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Defending Chicago’s ‘Defender’

It's possible to trace much of 20th Century America’s history through the pages of the Defender, a local paper with a national impact.

Before Black Twitter, there was the black press. Before websites from NewsOne to WorldStarHipHop, there was black print media. Before Robert Johnson built Black Entertainment Television (BET) into a billion-dollar enterprise, black newspapers were establishing their own economic impact. As the primary source for news and opinion about and by the black community, black papers predate even black radio.

The black newspaper is both the starting point and the dominant channel of the 190-year lineage of black American media and journalism. Within that lineage, the Chicago Defender stands especially tall.

In the best of its days, the Defender didn’t just report the news, it often drove it. The newspaper was critical to shaping the nature of black Chicago for the better part of a century. As black Chicago grew in size, the Defender grew in importance. It became a strong and fearless advocate for black progress on all fronts, especially the political front. It was a kingmaker for local and national politicians, from the outbreak of World War I to the first campaigns of a local community organizer named Barack Obama. Its leaders had the ear of mayors and presidents, all the while keeping its own ear to the street.

It’s possible, in fact, to trace much of 20th Century America’s history through the pages of the Defender, a local paper with a national impact. That’s the effect of reading The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, a richly detailed biography of the paper by Ethan Michaeli, one of its former reporters. It belongs on the same shelf with the weighty histories of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal; in its day, the Defender was black America’s paper of record.

That day began in 1905, when Robert Abbott published the first weekly issue from a desk in a real estate office. He was a one-man shop — reporter, editor, circulation manager — fueled by a passion stoked a decade earlier, from hearing Frederick Douglass speak at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Abbott, a college student at the time, moved to Chicago after graduation, found work as a printer, and slowly began to make his way within the black community. Michaeli uncovers, among facts and factoids too numerous to count, the origins of the paper’s name: Abbott wanted his enterprise to be a “defender of the race”. Soon after that first issue, he set up shop in his landlady’s dining room.

Abbott’s non-stop grind earned him admiration and notoriety throughout the community — even, Michaeli reports, from the proprietor of a local pool hall/gambling den, who loaned Abbott some badly needed cash in those early days. But the paper was uniquely positioned to succeed, despite the presence of three competing publications. Chicago was already an epicenter of urban black life by the 1910s; the Defender not only chronicled its impending growth, it also fueled it.

In the mid-’10s blacks began leaving the rural South en masse, fleeing hostility and poverty for a chance at a better life up North. The Defender didn’t champion what came to be known as the Great Migration at first, calling instead for the federal government to address the southern issues. But by August 1916, Abbott had come to see that migration from the South was black folk’s best bet for advancement. The paper started reporting on departures from the South and arrivals in Chicago, highlighting new arrivals in print as if they were visiting dignitaries. Many were encouraged to move to Chicago by seeing copies of the Defender brought down south by black Pullman porters working the railroad cars (and acting as de facto subscription agents for the paper). The migrants remade Chicago’s black community, whose South Side core came to be known as Bronzeville. The Defender was right there, with its own building near the heart of Bronzeville, to document it all.

Thinking of extending his business into a legacy, Abbott brought his carefully groomed nephew, John Sengstacke, on board in 1933 as a bookkeeper. Sengstacke quickly noticed some chicanery going on with accounts controlled by the current office manager, Nathan McGill, who was also secretary of the paper’s governing board. Sengstacke convinced his uncle, who was going through a nasty public divorce at that moment, to get rid of McGill, and was eventually put in charge of the entire operation. The paper had grown substantially over the years (at its peak, a weekly circulation of more than 250,000), and even launched a Detroit-based edition (The Michigan Chronicle), but Sengstacke still needed to visit those same shady characters his uncle had tapped to help keep cash on hand.

The Defender would flourish under Sengstacke’s direction. Sengstacke convened the publishers of all the major black papers to Chicago in 1940 for a meeting that birthed the Negro Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) (the meeting was almost overshadowed by the news of Abbott’s death just after it started). Sengstacke led the fight against Federal Bureau of Investigation efforts to brand black papers as hostile to the war effort as American entered World War II. In 1944, he and other NNPA publishers had a face-to-face meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt; White House meetings with any group of black people were extremely rare back then. One of the indirect results of that meeting was the first inclusion of a black reporter, Defender correspondent Harry McAlpin, in the White House Press Corps.

The Defender’s national influence continued during the ‘50s, with reporters including Ethel Payne and Alex Wilson filing stories from across the globe. But the 1955 Mississippi trial of white men accused of murdering Chicago teenager Emmitt Till highlighted a burgeoning disadvantage — no weekly paper, no matter how black and proud, could compete with daily papers offering up-to-date coverage of breaking news. In 1956, the Defender ramped up to a daily schedule, and just in time too, as the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, led by a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., was gathering its legs.

The paper’s most audacious and ingenious act of political influence occurred in the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. After realizing black voters were unhappy with the candidate’s tepid support of civil rights (and selection of Texan Lyndon Johnson as its vice-president), the campaign tapped Louis Martin, a longtime Defender reporter and editor, to head up its outreach efforts. Martin, who was still listed on the paper’s masthead even though he had recently left for a post in Nigeria, skillfully directed exclusive editorial copy (and badly needed dollars) to the Defender and other black papers, and built a get-out-the-black-vote machine.

