Challenging the Defender
The nation's last black daily struggles to survive
By Sam Jemielity
AUGUST 10, 1998: There's an inky, oily pit where the Chicago Defender's old printing press used to crank out the historic daily. Workers came by a few weeks ago to remove the antiquated monolith from the back warehouse at the Defender's South Michigan headquarters. At one point, a hundred workers toiled in the print room, running the Defender and the Sengstacke family's other three papers, which were shipped to readers in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Memphis. But now the old print room lies vacant, stray electric cords poking out of the walls, jugs of photo developing fluid lined up in one corner.
When the Defender moved into the old Illinois Automobile Association's headquarters in 1956, CEO John Sengstacke converted the Club's Olympic pool into the pressroom and the paper to a daily. As decades passed, new technology turned the once-busy press into a dinosaur. Today's Defender is computerized, beaming in digital photos and wire service reports via satellite. The actual printing of the five issues a week has been handled for years by the Daily Southtown's presses.
But although the nation's only remaining African-American daily has changed, many critics would say it has not changed quickly enough. Circulation, which stood near 160,000 in the thirties, has dwindled to about 20,000. In a Tribune op-ed piece last December, the Chicago Reporter's editor and publisher Laura S. Washington argued that by the 1970s, the Defender had "lost its mission." Poor editing, misquoting, bad reporting and support of Chicago's political powers-that-be had earned it the nickname "The Offender." Younger black readers have forsaken the paper for the Sun-Times and the Trib, not to mention the panoply of Afrocentric publications like Vibe and the Source, which cover African-American culture. There's no need to pick up the Defender to read wire reports, or articles on the Cubs, or a review of "Bring In Da Noise."
After the death of longtime publisher and driving force John Sengstacke at age 84 in May, 1997, the Defender and its three sibling publications were put up for sale by trustee Northern Trust. But the Sengstacke family soon ousted Northern Trust in hopes of finding a new trustee more amenable to avoiding an asset sale. John Sengstacke's granddaughter and family spokesperson Myiti Sengstacke has spent the last year trying, in her words, to "save the paper." Can it be done?
The Chicago Defender is blessed and burdened by its past. In the year since John Sengstacke's death, articles about the Defender have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Trib, Sun-Times and Crain's Chicago Business. Brent Staples wrote a tribute to "Citizen Sengstacke" in the year-end issue of The New York Times Magazine, lauding the crusading publisher as the black version of Orson Welles' journalistic titan Charles Foster Kane. "Everyone is looking at the Defender's history," says Hermene Hartman, publisher and editor of N'Digo. "It's all a romantic view. Someone has to focus on the reality. It's old, and it's tired, and it shows." It's easy, however, to be awed by stories from the Defender's past. Founded in 1903 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the Defender quickly became an African-American institution. Pullman car porters, including the father of current WMAQ-TV Channel 5 news anchor Warner Saunders, lugged bundles of the paper on train trips down South in the first half of this century, bringing the paper's pro-North editorials to Southern blacks and fomenting the Great Migration. After Abbott's nephew John H. Sengstacke took over in the early forties, he spoke out against segregation of the armed forces, founded the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association (now the National Newspaper Publishing Association, a group of roughly 200 African-American papers), and challenged segregation in the South during the Civil Rights era.
"The Defender is important from a historical perspective," says Dempsey Travis, a historian, jazz writer and longtime friend of John Sengstacke. "It always covered the news in the black community that never appeared in the white papers. As a matter of fact, it was so thorough in its coverage, that whenever I traveled, I would tell my secretary, you can throw all the rest of the papers away, but keep the Defender. 'Cause I knew in the Defender, I could find what happened to my friends while I was gone. You had to be a bigshot to receive mention in these other papers, whereas the Defender mentioned people who you should know. Not necessarily you do know, but you should know."
Travis has been reading the paper, every issue, since 1928. He was reading it when editorials encouraged Southern blacks to move north. He was reading it when it covered lynchings that white-owned papers simply would not report. He was reading it in the sixties and early seventies, when Warner Saunders, then running a West Side boys' club, began contributing an opinion column, "My Bag," at the behest of John Sengstacke. He's still reading it, even as circulation has shrunk to under a tenth of what it was in the paper's heyday.
"It's not the Defender that Robert Abbott founded," says Travis. "It's not the Defender of old that John Sengstacke inherited. Because [today] there is a lot of competition out here, reporting on all the same things. I can remember when the Tribune only had one black - not a columnist - just had one article appear a week. It was written by a fellow by the name of Roy Ottley. He wrote an article every Friday about black people. And that was it.
"It's important today as a threat," Travis continues. "A threat that we always got a gun. Without the Defender, you don't have even a threat to answer some of the gossip, some of the misquotes, some of the misunderstandings that may appear in the general white press."
