CHICAGO — Decade by decade, the newspaper told the story of Black life in America. It took note of births and deaths, of graduations and weddings, of everything in between. Through eras of angst, its reporters dug into painful, dangerous stories, relaying grim details of lynchings, clashes over school integration, and of the shootings of Black men by white police officers. Among a long list of distinguished bylines: Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
After more than a century, The Chicago Defender will cease its print editions after Wednesday, the newspaper’s owner has announced. The Defender will continue its digital operation, according to Hiram E. Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media, which owns The Defender and other Black newspapers around the country. He said the move would allow the news organization to adapt to a fast-changing, highly challenging media environment that has upended the entire newspaper industry.
“It is an economic decision,” Jackson said, “but it’s more an effort to make sure that The Defender has another 100 years.”
Still, the demise of The Chicago Defender’s print editions represented a painful passage for many people who grew up in Chicago and for those with memories of its influence far beyond this city. Of its many significant effects over many years, The Defender told of economic success in the North, and was seen as a catalyst in the migration of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans from the South.
In Chicago, it was a constant, on newsstands in African American neighborhoods and on kitchen tables in African American homes.
“As a kid, you always knew about The Defender,” said Glenn Reedus, a former editor of the newspaper. “It was at everybody’s house. It was at the barber’s. It was everywhere, South Side or West Side. There was a joke that if someone said something had happened and someone else said it hadn’t, you knew it didn’t happen if it wasn’t in The Defender.”
The Defender delivered news of monumental events — the funeral of Emmett Till, the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the election of Barack Obama — but also of everyday life for Black Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.
“We never saw ourselves listed other places in weddings, funerals, debutantes, so this became a real frame of reference for activities,” Jackson said. “My career would not be what it is today if not for The Defender.”
The nation’s Black press, including The Defender, was in some ways born out of necessity, providing an outlet for Black people at a time when there was no other platform for them. The first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was created in 1827 and argued for the abolition of slavery. By some estimates, more than 500 Black-owned newspapers emerged in the three decades after the end of the Civil War in 1865, according to a report on the Black press commissioned by the Democracy Fund.
Not only did Black-run media counter negative stereotypes of African Americans that were pervasive in mainstream outlets, it was also a very influential advocating force for Black communities. It exposed the terrors of lynching.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade organization for African American-owned newspapers, said it currently counts 218 such publications across 40 states that attract 22.2 million readers between print and online each week.
Although the country may look different now, the enduring challenges of racism make the Black press just as essential now, said Benjamin Chavis Jr., president and chief executive of the association.
“As long as racism is still a problem, you’re going to need the press from multiple sources, including the Black press,” he said.
Chavis estimated that print newspapers still accounted for about 60% of the readership of the Black press. That figure, to some, highlights the challenges that these legacy news media organizations face.
“The influence today is definitely waning,” said Angela Ford, founder and executive director of the Obsidian Collection, an archive for Black media that wrote the Democracy Fund report. “The world has changed so much with the internet and social media. The Black press hasn’t been as nimble as technology itself. We’ve got to catch up.”
Ford, 55, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and fondly remembered how a copy of The Defender was always within arm’s reach. It was an essential publication for a Black girl coming up, she said, because of the empowering image it represented of Black people.
“It’s very difficult to put something on the coffee table that’s not an insult to the Black community,” she said. “By surrendering the Black voice, we surrendered our own positivity.”
The Chicago Defender will find the competition for online readers to be intense.
The Root, a leading African American-focused online publication, hit traffic records in January with 20 million unique visitors, said Danielle C. Belton, editor-in-chief. Much of that traffic was because of the release of “Surviving R. Kelly,” a documentary about accusations of sexual misconduct against the R&B musician, and the controversy surrounding an encounter between a group of mostly white Catholic schoolboys and a Native American drummer at the Lincoln Memorial.
Even as many mainstream news organizations boast increasingly diverse staffs and cover major issues important to Black communities, the tone and framing in the Black press sets it apart, its many fans say. While some news stories related to African Americans may get buried inside mainstream newspapers, they can be front-page news for Black publications. The Black press may also be able to speak in a way that’s more familiar to African Americans, journalists in the industry said.
“This is a place where you can let your hair down and be yourself,” Belton said.
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In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott started The Chicago Defender in a landlord’s kitchen. In the years that followed, the newspaper’s reputation reached far beyond Chicago, in part with the help from Pullman railway porters who carried copies of the newspaper with them and spread the editions along their routes. The newspaper tackled issues of race head on, editorializing against Jim Crow laws, advocating equity for African Americans in the military, and becoming an essential outlet for any politician who hoped to win Black voters.
The Chicago Defender was able to survive “without conforming to the white press’s notions about separating objective news from subjective editorials,” wrote Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Race Beat.”
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“During racial confrontations, The Defender would design, for the front page, box scores showing how many Negroes had been injured and killed versus whites,” they wrote.
The Defender left another legacy in Chicago: a parade that runs through the South Side each year at the end of summer, named for Bud Billiken, a fictional character created in the 1920s as part of a section of the newspaper for young people.
“No newspaper played a greater role in shaping American politics and demographics during the 20th century,” said Ethan Michaeli, who worked at The Defender and wrote a book, “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama.”
In recent years, though, The Defender has struggled, contending with the pressures that have rippled through the newspaper business — declining print advertising and readers turning to the internet.
Black news organizations must still battle negative stereotypes in vying for advertising dollars, said Jean Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press in Virginia, an African American publication started by her husband in 1992.
A local upscale clothing retailer once told her that he would see if he had any money in his miscellaneous budget to place an ad in her paper, she said. A car dealer told one of her sales representatives, who was white, that they were not interested in buying an ad because Black people would come to them to shop anyway.
“We’re an afterthought,” said Boone, whose publication has a weekly circulation of 35,000 and draws around 130,000 readers each week.
Regardless of the financial challenges, Boone said her publication had no intention of going the way of The Defender and eliminating its print edition.
The newspaper repaid all of its initial investors within five years of launching, she said, and it has never missed a payroll. Her family owns a controlling share of the paper and it owns the building in which it is housed. She sees the paper as a political influencer: All of the candidates it endorsed in last year’s midterm elections won.
“We’re a miracle,” she said. “We are a miracle and most Black newspapers are a miracle.”
Until now, some 16,000 copies of The Defender were printed each week, according to Jackson of Real Times Media, who added that the newspaper has far more readers online. Officials would not provide specifics about the newspaper’s financial circumstances or say how many employees now work at the newspaper’s office on Chicago’s South Side.
In 2015, only 10 full-time employees were left, including one staff reporter.
Jackson said no staff members would be cut as the print edition ends. Instead, he said, existing employees would turn to improving news coverage for their website and social media accounts, as well as expanded efforts to hold newspaper-sponsored events and to interest readers in the newspaper’s vast archives.
“We’re nervous but we’re really excited about this,” Jackson said. “The Chicago Defender is known for the impact it’s had. The only way we can be impactful is to have a huge audience. You can’t do that with printed newspapers.” —(The New York Times)