He also helped write history a few weeks before the election. Martin helped engineer a phone call from the candidate to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, after he had been jailed in Atlanta after a sit-in, and convinced the candidate’s brother Bobby to lean on the local judge to release King on bond. Then he made sure all the black papers had enough information about the call to run a full story in their final issue before the election (most of them were still weeklies, so he only had one shot at them), and printed up leaflets to distribute to every black church in Chicago, recounting the entire case. The gambit worked: the Defender’s election day issue included King’s support of Kennedy, and black voters (not, as legend has it, dead ones) delivered Chicago, and essentially the presidency, to Kennedy. Martin was rewarded with a job in the administration, and Sengstacke with access to yet another White House.

The Defender provided critical coverage of the tensions surrounding race in Chicago, from King’s 1966 campaign there to the 1969 police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark — and in a manner far more sympathetic to the black community than the mainstream media were inclined to provide. But the days of its greatest influence were clearly on the wane by the time Chicago finally elected a black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

The Defender is primarily concerned with the great arc of the paper’s history, and the protean work of Abbott and Sengstacke in shaping it. But Michaeli also mentions the many reporters and behind-the-scenes people who gave the paper its spirit: from managing editor Lucius Harper, who conceived the character Bud Billiken in the ’20s as the figurehead for a youth column (and later a parade that remains a Chicago tradition), to the recently passed Theresa Fambro Hooks, who chronicled the black social set in her “Teesee’s Town” column for years (Michaeli notes her journalistic skills weren’t always deployed for soft news; she was among the reporters who hit the streets and phones on 4 April 1968, in the hours after the news of King’s assassination broke).

Michaeli pulls off an impressive feat here: he’s captured the evolution and essence of a business that’s part national history, Chicago history, black history and media history. But that’s just a function of the unique place the Defender holds within all those histories. All the major black papers of the 20th Century — the Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, Atlanta Daily World and more — were certainly important to their local communities, but only the Defender was important to every black community.

There’s only one problem in reading The Defender: it calls attention to how far the latter-day version is from its majestic heritage.

The Rise of the “Race Beat”

Most histories of the black press in America have followed one basic story line. They start with the first issue of the first black paper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827, and its editorial credo, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long others have spoken for us.” They look at the growth of the black press as both an arm of the movement towards justice, a connector of black social fabric, and an industry. They note, as does Michaeli, how black papers had a world and a market all to themselves — mainstream media neither reported black perspectives nor hired black journalists.

The Defender still has a strong advocacy voice in its editorial approach, but its impact on local politics is much less impactful than it used to be, and its effect on the national scene nonexistent.

That began to change in the nascent years of the civil rights movement, and black papers would never completely recover. Michaeli touches on how mainstream media organizations began peeling off reporters from the black press throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. They needed someone who could cover the black community, which had made life uncomfortable enough for the mainstream to force the mainstream to cover it. Crucially, they could also pay a lot more than the black press.

What came to be known as the “race beat” started a lineage that extends into the present day, with black men running the New York Times and anchoring NBC Nightly News. But in the wake of that progression (and no black media professional would pretend that even this measure of progress is satisfactory), local black media got left in the dust.

Michaeli is more concerned with the Defender’s rise than its decline, but he drops hints about the latter as the story moves forward. The Defender and other black papers maintained their scrappiness and determination to cover an underserved community, as he recounts in the chapter on his time with the Defender in the ‘90s. But by then, the paper did not have the resources to keep pace in an expanding media universe. Many major businesses that once advertised in its pages no longer needed to do so to reach black consumers, and those consumers weren’t reading the Defender as devoutly as their parents and grandparents had.

The ‘00s were especially difficult for the Defender. Sengstacke passed in 1997, leaving control of the paper to his heirs. But debts had mounted to the point where the family sold the paper in 2002 to Real Times Media, which soon realized how real times really were. Real Times Media ended up selling the paper’s building in the South Loop (which today would be a highly valuable asset in a growing part of town had they managed to keep it), and only last-minute rescue runs by Sengstacke’s son Bobby kept the paper’s archives from disappearing. Meanwhile, a revolving door of editors and reporters started spinning. The Defender went from daily back to weekly in 2007. It currently runs about 20-24 pages, about as long as it was in the ‘20s and a far cry from its heyday.

The paper seems stable now, under president/publisher Cheryl Mainor and executive editor Kai EL’Zabar. But “stable” might be a relative term. It still has a strong advocacy voice in its editorial approach, but its impact on local politics is much less impactful than it used to be, and its effect on the national scene nonexistent.

The 24 February 2016 issue is a case in point. The cover story, on resources for high school dropouts, is a decent blend of interviews, data and news-you-can-use. It’s a topic the city’s two daily papers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, haven’t explored in detail recently. In short, it’s exactly the sort of work a local black paper ought to be doing.