But the reality is, the Defender isn't even much of a threat anymore, to the white press, or even to its black-targeted competitors. "If the Defender would have been all of what it's supposed to be," says Hartman, who founded N'Digo in 1989, "I would not have been able to break into this market. I was a reaction to the Defender." Hartman's publication has ridden the opposite trajectory from the Defender, going from a monthly in 1989 to a 125,000-circulation weekly today. "I have the utmost, utmost respect for John Sengstacke," says Hartman, who has made unsuccessful overtures to buy the Defender. "When he was strong and vibrant, and politically active, he was on it. With the decline and eventually loss of Sengstacke, you lost your leader. Now you've got to have somebody to love it, to focus on the future. You can't sell last week's news."
The large train clocks outside the Defender's headquarters both run an hour fast, as if to counterbalance the fact that the paper produced inside the beige brick walls has fallen behind the times. The early morning July sun bounces off the sheer-glass geometries of the new McCormick Place Hyatt to the east.
Inside, across a marble-tiled lobby, two giant Oriental vases, big enough to display dogwood trees, hint at John Sengstacke's penchant for world travel. A sepia-toned photo of founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who died in 1940, looks out onto brass capital letters in the lobby floor that proclaim: "No greater glory no greater honor is the lot of man departing than a feeling possessed deep in his heart that the world is a better place for his having lived."
Behind the photo, the newsroom sits in a sunlit hall, with windows opening onto the street to the north and a courtyard to the south. Section deadlines are posted on the back wall, just below a clock - this one displaying the correct time. A phone rings in the almost empty room, while a lone entertainment editor works at his desk. Macintoshes sit idle, awaiting reporters to arrive. Sitting in an airy office overlooking Michigan Avenue, Colonel Eugene L. Scott, general manager of the Defender since 1992, is a gleaming product of the very Armed Services that the Defender was vital in integrating. In the eighties, the now-retired Army colonel served as a base commander at Fort Stewart under General Norman Schwarzkoff, before going on to become base commander at Fort Monroe. Scott came to the Defender in 1990 as operations manager for the Sengstacke family's four newspapers. In 1992, he became the Defender's GM.
The walls of Scott's first-floor office at the Defender are decorated with plaques and photos, and a side table bears a portrait of Schwarzkoff signed, "To my strong right arm." John Sengstacke's sister, Florence, raised Scott, who went to Englewood High at 64th and Stewart. His gravelly phone voice may be pure no-nonsense Army, but in person, dressed in a sharp blue suit and patterned silk tie of red and gold, Scott exudes warmth, eloquence and easy humor. "If you're putting out [a paper] every day," says Scott, "you've got to have current news for your readers. Which requires you to go to the same sources to get to that news that the larger papers use. You got to have reporters out there, you've got to subscribe to some kind of wire service, you have to be tied in to City News - it's the same dynamic that the larger papers go through." Scott's staff of fifty, most of whom work on the editorial side, is largely made up of young, inexperienced but motivated journalists.
"We're probably the only daily paper where a person can come out of college and get a job," says Scott. "And after they've been here for three years, they get lured away by the big money." While some critics agree with Scott that a young, inexperienced staff hurts the paper, one ex-staffer sees things differently. Audarshia Townsend, a 1991 Columbia College journalism graduate, cut her teeth at the Defender first as an unpaid college intern and later during a two-year stint, from December 1994 until January 1997, as a copy editor and entertainment reporter. Now an editing assistant for the Chicago Tribune's interactive department and a CLTV entertainment reporter, Townsend argues that the Defender needs to bring in more new blood. "They need to clean house," she says. "The old heads are still holding on. [The Defender] is living in the past, and they have not reached people of my generation, Gen-Xers."
Credibility, crucial in news media ventures, is another concern at the Defender. Recently, George magazine's JFK Jr. penned a tale-between-his-legs apology for letting an article with fabricated material slip into the pages of his magazine; CNN fired several staffers associated with a dubious report of nerve gas use by the U.S. military.
Back in 1990, arts writer Earl Calloway, a Defender staffer for three decades, served up a glowing review of a Ravinia "performance" by pianist Andre Watts, saying the evening confirmed Watts' stature, "beyond a shadow of a doubt," as the greatest living pianist. It turned out that Watts had canceled, and the ivories were being tinkled by a South Korean woman. In what would have been clean-out-your-desk time at almost any other paper, Scott - who was general manager at the time - deferred to Calloway, who kept his post. In his defense, Calloway offered up the dubious explanation that he didn't have good enough seats to tell who was performing.
Is the Defender resistant to an infusion of new blood, as critics contend?
"That's not a good criticism. It's not as simple as bringing in new people," says Scott, emphasizing that the majority of Defender newsroom staffers are young. "I certainly stand by the quality of the people who've been with the organization. There's no way you can replace the experience of Earl Calloway."
Mentored by Calloway, who she says she absolutely "love[s]," Townsend criticizes some of her former colleagues for seeming unconcerned about the quality of the Defender. "People really did not care. I'm sorry to say that," says Townsend. "Your name would get spelled wrong, you'd be misquoted, dates and times would be wrong."
