The Revival of the Black Press in America

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Nervous laughter echoed from the audience of movers and shakers gathered at a DuSable Museum reception this summer to formally welcome Roland S. Martin as the new executive editor of the Chicago Defender. On stage, Cliff Kelley, the most influential talk radio host in black Chicago, was kidding on the square with Real Times LLC Chairman Tom Picou about the awful quality of the African-American daily not so long ago.

“I used to tell him that I had a great slogan for the Defender: ‘Yesterday’s News Tomorrow,'” Kelley laughed, as Picou, who years ago was the paper’s president under its old Sengstacke family ownership, tried to look like a good sport. “There was a reason we called it ‘the Offender.’ We used to ask him if they had any proofreaders on the paper. We’d say, ‘Ebonics was invented at the Defender.’ It didn’t seem like the paper could get worse, and then, things got worse.”

By January 2003, when the Real Times group of investors from Chicago and Detroit bought the Defender and its four sibling weeklies for $8.1 million from the Sengstacke family, the Chicago paper had been surviving for decades as a shadow of its former self in editorial quality, readership, and financial viability. In the early 1950s, the weekly Defender circulated nationwide and hit its peak sales of 230,000 copies. In 2002, the last time it filed an Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) Publisher’s Statement, the daily Defender sold just 14,629 copies a day in a city of 1.1 million African-Americans.

The decline of the storied newspaper ? once so powerful it is credited with setting off the Great Migration of African-Americans from Dixie to the industrial cities of the North after World War I ? symbolized the state of many black papers across the nation. Too many markets were crowded with black newspapers that were thinly financed mom-and- pop operations competing for readers and advertisers with error-riddled, irrelevant articles presented in dated layouts and smudgy reproduction.

But now, the black press is on a rebound, pushed by a sophisticated readership increasingly loathe to accept mediocrity, pulled by owners who realize their old business model is utterly broken and advertisers who now demand a more specific return on their dollar than a feel-good vibe.

“The black press has gotten the memo that change is required,” says DC Livers, who catalogued more than 400 black newspapers and other publications as editor of the new Black Press Yearbook: Who’s Who in Black Media. “They’re starting to understand that their reader … expects the black press to be as good as the general market [paper].”

Robert W. Bogle has seen the changes firsthand as president and CEO of the nation’s oldest black newspaper, the 120-year-old Philadelphia Tribune. “Being black,” he says, “won’t get you over ? and it shouldn’t. You’ve got to be competitive.”

And just as the Defender symbolized an industry in trouble, the paper now is the most talked-about example of a possible black-press renaissance.

Out with old, in with bold

Within a few days of arriving at the Defender, the hard-charging Martin, 35, snapped the front page out of its sleepy trance with bold headlines and huge graphics. “I call it my ’30-foot rule’: If I’m walking by 30 feet away and can’t make out what the headline is and what the graphic is ? it doesn’t work,” Martin says.

Martin brought in The Associated Press and chased out several employees. He weeded a newshole that an overworked staff routinely filled with credulous stories based on press releases sent by anybody, including political cranks and sales hustlers. And on Nov. 1 the Defender will lose its distinction as perhaps the last big-city daily without its own Web site, Martin says.

Real Times also hired a star journalist to improve editorial and build the first coherent system to leverage the resources of the daily and its four weeklies. Angelo Henderson, who won a 1999 Pulitzer Prize while at The Wall Street Journal, compares his task to “building a Gannett or a Knight Ridder from scratch.”

The Defender isn’t anywhere near that mountaintop yet. At the beginning of October, the daily still didn’t have a staff photographer and both the entertainment and sports editors were out on medical leave. Martin was not only running his nationally syndicated column in the Defender, he wrote news, a religion column, and even filed some sports stories. This is an ownership serious about budget discipline. “We use the term around here, downsize to rightsize,” Real Times President and CEO Clarence Nixon says in an interview at the Defender’s Moorish-style building on South Michigan Avenue. “Downsize to upsize,” Martin quickly interjects.

New model for success

Around the nation, however, other black newspapers are already achieving the success the Defender as yet only envisions.

