Showman that he is, Don King has never had a problem drawing crowds. So last June, when the flamboyant boxing promoter/entrepreneur arrived to give the keynote address at the 59th annual National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) luncheon, over 350 black publishers, journalists and editors packed the ballroom of the New York Sheraton to hear plans for his latest business venture. But what King came to discuss was not his signing of boxing’s next title holder, or even a new sports-related venture. He came as a member of the family. King recently joined the fourth estate with his purchase of the Ohio-based Call & Post newspapers, a financially troubled black newspaper chain that he’s intent on reviving.
The Call & Post was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy when King bought the four-paper chain from former publisher John Bustamante for $760,000 in June 1998. The papers-which include a weekly statewide edition and sheets in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus-were suffering from falling circulation figures, inconsistent distribution, spotty editorial and declining advertising support. “Black newspapers are the essence of our community, and whatever positive recognition black people get comes from the black newspapers,” said King when asked why he decided to take on the challenge of reviving the Call & Post papers. Altruism aside, it’s clear King also views the papers as a potentially viable financial investment-that is, if he can get them up to speed and on the competitive edge. “I have the biggest problem bringing the black press into my [sport events] promotions because the producers say the papers aren’t timely,” acknowledged King. Black newspaper publishers must, says King, focus on addressing this negative but often accurate perception among advertisers and readers.
The challenges that King faces in turning around the Call & Post chain are not unique. But the near demise of this newspaper group, founded in 1919, brings to light the tenuous survival of many black newspapers across the country. More than 3,000 black newspapers have been published since the debut of the Freedom’s Journal-the first African American newspaper-in New York City some 172 years ago. But just over 200 have survived, and none enjoy the significant circulation boasted by papers like the Chicago Defender and the New Pittsburgh Courier (both owned by the Chicago-based publisher Sengstacke Enterprises Inc.) during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. During these decades, the Defender claimed a national distribution of 200,000 readers. Today, the Defender’s circulation is down to 25,000.
Declining circulation figures mean less revenue from newspaper sales and fewer advertising dollars for black newspapers. For King and other potential publishers, such as be 100s CEO Don H. Barden, who made their fortunes in other industries and are new to the publishing game-getting barely surviving newspapers to thrive will mean redefining how business is conducted. Today, the only way black newspapers stay afloat is if the publisher is successful in some other business venture. It will also involve finding creative methods of improving editorial content, increasing circulation and attracting advertisers if they are to survive into the