Of course, every issue of every paper contains those types of errors. But N'Digo's Hartman is critical of what she calls the "Defender attitude," that because it's a small paper, it should not be blamed for mistakes. Hartman says she will fire any employee after three spelling errors. "With technology being what it is today," says Hartman, "with spellcheck, and a thesaurus, there's some [errors] that don't need to happen."
Ex-Defender staffer Townsend was dismayed by what she perceived to be the manipulation of the paper by "so-called religious leaders, so-called activists" and politicians, who treated it as a mouthpiece for furthering their agendas. General manager Scott also speaks of the need to "wrestle [the Defender] back from power alliances. It's so easy over a period of time to drift off track, to form alliances and arrangements that were good thirty years ago. We were able to put politicians in office and get more political power in the community. Those alliances made valuable contributions to the African-American community during their time, and now they may not be valid." Ever the military man, Scott likens the effort of pulling the Defender out of invalid alliances to "trying to turn a battleship."
There are success stories at the Defender, too. One of the recent ones was the paper's dogged coverage of the shooting of a homeless black man, Joseph Gould, by a white Chicago cop, Gregory Becker. The Defender put pressure on the State's Attorney to bring Becker to trial, which resulted in a fifteen-year sentence, after it initially seemed no action would be taken against the officer.
"There's still some institutional disparity toward minorities that needs to be ferreted out of the system," says Scott. "But it takes time."
The Defender launched the careers of W.E.B. DuBois and Vernon Jarrett, along with Warner Saunders' move into journalism. "I hope I'm not taking his name in vain, but it was kind of a Royko column," says regular Defender reader Saunders of "My Bag," which ran once a week from the late sixties until around 1973. "I tried to mess with as many people as I could. It was based on what I saw going on in the community, who I thought were the good guys versus the bad guys."
Whether current honcho Scott can bring in young firebrands to connect with today's young black readers in the way Saunders did thirty years ago, the focus will remain on the black community. As a rule, Scott aims for 80 percent African-American news in each issue.
That ratio isn't always readily apparent. A recent issue included coverage of a strip-search scandal at O'Hare involving black women, broken by Channel 5, and a $14 million drug bust that led most TV news broadcasts the previous evening. The sports and entertainment sections covered mainstream topics ("Lethal Weapon 4," a Raymont Harris trade rumor). A page-three feature on the "Black Fire" of 1874 was the most obvious African-American-focused story. "In the twenty-first century, news becomes news," says Scott. "It becomes more and more difficult to segment. The stories that affect the folks on the South Side affect the folks on the North Side." But it's important for the Defender to maintain contact with the black community, Scott says, so reporters can pitch stories from an African-American angle.
"It doesn't appear to have the crusading spirit that it once had," says the Reporter's Washington. "They certainly still focus on issues of concern to blacks, but they don't have that fighting edge; there's not any excitement in a lot of the coverage. It's more routine - 'we're covering city hall, we're covering black churches, we're covering black events' - but not challenging the powers that be as much as they used to."
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story responded with one word to the idea of a Chicago without the Defender: "tragic." As Saunders puts it, "The Defender is a repository of recent black history from the turn of the century. It would be a tragedy to lose. It has one of the great names in the Chicago press."
Since her grandfather's death, Myiti Sengstacke has more or less grabbed the reins in an effort to avert that tragedy. The 26-year-old Sengstacke worked in the accounting and business department of the family's Detroit-based weekly, the Michigan Chronicle. Last year, she started working with Northern Trust. But "they felt it was in our best interest to sell the papers," says Myiti, who acts as spokesperson for the other adult trustees. Even though the papers might bring up to $10 million, "We felt it was in our best interest to maintain the legacy," she says. Myiti has spent months screening potential new trustees and looking for investors.
"The Defender is responsible for a lot of African Americans who are here today, because of the Migration," she says. But most younger black readers have forsaken the paper, lured by major dailies that have embraced black culture - witness the rave reviews in the Trib and Sun-Times for "Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk," with its reference to the Defender of old as a voice of black culture. Myiti Sengstacke wants to attract younger readers who don't have the personal connection to the Defender felt by many older blacks. Sengstacke's hopes for the paper include "gearing toward a younger audience, getting them interested by reporting more on their interests." But she adds, "My main concern is making sure we have [the paper]."
Will the hard-driving Col. Scott remain with the paper when the dust settles on all these changes? "My wife asked me that same question this morning," he says. "I think the plan is to stay with what you've got, with people who know how to do it. It's a unique business. We're the only African-American daily newspaper in the country."
That status puts the paper in a unique position to capitalize on a large, increasingly prosperous reader demographic. But unless the Defender reclaims its mantle of hard-hitting news coverage and makes its arts reporting relevant again - and no firm program to do so can be put in place until the pressing ownership and management issues are resolved - those readers will likely continue their great migration to other media sources.
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