‘Chicago Defender’: It’s ‘Unapologetically Black’ No More

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

When Chicago Defender Executive Editor Roland S. Martin rolled out a dramatic makeover to relaunch the tired African American daily last March, he also branded it with a bold front-page slogan: ?Honest. Balanced. Truthful. Unapologetically Black.?

Well, these days the paper isn?t exactly apologizing for being black — but it has quietly dropped the slogan on orders from its Detroit-based owner, Real Times Media LLC.

Not surprisingly, Real Times current CEO, Hiram Jackson, didn?t return a phone message asking why a black-owned paper would want to pull a slogan like that. Surely, no publisher would have a problem proclaiming that his newspaper is honest, balanced, and truthful — so it must be the black thing.

The ever-changing cast in charge of Real Times isn?t much for communicating with the press, and, anyway, you can?t always go to the bank with what they tell you. Back in June of 2005, the paper dropped its slow-selling Tuesday edition, and went to a four-day-a-week publishing schedule. The CEO at the time earnestly told me that the Tuesday paper would return in about a month. There still is no Tuesday edition.

Almost certainly — and soon — there won?t be a daily Defender, either. More about that in a moment.

Martin is leaving the Defender in March when the contract between his consulting business and the newspaper expires. He didn?t want to say much publicly about the order to remove the slogan.

What?s clear, though, is that the Defender is now speeding with a bewildering eagerness towards the post-Roland Martin era of the storied paper. That does not appear to be a particularly bright future.

Charles de Gaulle famously said that the ?graveyards are full of indispensable men,? and perhaps there are other journalists who could have accomplished what Martin did at the Defender with virtually no resources.

But I for one doubt it.

When Martin arrived in the summer of 2004, the Defender was living off its past, and failing the present. It was riddled with errors. When the news it reported wasn?t a day or so old — it was often not news at all. Publicists for cranks like Lyndon LaRouche or pyramid schemes routinely succeeded in getting their press releases published verbatim.

As the paper approached is 100th anniversary — a history that included virtually single-handedly touching off the Great Migration of African Americans from Dixie to the industrial cities of the North — it was selling fewer than 20,000 copies a day in a city with a black population of 1.1 million.

Martin quickly turned around the look of the paper with bold headlines and graphics, and then slowly tried to turn around attitudes, and earn more resources. He?s a blunt-speaking guy who rubbed much of the sleepy newsroom the wrong way.

?I guess they figure they can run the Defender on the strength of Roland Martin?s ego,? one staffer groused to the alternative media on his way out.

Well, yeah, that?s exactly what happened.

Martin?s self-promotion — taking on President Bush face-to-face at the Unity convention, appearing on any TV show that would have him — bolstered the Defender?s image dramatically. Long before the paper had actually accomplished deep and fundamental improvements, its reputation among Chicagoans and in the newspaper industry soared.

He?s now the morning drive time host of the most influential black talk radio station in Chicago, the equally storied WVON.

Ignoring the distinction between church and state, he changed the attitude of the Defender?s feckless business operations. Defender ad salespeople were used to pitching the paper as if it were still the weekly that black railroad porters smuggled into Jim Crow Southern towns: ?The Defender is the oldest black newspaper, blah, blah, blah.?

Martin convinced them that they were selling a marketing opportunity to a vibrant, loyal and surprisingly affluent audience.

It?s no exaggeration to say he single-handedly pulled the paper into the 21st century. Astonishingly, the Defender never had a Web site until he arrived in 2004. But because of Martin, it became the first African American paper to offer audio and video podcasts.

And this miracle of hope, hype, baling wire and chewing gum actually worked.

For the first time since 1984, the Defender turned a profit in 2005, making $117,000. The paper was on track to end 2006 about $100,000 in the black.

But the Real Times people — who surely deserve credit for rescuing the newspaper from certain death — never seemed to know what they had in Martin. Or, if they did know, many resented it and him. Aided by information that could only have come from inside the Defender — stupid stuff such as his allegedly high salary, paid to a Houston native, no less — some self-styled activists ginned up a short-lived ?boycott? of the paper.

Now they?ve got what they want. Martin is steps away from the door, though he says he?s not leaving Chicago.

What the Real Times folks also want, apparently, is to turn the paper from a daily to a weekly. Martin opposed that for any number of sound reasons, but it looks like a done deal.

So the Defender will lose its unique market advantage. Even more ludicrously, the plan seems to be to keep it as a paid product — giving it a unique market disadvantage against free weeklies such as Hereme Hartman?s N?digo, which is far more sophisticated than the Defender in design, distribution, and, arguably, content.

In his biography of Defender founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott, ?The Lonely Warrior,? Roi Ottley notes that during the 35 years he ran the paper, it outlasted no fewer than 32 black newspapers that launched and folded.

Here?s hoping it outlasts its saviors.

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