'Defender' Newspaper Leaves Past Behind, Brings in a Profit

Focus on Contemporary Issues Rejuvenates Storied African-American Daily

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Chicago Defender is making money for the first time since 1983.
'Defender' editor and general manager Roland Martin has gotten his audience to 'pay attention again.'
'Defender' editor and general manager Roland Martin has gotten his audience to 'pay attention again.'

The 101-year-old African-American daily newspaper made a modest $117,000 last year on the heels of a $950,000 loss the year before. Roland Martin, the paper's editor and general manager, said he credits better operating efficiency and some profitable event sponsorships for the long-struggling paper's improved business fortunes.

But readers and advertisers say even more important has been Mr. Martin's ability to jolt the paper out of a crippling fixation with its storied past. It's now striving for relevance among younger readers by eschewing its half-hearted attempt at comprehensive coverage and embracing its ethnic niche with gossipy and controversial stories designed to get its audience talking.

"He's got them thinking contemporary instead of just obsessing on their past," said Hermene Hartman, publisher of African-American titles N'Digo and Savoy, who also leads the Alliance of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, an association of black business figures. "People are beginning to pay attention to it again."

Glory days gone
Granted, the Defender remains a shadow of its glory days, when it boasted a circulation of 250,000 and -- thanks to a distribution network of porters on Pullman Railroad cars -- helped fuel the black migration to the North from the South. It later became a prominent voice in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

But the paper's influence and quality began diminishing shortly thereafter. After the death of longtime proprietor John Sengstacke in 1997, the paper spent six years in receivership. By the time Mr. Martin was hired in 2004, its circulation had fallen to around 15,000. And its standing had dropped even further. "Instead of a reputation, the Defender had a history ... that barely anyone remembers," the influential local media column of the weekly Chicago Reader observed at the time.

To remedy that, Mr. Martin quickly shook up the Defender. He added Associated Press wire stories to spare his thin staff the burden of attempting to offer comprehensive coverage and instead asked reporters to focus on stories more narrowly cast toward the paper's African-American audience. Recent articles have chronicled the impact on African-Americans of a controversial local ordinance forcing big-box retailers to pay $10 an hour and a child-support battle involving Chicago Bears star Brian Urlacher.

Website and podcasts
Mr. Martin broke with the past visually, dumping the paper's historic script nameplate for a more contemporary look as part of a larger redesign. He also launched the paper's first website and recently began podcasting.

The Defender also has invested more heavily in event marketing, which has raised its profile and revenue. Its "Million Pound Challenge," which challenged Chicagoans to lose a million pounds in an effort to combat obesity, has drawn more than $400,000 in advertising revenue since being launched in July.

But while those moves have improved the paper's image and finances, they've done little to grow an audience that remains a fraction of its former size, and its once-broad readership is confined to a narrow stretch of Chicago's South Side. (Mr. Martin estimates a circulation audit under way will put paid daily circulation between 14,000 and 16,000.) In order to combat that, he's eyeing an expansion to the city's southern suburbs and West Side, which both have large, and largely untapped, black populations.

Becoming relevant
"We've been relevant to only a very small group of people for a long time," he said. "That needs to change."

Advertisers said they saw the paper's relevance beginning to expand. "They've gone from having a very old worldview to trying to connect with young people, and it appears to be working," said Linda Jefferson, director-media services at Burrell Communications, who places ads for national clients such as McDonald's Corp. in the Defender. "You can't really see it in terms of [return on investment] yet, but there really seems to be a new level of strength there."

And, with that, profitability, for the first time in 23 years.

"In the black is a beautiful thing," said Ms. Hartman, the rival publisher. "Black is beautiful."

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How they did it
  • Stopped trying to compete with larger dailies by adding wire copy and using small staff only on stories of interest to the paper's niche audience
  • Redesigned to appeal to younger readers
  • Launched the Defender's first website and podcasts
  • Used promotions such as the "Million Pound Challenge" to raise the paper's profile and revenue
  • Now eyeing expansion from South Side to other African-American neighborhoods on the West Side and in the south suburbs
A man who knows the niche

Roland Martin tapped broad experience in black media to turn around the Chicago Defender.
  • Editor and general manager, Chicago Defender
  • Host, "The Roland S. Martin Show" on WVON-AM, Chicago
  • Founding editor, BlackAmericaWeb.com
  • Columnist, Creators Syndicate
  • Former managing editor, Houston Defender and Dallas Weekly
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