Good-looking papers with acclaimed content such as The St. Louis American are pursuing readers with business models closer to that of alternatives than the traditional black press paid model. Each week, Wave Community Newspapers drops 150,000 copies of six different papers around the Los Angeles Basin, and boasts an audited pickup rate of 97%. Weeklies such as N’digo in Chicago and The Atlanta Tribune in Georgia are taking a magazine approach to winning readership.

The typical black press reader is loyal, but older. According to the biggest black press organization, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the average age of readers of member papers is 43.9, and 54% are women. That’s an audience to value, says Wave Newspapers President Pluria Marshall Jr., who compares it to the older but affluent listeners of talk radio. “We don’t want to get too young, frankly,” Marshall says. Nevertheless, the Wave papers are reaching out to younger readers by such methods as partnering with rap impresario Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit.

And while the Defender is generally recognized as the only African-American daily, other black papers are increasing their frequency. The Philadelphia Tribune publishes ABC-audited paid papers on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and distributes TMC products on Wednesdays and Thursday. “Five days a week ? that’s the definition of a daily,” President and CEO Bogle says.

The Tribune also publishes its own Sunday magazine, TV book, visitor’s guide, and a Newspaper in Education-like product that appears 40 times a year. As the school year wound to a close last spring, the Tribune published a 248-page tab with pictures of 10,000 graduates at 48 area high schools. The first “Yearbook Edition” sold 82,000 copies. “In two days, we had 130 people walking into our offices to buy it,” Bogle says.

African-American publishers are also turning the tables on the metro papers that traditionally stole away their best employees. For the first time, the black press is successfully raiding the general-market papers.The St. Louis American, for instance, just hired a salesperson with experience at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and recruited its classified ad manager from a local alternative.

For the first time, too, the black press is attracting the attention of venture capitalists ? and facing the consolidation that inevitably follows. Recently formed VCs like the Real Times group see that many of the papers still barely penetrate their market.

There are at least two stumbling blocks, though. First, the VCs will have to be patient, says Wave’s Marshall, an expansion-minded entrepreneur who bid unsuccessfully for the Defender: “From an investor’s viewpoint, the rates of return probably aren’t there right away because you’re looking at an industry that has no consolidation. The black press is where radio was 20 years ago, all single enterprises.”

Marshall says venture capitalists may also hesitate because of the limited number of potential buyers for a fixed-up black paper. Mainstream newspaper companies may take themselves out of the market because they fear resentment from the African-American community if they acquire a historically black-owned paper. Investors, he says, “can’t see an exit strategy” with a sufficient payoff.

Not this month’s flavor

The black consumer market is more affluent and established than its Latino counterpart. Yet it is the Spanish-speaking demographic that has captured the fancy of the mainstream newspaper industry, which is furiously creating niche publications for Hispanics but not for African-Americans.

When Ethnic Print Media Group (EPMG) announced last month the first comprehensive national circulation audit of Latino papers, advertisers cheered. There’s been less said so far about a similar EPMG project that will gather circulation audits and extensive consumer marketing information about the 95 biggest black newspapers in 80 markets. The results of the program will be available next January ? and will open a lot of eyes, EPMG says.

“Traditionally, there’s only been a few rep companies working within the black newspaper market, so there has not been too much of an effort toward putting together an audit program or getting readership data,” EPMG Vice President Trevor Hansen says. “For the first time, we are really bringing the numbers to the table.”

Nobody should be surprised, says Ken Smikle, president of Chicago-based Target Market News and a market researcher specializing in trends among black consumers. “Are you willing to write the real story? Black newspapers are doing great,” he says. “I would love to break the perception that the black press has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.”

Black papers, Smikle says, are closer to their readers than their general market counterparts. While the metros stumble in trying to attract young adults, he argues, black papers consistently deliver a niche that no one else has figured out: “The older black audience with a whole lot of dough, a whole lot of ownership of automobiles, a lot of ownership of homes.” While African-American publishers themselves have a tendency to cry poor, Smikle says, “Even the [papers] that are raggedy are making money.”

Uphill battle

Still, African-American papers struggled to get where they are today. America’s first black-owned paper was Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 by New Yorkers John B. Russwurm and the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish. Ignored by the powerful dailies of their time, black communities spawned their own feisty newspaper competition.

