CHICAGO — Through it all, from lynchings to boycotts, suffrage to affirmative action, Emmett Till to O.J., the Chicago Defender has been the newspaper that blacks in this city--and, for a time, across the nation--have turned to. Founded by a son of slaves in 1905, the Defender beckoned black sharecroppers to leave the rural South for a better life in the North, and tens of thousands did just that, transforming the nation in the process.
But six months after the death of its strong-willed and visionary publisher, the Defender has been put up for sale, which could result in a white ownership many here fear would put the paper's heritage at risk.
Blacks in Chicago--from postal workers to investment bankers--are mortified at the prospect that the city's only black daily newspaper could be sold to the highest bidder. They are scrambling to round up financing to buy the paper rather than allow it to slip into the hands of investors who might abandon its traditional role as an advocate for minorities and the poor.
"The Chicago Defender is a sacred institution," said the Rev. Al Sampson, pastor of the Fernwood United Methodist Church here and a chief organizer of the effort to recruit black investors to buy the paper. "The Defender has been our voice for so long and we simply cannot allow it to be put into the wrong hands, and to me the wrong hands would be anyone who is not African American."
The Defender, a 60-page tabloid with an emphasis on news of interest to African Americans, has been losing readers and influence for decades. Its now precarious position is a jarring testament to the bittersweet fruits of integration. The expansion of the black middle class, and its absorption into the mainstream, has hurt the very institutions--churches, historically black colleges and newspapers--that were the most vocal advocates for integration.
"As blacks have moved into white newsrooms and as blacks have moved into white neighborhoods, the community scattered and the talent base suffered," said Charles Whitaker, a journalism professor at Northwestern University. "When Chicago's black community was heavily concentrated on the South Side, it was easy to distribute the paper. It's safe to say that the Defender is just a shell of its former self."
The Defender's profit margins hover around 6%, about half the industry average, said Col. Eugene Scott, the paper's general manager. "The folks in the newsroom are busy putting out a paper," Scott said.
"We're not overly worried about the sale," he said. "It's a business move, and if they're a good businessman, they're not going to buy the paper and offend the primary audience."
But the Defender's impending sale nevertheless has heightened a sense of dread that the last days of black newspapers may be near.
The death last spring of the Defender's influential, longtime publisher, John Sengstacke, put the newspaper on the auction block. The 84-year-old Sengstacke was the nephew of the paper's founder, Robert S. Abbott, a pauper turned publisher who became one of America's first black millionaires.
After Abbott's death in 1940, Sengstacke took control of the paper, and over time became an unofficial advisor in Mayor Richard Daley's City Hall as well as President Eisenhower's White House.
For reasons that remain unclear, he left his holdings in a trust fund, rather than with his children or grandchildren. That trust is controlled by a local bank, Northern Trust Co., which has made plain its intent to sell the Defender and its three sister publications, the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and the Pittsburgh Courier.
While the Defender's daily circulation has dropped from 50,000 subscribers in the 1950s to about a third of that, the four publications could still attract entrepreneurs interested in capitalizing on the popularity and proliferation of community and suburban newspapers. Brokers, stock analysts and journalists say Sengstacke Enterprises could sell for as much as $10 million.
"The hottest thing going these days are these community and suburban papers," said George Harmon, a Northwestern University journalism professor. "I wouldn't imagine the Defender would have any trouble attracting a buyer."
The first black newspaper was launched in 1827 by blacks weary of being vilified by the mainstream press. The uncertainty surrounding the Defender's future is compounded by an abiding sense that the need for alternative voices is as urgent now as it has ever been, said Whitaker and others.
"Blacks did not see themselves reflected in the pages of mainstream media a century ago, and to an extent, we don't now," Whitaker said. "We see all of our pathology splashed across the pages of mainstream newspapers and none of our glory. The Defender, and black newspapers in general, are institutions worth salvaging."