This Historic Voice of The Chicago Defender

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RIOTThe Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. held up a copy of The Chicago Defender, the city’s storied black newspaper, its cover plastered with photos of two dozen black men killed by the police. The headline read, “Wake Up: There’s No Justice for Black Men.”

He implored the audience at his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago to buy a subscription to the paper. “The Sun-Times and Tribune appraises our worth every day,” Mr. Jackson said of Chicago’s two daily newspapers. “And they are not going to have a front like this.”

This was in November, after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict the police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The Defender has endured a storm of financial woes, new leadership, staff turnover and — not the least — a media industry in flux. But after the deaths of black men by police or in their custody in Ferguson, Staten Island, South Carolina, Oklahoma and now Baltimore, The Chicago Defender is seeking to seize this moment to reclaim its voice for the black community.

There has been no shortage of news: In April alone, The Defender devoted two of its weekly front pages to reports on police brutality.

Started in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in his landlord’s kitchen, The Chicago Defender was once a major force in the migration of a quarter-million black Americans from the South to the North. Its pages carried coverage of economic prosperity for blacks. In the South, Pullman porters threw stacks of the paper off their trains to the smugglers and newsboys who risked being lynched for selling them. Its circulation peaking at 250,000 copies, the paper was home to the bylines of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. A recent biography, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press,” chronicles the life of one of the paper’s most renowned correspondents.

At present, however, some might say The Defender’s legacy is its most valuable asset. Once a daily, the paper has pulled back to a weekly, its circulation a fraction of what it was in its heyday. Today, after increasing newsstand distribution, its readership comprises 5,000 print subscribers and roughly 16,000 copies sold on newsstands, for $1 each, or distributed free. It has 50,000 registered readers online.

Last May, Cheryl Mainor, 51, a Michigan native, became the paper’s eighth publisher — its fourth in the last 12 years. Since Ms. Mainor took the helm, she says she has returned the paper to profitability and generated fresh revenue streams with new print and digital products. She plans to nearly double its circulation by the end of 2015.

With the recent conversations around race and police violence, the paper has an opportunity to lend its credibility to the issues of the day, as it did with the November cover Mr. Jackson praised. But at the same time, Kai El’ Zabar, the executive editor Ms. Mainor hired in October, is looking to reflect a more empowering narrative, much in the same way The Defender once fed the Great Migration by urging blacks to cast off Jim Crow in favor of better jobs and fairer treatment in the North. “That is what we are doing now but in a different sense,” Ms. El’ Zabar said. “We need to stimulate people to move and to act and to make that change. That is what we are about.”

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