Fighting slavery, and then segregation, black papers were an integral part of eventual triumph of civil rights. But the great victory brought the black press serious losses as well. Their journalists were lured away to mainstream papers or refused to consider working for the black press at all. Their most affluent readers moved to the suburbs, and black papers at first did not follow them. Some even argued that the black press had lost its reason to be.

Charles A. Simmons, who wrote the 1998 book The African American Press, says he ended the history in 1965 because that marks the end of the last unifying struggle. “I think the black press as we once knew it is dead,” he says. “Maybe not totally. It could be like a volcano that will explode. But the mindset is different. You don’t have a black press, you have black people who own newspapers like any other business.”

But the black press had to be mainstreamed, many of its editors and publishers contend. St. Louis American Publisher Donald M. Suggs recalls when he first came to the paper, “It was printing probably 4,000 to 6,000 copies and the ownership was claiming 10,000.” Household penetration was pitiful, but advertisers didn’t much care at first because they were buying goodwill more than results. Then, Suggs says, advertisers began to care a lot about circulation and results.

The paper began its turnaround after he had a conversation back in the 1980s with Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post. “He told me that the key to a community newspaper was mastering distribution,” Suggs says. The American transformed itself into a free paper. Now it drops 68,500 copies in a market with about 150,000 African-American households. The audited pickup rate is upwards of 97%, and the paper has won advertising schedules from Target, Walgreens, Home Depot ? even notoriously newspaper-phobic Wal-Mart.

‘Defender’ gets down to business

Robert Sengstacke Abbott created the Chicago Defender at his kitchen table on May 5, 1905 out of a combination of his passion for the black self-reliance preached by Booker T. Washington and a business acumen that led him to copy the strategy of the sensationalist Hearst penny press. When Real Times took over, it bought a paper that wasn’t doing either business or passion very well.

The bookkeeping, at the dawn of the 21st century, was mostly kept in, well, books. Circulation had become so localized that the Defender wasn’t really serving all of the black neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, let alone the black-majority suburbs. And focus groups conducted last May, President and CEO Clarence Nixon revealed at Martin’s welcome reception, showed Chicagoans weren’t feeling much passion about the historic tabloid: They complained the content was irrelevant and substandard. The whole paper, they said, was disconnected from the black community.

Nixon and Martin say they will reforge that connection with a new combination of professionalized business and revitalized activism. “We have to operate and think and come to market differently,” declares Nixon, a former Chrysler Corp. executive. “We have to look at it as a business, and what we will be is a low-cost producer, but with very high quality.”

And in a post-Civil Rights era, the Defender’s brand of activism will revolve around issues such as health care and education, Martin declares. In the weeks before the presidential election, the front page carried daily reminders about registering to vote and getting to the polls.

Martin compares the Defender to many other mainstream media companies that overcame hard patches in their business. CEO Nixon makes a business comparison. The paper, he says, is like Chrysler, which was revived in the 1980s partly by restructuring its design and marketing teams.

The outsize ambitions reflect the task in Chicago and the rest of the Real Times papers. “They are trying to develop a system not just for one paper, but for five,” says Smikle. “And because the Defender has the most potential, they want to make that the prototype.”

Professionals now working at mainstream papers can be attracted to the black press just as he was, says Angelo Henderson. “We’ve done the mainstream newspaper thing,” he says. “We enjoyed it, we learned from it, we succeeded ? and now we’re on to other challenges.” He knows who he wants to recruit: The “overlooked and frustrated” journalists who are on big papers getting little assignments. “If you’re feeling stuck,” he says, “we can offer you the opportunity to cover the big stories, or show you a way into management.”

Much of Henderson’s time these days is spent looking ahead to the Defender’s centennial in 2005. There are extensive plans for event marketing and editorial products centered on the paper Robert Sengstacke Abbott created for what he once called “the little man who digs ditches in the street.” One hundred years later, the target audience has changed. “Every industry has to listen to its customer base,” Real Times CEO Nixon says. “The challenge of the black press is to continue to establish its relevance to black people.”

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