Stewart: Challenges at ‘Defender’ More Than I Bargained For

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Pearl Stewart says she didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to become managing editor of the Chicago Defender.

“I knew there would be challenges, but I did not know the extent of those challenges,” she told E&P, two days after her resignation from the historic black-oriented daily became public.

The chief challenge, she said, was the simple lack of people in the newsroom. The paper has just one full-time reporter, one copy editor, and one graphics and layout person, although candidates “are doing ‘tryouts’ for the vacant (second) position,” Stewart said. In addition, the paper has a full-time sportswriter, an entertainment writer, and a society writer. Much of the tabloid’s newshole is filled by articles from The Associated Press, freelancers, and Northwestern University journalism graduate students who write for the Medill News Service.

Defender Executive Editor Roland S. Martin said Stewart was told of the staff situation before she took the job.

“I make it clear to any potential employee that they are not walking into a perfect situtation,” he said in an e-mail to E&P Monday afternoon. “Unfortunately, she had a rough two months in that our layout editor left to pursue his own freelance business and a part-time copy editor resigned because of changes in her other job. Did this present a wealth of challenges? Of course. But again, this is where an individual has to learn to work through adversity, deal with the short-team problems by remembering the long-term gain.”

Last Friday, Martin was quoted in Richard Prince’s “Journal-ism” column on the Maynard Institute’s Web site, as saying, “This is a difficult job we have.”

“This is not a culture and an institution that you can completely turn around in a few months,” he told Prince. “There are issues of staff and resources, particularly with a daily. It’s a difficult prospect that can be extremely overwhelming.”

“I agree, except I would add that you need people in order to have a culture,” Stewart said. “There also has to be respect for the few people you do have — or they will leave.”

The Medill and AP dispatches are helpful, but not enough, she added: “The focus of the Defender is the African-American community of Chicago. Therefore, local coverage by staff is critical.”

Martin said the staff is “fully respected” by management. He said when he arrived the “newsroom was in a sub-standard condition” that has been corrected with numerous new practices. The company is “open and honest about the state of our affairs as best we can,” Martin said. Salary levels, he said, were “far below par” under the previous ownership. “We have raised some salaries in order to bring them to acceptable levels,” he said. Photographers, who were still shooting with film last year, now use digital cameras, he noted.

“This is the re-building of an old brand, and when you have wholesale changes, there will be bumps and bruises along the way,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, this simply wasn’t a good fit for Pearl Stewart. This is a tough job that requires someone who can accept all of these challenges, work with me on a plan of action to get through them, and move forward. I wish it would have worked out, but it didn’t.”

Stewart was seen as a big catch for the Defender when she joined the paper on Jan. 3.

In 1992, at The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, she became the first black woman to be the top editor of a metro newspaper. Immediately prior to becoming managing editor, she was director of career development and an instructor at Florida A&M University?s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.

Her resignation from the Defender is effective March 15, but she has agreed to stay on until a replacement is hired.

The Defender, which was sold to Real Times LLC by the estate of founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s nephew in January 2003 after a prolonged period of drift, has been in a sometimes turbulent turnaround since the arrival Martin as editor last year. Working with a skeleton crew, he introduced eye-catching graphics to the tabloid, and brought focus to a newshole that had been virtually unedited for years. Just before Martin’s arrival, Real Times also recruited Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Angelo Henderson as an editorial consultant for the daily and its sibling weeklies.

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