But there wasn’t a whole lot of such work in this issue. There were two other news articles (on how Illinois’ ongoing budget stalemate is affecting black students and public universities, and questionable handling of a city employee’s workmen’s comp case), a Black History Month article, the editor’s full-page editorial, and some lifestyle pieces. That’s not a hefty read, although at least most of it was staff-written, as opposed to wire copy or press releases printed verbatim and without a byline (the article headlined “Be Afraid of the IRS: Be Very Afraid” was written by a tax resolution specialist, and gives his website if you want a free consultation). The back page, long the bastion of the once-robust (and now defunct) sports section, bears an ad for one of the paper’s awards dinners.

The paper’s financial health is better seen through the display advertising in its pages — or the lack thereof. Only a bit more than three of the issue’s display advertising pages was taken by outside advertisers; the Defender itself ran a full-page ad on page three seeking businesses and individuals to join its “Wall of Wings” (which is, says the ad copy, “a monument of the Chicago Defender benchmarking this historical 110th year”). There was only one political ad, a curiously low number with a primary election less than a month away. The ad section labeled Business Directory, on the inside back page, had only two small non-Defender ads; one from an insurance agency and one from Mr. Sonny, who apparently is in the business of suggesting numbers to play. The real advertising was stuffed inside my drugstore-purchased copy: circulars from Wal-Mart and Carson’s department store, plus some coupons.

It’s clearly a catch-22 for the paper. More advertising revenue would provide more resources for journalism, which might then attract more readers and make the paper more appealing to advertisers. But advertisers don’t go where audiences don’t congregate: Chicago’s black population currently numbers around 800,000, but according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015, the paper’s audited circulation stood at just over 5,400 in 2014, which was just less than half of what it had been five years earlier. In short, the way forward will be a challenging one. It can remain where they are in terms of size and stature and probably muddle through for a while, but growth will be difficult.

One might think digital would be central to the Defender’s future, but here again there’s not much to work with. The website’s homepage has links to the print edition’s local stories, but they are lost amidst a mishmash of repurposed wire copy and black pop clickbait. If there’s any unique content there, or enough to bring someone to it more than once in a while, I couldn’t find it. Also, while the paper has 132,000 Facebook likes and 3,800 Twitter followers as of this writing, it doesn’t appear to offer a mobile app.

It’s not at all assured that the Defender or any other black paper can become an influential body again anytime soon. In 1961, reports Michaeli, a young activist named James Meredith dropped by the offices unannounced to get the word out for his quixotic mission to integrate the University of Mississippi (Fambro Hooks drew the short straw and ended up interviewing him). Now, he could do that with savvy use of social media and networks, and build a broader following on his own. #BlackLivesMatter has managed to do just fine so far without needing much of what traditional black print media has to offer.

Nonetheless, the black press is still intent on making its presence felt. “The genius and journalistic power of Black-owned newspapers, however, was and still is today to be vocal and audacious,” said NNPA president and CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis in remarks at the National Press Club celebrating Black Press Week 2015 last April. “We report the truth of the news without compromise and without the taint of racial bigotry, hatred or prejudice,” said Chavis. “If there is a true ‘Free Press’ in America today, it is exemplified by the freedom and integrity of the black press.”

Chavis went on to call for a ten-year business development plan, and to encourage young journalists to help “keep the torch light of the NNPA [well] lit far into the future.” He also announced the launch of an upgraded web presence for the black press in aggregate, through the revitalized Black Press USA and NNPA websites.

I wish them well. When I moved to Chicago in 2006, I looked forward to seeing a vibrant Defender, knowing of its historic reputation. I was beyond dismayed by what I saw. It looked, read and felt like an inadequate facsimile of a bygone era. People told me stories about typos in the copy, and ink rubbing off the newsprint onto a reader’s hands (problems that also besieged the Call & Post, the black paper in my native Cleveland).

It’s essential for any city with a sizeable black population to have an independent (and professionally executed) local black media, and especially Chicago. This city is facing a litany of major hot-button concerns — policing, education, economic segregation, and more — with a uniquely drastic effect on the black community. The best work in the current iteration of the Defender brings voice to that effect, which is critical to any serious civic effort to grasp these issues. I value that work, and continue to read the paper, albeit not as frequently as I used to. Unfortunately, the paper just doesn’t carry the same weight around town that it did in prior generations.

As for what model local black papers might adopt going forward, there’s no clear answer. Newspapers much larger than the black ones are struggling with asserting their relevance in the digital era while still staying afloat. Black papers have found themselves on shaky financial ground well before the arrival of the Internet. But the Defender’s history has earned it some benefit of the doubt in any effort to reinvent itself for modern times. No one, not even its competitors, wants to see a media enterprise with a track record this significant go down the tubes.

After reading The Defender, I’m less inclined to wring my hands over the paper’s state than to view it in a cyclical context. Once upon a time, it was a scrappy start-up that became a powerhouse thanks to vision, shoe leather and exemplary work. Today, it resembles the start-up much more than the powerhouse, even with its glorious legacy. The question becomes how vision, shoe leather and exemplary work can maximize the Defender in its second century as a defender of the race.

RATING 9 / 10
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