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Los Angeles Sentinel Gets New Owner, New Goals

Activist Danny Bakewell vows to increase the weekly newspaper's circulation and outreach to the community.

March 24, 2004|Eric Malnic and Arlene Martinez | Times Staff Writers

The family of Danny J. Bakewell, activist, real estate developer and leader of the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade, has purchased a controlling interest in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the oldest and largest black-owned weekly newspaper in the West.

Bakewell said he would become the paper's executive publisher, board chairman and chief executive officer. He said Jennifer Thomas, the previous owner, would stay on as publisher and executive advisor. No transaction price was disclosed.

"We intend to make the Sentinel the premiere black newspaper in this country," Bakewell said Tuesday. "We want to make sure that the voice of the black community echoes loud and clear."

Bakewell, who has been on the paper's board of directors since last year, said he would take steps to increase the weekly paper's sagging circulation, which he said currently is about 30,000. He said the innovations will include the establishment of news bureaus in Inglewood, Lynwood, Compton, Rancho Cucamonga and the San Fernando Valley.

"We're going to add an obituary section and a business section, build a strong editorial influence and do more investigative reporting," he said. "We want to reflect and influence the needs, hopes and aspirations of the black community."

Having Bakewell at the helm will provide the paper with a much-needed shot in the arm, said Clint Wilson II, a professor of journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and author of "A History of the Black Press."

"The lifeblood of a newspaper is its ability to change with the dynamics of its readership," Wilson said. The Sentinel "certainly is not as influential as it was 30 years ago ... but in many ways the core issues they were trying to address are still operative."

Expanding the paper's reach to black businesses and a black middle class that have risen to greater prominence would be the key, Wilson said.

"I like the idea of him trying to reach other centers of the black community because they're not all moving to one place," Wilson said. "You've got to find a way to establish a presence in some of the outlying communities."

In recent years, the black community, once concentrated in Central Los Angeles, has dispersed, replaced in large part by the burgeoning Latino community.

The Sentinel's success under Bakewell will depend on how well the paper serves its readership, said Felix Gutierrez, a visiting professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication who has followed the ethnic press for 30 years.

"If it becomes only his views, some people who don't agree with him will turn away," Gutierrez said. "And now, they have other sources they can turn to in the black media."

Although the Sentinel is the largest black-owned weekly west of the Mississippi, it faces widespread competition from the publications of the Wave Newspaper Group, which are aimed primarily at African American readers. The group's eight weeklies cover 39 cities and communities throughout Los Angeles County.

Television, radio and magazines have eroded some of the influence of the black press, Gutierrez said, but, "There's still an important role for a local black newspaper that covers the news and raises issues where they need to be raised."

Pastor Cecil "Chip" Murray, pastor of the influential First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, said Bakewell was facing many challenges.

"It's a very competitive age for print media," Murray said. "The Sentinel was there when the community had nothing, and it is now reinventing itself.... If the sale means that it can get on to the next stage, then that's wisdom."

Murray said Bakewell's tradition of activism bodes well for the paper.

"It will have militancy," Murray said. "A positive militancy."

Bakewell, the son of a New Orleans bricklayer and a garment factory worker, has used savvy, pugnacious rhetoric; down-home charm; political pressure; and litigation to build a real estate empire ranging from apartments in central Los Angeles to shopping centers in Pasadena and Compton. Gilbert Lindsay, the late Los Angeles city councilman, had helped him become a partner in a major downtown development, First Street North.

Bakewell built the Brotherhood Crusade into one of the nation's most prestigious black charities, winning hard-fought battles to persuade more than a dozen corporations and government entities, including both the city and county of Los Angeles, to permit their employees to contribute to the organization through payroll deductions.

Among his activist efforts were a successful boycott of a Korean-owned liquor store in a black community and his campaign to oust then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates after the videotaped police beating of motorist Rodney G. King in 1991.

Some critics said Bakewell stirred racial passions to his own advantage, but supporters said he was providing a much-needed voice for the black community.

Now, his efforts are concentrated on reviving the Sentinel.

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