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Ashes to Ascots: the Final Days of NewsOne Now With Roland Martin

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The staff wrap party for the last episode of NewsOne Now with Roland Martin was not supposed to feel like it did. I walked into the staff kitchen and saw Martin in all of his fuchsia glory, smiling, ascot crisp, happily chopping it up. “What’s up, baby?” he said, then hit me with a hug like we were at Essence Fest or the Republican convention, not the last day of an award-winning TV show.

It was 10 a.m., the final show had wrapped an hour earlier, and across a series of long tables, there was a tray of eggs, biscuits, fruit and two struggle strips of bacon left by the time I got there. A meal befitting the final episode of a morning news show. Considering that NewsOne Now was going off the air after four years, and almost 30 people were going to lose jobs or have their hours cut, the room wasn’t as sad as you’d expect. In fact, it was more like a murder mystery than a funeral. Who killed NewsOne Now? 

The more people I talked to, the more obvious it became that nobody knew for sure why NewsOne Now was going off the air, but the one thing on which they did agree was that black folks were going to be the worse for it.

“I’m sure Friday I’m gonna wake up like I usually do, ready to go, and the show won’t be there. That will be different,” said Martin when we spoke on the phone two days before the final show.

On Dec. 8, TV One announced the suspension (the network has not used the word “canceled” in any official statements) of NewsOne Now with Roland Martin for budgetary reasons, and since that time, Martin has never publicly questioned the network’s stated reason.

However, Tom Joyner has called for listeners to protest the network’s decision, and the National Association of Black Journalists has called on TV One to consider the harm to the black community if the only daily African-American television news outlet in America goes silent during the Trump administration.

Fellow journalists, like T.J. Holmes, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jemele Hill and Stephen A. Smith, have all publicly expressed dismay about the decision. For his part, Martin has mostly focused on the nature of the business.

“Sometimes it’s just the fundamental economics of the cable industry; there’s only so much you can stream, and that’s where a lot of the audience is,” said Martin.

TV One reaches about 59 million homes, and NewsOne Now is the network’s highest-rated program. However, the inability to regularly stream a show that came on at 7 a.m. often made it hard to connect with some of the 25- to 45-year-old demographic that advertisers are thirsty for.

“I fundamentally believe that a show can be a success in the digital world in which we are living. Whether it’s on Facebook or Twitter or some streaming service,” Martin said, pointing out that he regularly brings in huge audiences on Facebook Live and on Periscope.

The hot takes, speculation and rumors about why NewsOne Now was suspended continue to swirl around. Martin, of course, has haters, and some legitimate critics. Was NewsOne Now really suspended for being too expensive? No one I spoke to who was associated with the show fully bought that explanation, either on or off the record. NewsOne Now was expanded from a one-hour to a two-hour program in September. If the show was hemorrhaging money, why expand it to two hours, only to “suspend” it three months later?

Was NewsOne Now suspended because of Martin himself? Was he difficult to work with, or did TV One want to relaunch with new talent? Privately, staff commented that Martin could be hard to work with at times, but as one staffer who asked to remain anonymous stated: “Yeah, he was difficult. What talent in this industry isn’t? He’s brilliant, though. Best way to deal with Roland was to do your job, do it well and push back when you need to. He respects that.”

There seemed to be a sense, both at the wrap party and among others to whom I spoke, that if the end of the show came down to the budget or Martin, it wasn’t Martin’s fault. 

No matter what the full story is behind NewsOne Now’s being suspended, everybody seems to agree that the end of America’s only daily African-American-focused news show will hurt the black community, especially now.

Even if you weren’t watching his show, the stories it touched on ended up popping up in your timeline or on your feed or got magnified by other networks. It’s one thing to pick up a story about black lives for a five-minute segment, but NewsOne Now provided daily coverage about the death of Gemmel Moore, a young gay black man in Los Angeles found dead in a wealthy Democratic donor’s home.

NewsOne Now was the only show providing daily coverage of the Daniel Holtzclaw case where the now former police officer was convicted of serially raping black women. Not to mention the show’s daily coverage of taxes, health care and elections across the nation with specific relevance to the black community. People noticed and appreciated it.

“Sandra Bland loved Roland’s show,” said Susan Henry, an executive producer at TV One. “Her mother told us that she watched his show and said she wanted to be on it one day. It’s so sad, but it meant so much to her family that Roland brought national attention to her death.”

“Roland’s show gave a lot of people a platform—scholars, researchers, activists—to talk about issues that nobody else was covering; people got on that wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, a frequent guest on the show. 

TV One has made no formal announcements about launching another daily news program. This means that for the foreseeable future there will be no daily, African-American-focused televised news show covering the upcoming 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the 2018 midterm elections, and whatever unbelievable shenanigans Donald Trump and his minions come up with in the new year.

As for Martin himself, even if he won’t be hosting daily on TV One, he’ll still be out there. He’s on contract with TV One until August 2018 and is still in talks with the network about what he’ll be doing next year.

In the meantime, he’ll still be appearing on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, doing speeches, working on a book and tweeting about everything from the Texans to taxes.

As for the hundreds of thousands of black folks out there looking to know what’s happening in the world from an exclusively black perspective? The television may not have much to offer in 2018, unless some network out there is willing to fill some rather large fuchsia shoes.

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