limit publication this year to just one media outlet,” Gray wrote.
At the August rally, Johnny Barnes said the contract was unfairly awarded. Barnes said that since 1981 the District has determined The Informer to be a newspaper of general circulation. What’s more, The Informer is one of only two newspapers the District has certified as a Certified Business Enterprise (CBE), meaning it should get the nod in any close bidding competition, Barnes said.
Strictly by the numbers, The Informer did not offer the lowest bid per reader reached, but since it’s a weekly publication its ads are read throughout the week, not just on one day, as is the case with a daily like The Times. And unlike The Times, The Informer is a free publication, which is an important distinction, according to the mayor. “In prior years the OCFO published the District’s unclaimed property list in multiple media outlets – including in at least one free publication – thereby maximizing the opportunity for all District residents, regardless of income level or information consumption habits, to be aware of and review the list,” wrote Gray.
Giddis’ email, rather than focusing on the size of The Informer‘s readership, concentrated on its African-American makeup, which he characterized as a “specific ethnic group.” In D.C., however, blacks are not a “specific ethnic group,” they are a majority, at least until very recently. Thus D.C.’s nickname, Chocolate City. Yet in justifying its decision not to award the contract to The Informer, the Office of the CFO used the newspaper’s claim that it is the “absolute best way to reach the African American Community” as a strike against it.
“If the Washington Informer Newspaper can be disqualified because it appeals to a specific ethnic group, a similar disqualification can be leveled against the Washington Times, which some subjectively argue appeals only to a certain ideological group,” The Informer noted in its protest to the D.C. Contract Appeals Board. “In truth and objectively, neither newspaper should be disqualified for such a reason, not permitted by law.”
Since its founding in 1964 by Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark, the parents of the current publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes, The Informer has distinguished itself as a community newspaper, according to speakers at last month’s rally. While rooted in the African-American community, the paper is not just for blacks, said Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “They did not name it The Washington Black Informer. They did not name it The Washington White Informer… It is a newspaper for all of Washington,” said Saunders.
“This has saved my life,” Trayon White said as he held up a copy of The Informer. Things could have turned out very differently for the 28-year-old were it not for The Informer. White said he was kicked out of high school for having dreadlocks and was only reinstated after The Informer published his story. After graduating high school with honors, he went on to college and now serves as the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. “We need black press,” he said at the protest.
Publishing the government’s legal advertisements has always provided community newspapers with needed advertising revenue. At a time when newspapers are folding in frightening numbers that has never been more true than today. Yet the Office of the CFO is directing $33,000 in precious taxpayer dollars not to a community newspaper like The Informer, but to the right-wing Washington Times, a paper owned by the family of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the recently deceased billionaire religious zealot who made his fortune through questionable dealings.
“That the Office of [Contracts] would award the contract to The Washington Times – a newspaper whose ownership does not live in or operate in the District of Columbia – is disappointing,” Wells wrote in a letter to the Contract Appeals Board’s Chief Administrative Judge Marc Loud. While ads in The Times have already started running, the Contract Appeals Board has yet to rule on the matter.
In an email to supporters the day after the rally, Denise Rolark Barnes said, “Clearly this fight is not over.”
Update: After publication on Wednesday, TheFightBack received this email response from OCFO spokesperson Natalie Wilson.
“The OCFO appreciates CBE businesses and makes every effort to award contracts for services and goods to them. This year, due to budgetary constraints, the decision was made to select a single vendor to advertise the unclaimed property. The requirement for the publication was a newspaper of general circulation. The solicitation document clearly defines general circulation as ‘a newspaper that is widely distributed in the District of Columbia.’
“The Washington Informer did not meet this criteria and therefore, its bid was determined to be non-responsive. The Informer began its response to the solicitation with the following statement, ‘The Washington Informer would like to be included in the publication of the 2012 Unclaimed Property Report, as we feel that we are your absolute best way to reach the African American Community.’
“The purpose of publishing the unclaimed property listing is to reach as wide an audience as possible crossing all demographics, not simply target a specific one. In previous years, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer has awarded this contract to multiple vendors, the Washington Informer amongst them.
“We cannot comment on this matter any further, since this is under litigation.”