By: Mark Fitzgerald
Executive Editor Roland S. Martin is leaving the Chicago Defender, the black daily that in little more than two years he transformed from an enfeebled, mistake-ridden tab living off its long-ago glory years — to a lively, agenda-setting paper that is turning a profit for the first time in two decades.
Martin confirmed to E&P Friday that he is leaving the Defender when his contract expires in March.
Though he has no next newspaper position lined up, Martin is the morning drive-time talk show host for WVON-AM, a highly influential station in the Chicago black community that recently moved to a much more powerful signal. His second book, a collection of religious essays entitled “Listening to the Spirit Within,” was published in November.
“I don’t have a job lined up … but I am definitely staying in Chicago,” he said.
Martin, whose most recent book is a collection of religious essays, says that while his decision included deep thinking about his future in a changing media world, it was prayer that sealed the deal: “If God had told me not to come to Chicago in July of 2004, I never would have come. God showed me all that we have accomplished, and said, ‘Roland, it’s time to go.’ Flesh Roland was trying to stay but God said he was not going to open any doors to you until you make that decision.”
Martin, a brash 38-year-old Houston transplant, stamped his mark on the Defender as soon as he arrived in July of 2004. The Defender, which as a weekly in the years after World War I was credited with virtually single-handedly triggering the Great Migration of African Americans from Dixie to the industrial cities of the North, had dwindled down to an afterthought in the Chicago newspaper market. In a city of 1.1 million African Americans, the Defender, which still has yet to return to the ranks of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, sold not even 15,000 copies a day. The paper’s downturn was complicated by an estate dispute among the descendents of founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott that kept its ownership in limbo until a group of mostly Detroit-based investors organized as Real Times LLC bought it shortly before Martin was hired as executive editor.
Working under severe budget restraints and almost without a staff — at one point the paper did not have a single general assignment reporter — Martin shook up the sleepy and often-credulous paper with bold headlines and graphics, plus the introduction of long-overdue professional journalism standards.
When he arrived the Defender also had the dubious distinction of being undoubtedly the last American daily that did not have a Web site. He created a site, and then added audio and video podcasts — all without a dedicated Web employee.
This spring, he introduced a radical re-design of the paper, jettisoning the sphinx logo that was its most notable branding device, and introducing a new motto: “Honest. Balanced. Truthful. Unapologetically Black.” At a meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists a few months later, Martin said he essentially tricked the staff into a rapid launch of the redesign by leaking news of it to E&P.
The Defender turned a profit of $117,000 in 2005 for the first time since 1984, and is on track to make about $100,000 this year. “Those are tough margins,” he noted.
Martin suggested the job has been particularly wearing. “Everybody says, ‘Hey, we all work 12 or 14 hours a day,’ but it’s whole different ball game when you’re fighting against 30 and 40 years of perception, and fighting internally, frankly, against people who don’t necessarily want you here.”
In his arrangement with the Defender, Martin was not an employee of the newspaper, but a consultant, in effect, through his media company.
Martin promoted the paper nearly non-stop in the black community, and recently kicked off a year-long “Million Pound Challenge” of workouts and dieting intended to encourage African Americans in the Chicago market to lose a collective million pounds.
He was also invited frequently to comment on issues by CNN and other cable news shows. “I was the only black press person they asked,” he said — yet he felt internal resentment about that role from the paper’s management.
During his time, the Defender moved out of its historic but almost empty headquarters on the South Side to new offices in the Loop.
Martin’s tenure had its share of tumult. Several members of the skeletal staff left or were fired in his first weeks. And a recruiting coup in January 2005 quickly went sour when Pearl Stewart, who had been the first African American woman to head the newsroom of a mainstream metro daily, quit after just two months.
Also, in 2005, the five-day paper dropped its Tuesday edition. An African American activist group also declared a boycott that,
Martin’s resignation was first reported by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Stella Foster, who also cited unnamed sources who said the paper was mulling moving to twice-weekly frequency. Martin said he had been told no decision on frequency has been made.