'Defender' Editor: Revenue, Circ Up in Last 5 Months

By: Mark Fitzgerald During the last five months of 2004, the Chicago Defender's revenue jumped 47.5% and its circulation increased 11% over the same period in 2003, the black-oriented paper's executive editor, Roland S. Martin, said Monday at a lecture sponsored by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Martin also said the paper would be rolling out two new niche products in February and March, and a new book section in the main paper. In recent weeks, he noted, the Defender has introduced a business section that has already expanded to eight pages in its Friday weekend editions. The five-day-a-week tabloid has also introduced new sections devoted to autos and homes.

The editor, who took control of the historic paper's newsroom last July, was upbeat about the Defender's future -- and blunt about its recent past.

"In the past several years, it has not been a good paper," he said. "It has let down the black people of this city. That's the worst thing, when [the black press] disrespects its audience." The Defender's quality reflected the general malaise of the black press, he said: "The reality is, the black press as an institution has let down the black community of this country. Its products are inferior, the writing is terrible, the ethics are not what they should be."

But now, Martin said, the Defender has improved editorially to the point that people tell him, "I feel comfortable, and I don't have to cringe when I read it."

The new niche products, which Martin declined to elaborate upon for E&P, were developed very quickly, he said. One, he suggested, would have a 50,000-copy distribution. The Defender is also negotiating for sponsorships with a television and a radio station, he said. Daily circulation of the newspaper is now 15,500, he said, and sales of the Friday weekend edition average 25,000.

Also speaking at the event on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was Angelo Henderson, the Pulitzer Prize winner who has been hired by the Defender's chain owner, Real Times LLC, to improve editorial quality and build a system to share resources among the Defender and its sibling weeklies in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Memphis, Tenn.

"When you look at a Gannett or a Knight Ridder, those are the models we want to look for business growth," Henderson said.

Henderson said the Defender's audience tends to be older and more affluent than African Americans in general, and more inclined to spend on big-ticket items.

The Defender has an appeal that would be ruined if it were to go weekly, as many have suggested, Executive Editor Martin argued.

"If they want to go weekly, I'm going back to Houston," the Texas native said. "And here's why: We have a niche. We're the only black daily in the nation. If we were to go weekly, we'd be just like everybody else."

Chicago he said is a market that can sustain a black daily newspaper "if it is quality cover-to-cover." (Though the Defender is often regarded as the nation's only black-oriented daily, the Daily Challenge in Brooklyn, N.Y. publishes five days a week, and the Philadelphia Tribune publishes a paid edition three days a week and distributes a total market coverage product on two other days.)

The Defender, which is credited with nearly single-handedly setting off the great African American migration from Dixie to the industrial cities of the North, remains an "activist" newspaper, Martin said.

"Though it is an activist voice, it is still based on objectivity, it is based on ethics, it is based on fairness and balance," he said.


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