Pressing Ahead

Black newspapers continue their fight for readers and advertisers

Lorain County Times, an Ohio-based black newspaper. “They’re a good [vehicle] to make a profit and it’s important to preserve and build on the Sengstackes’ legacy.”

While the tentative deal has prevented the newspaper chain from being sold, the Sengstackes have had to make major concessions. The New Pittsburgh Courier and Tri-State Defender will go to Robert Sengstacke and Thomas Picou (the son and nephew, respectively, of John Sengstacke), and Barden will gain a 51% controlling interest in the remaining chain. “[We] decided to split [the papers] because it [made recapitalization] more economical and the papers still remain in family ownership,” explains Barden.

Myiti Sengstacke feels that the deal was the best possible answer for satisfying the various concerns of her family members. “Don Barden has worked in the newspaper business, plus he understands the dichotomy of a family-owned business.” She notes that finding a sympathetic investor was key to her family’s decision to release a controlling interest in the company. “If there’d been a sale through Northern Trust, it’s difficult to say that we’d still be involved here. We had no say over who bought the papers. I was very concerned about that and how it would affect the communities and our employees.”

Funds from the recapitalization will go to pay off estate taxes, and make capital improvements and editorial changes on the remaining two newspapers, says Barden. Specific plans include purchas
ing equipment, and revamping the papers’ editorial content to include more news and local investigative features. Barden believes improving content is key to increasing circulation. “We want to elevate the editorial content of the papers and we’ll hire additional writers to do this,” he explains.

Barden’s goal to raise circulation is one he shares with other black newspaper publishers. Raising it, however, will also mean addressing the issue of accessibility. “It’s a problem. [Black newspapers] aren’t as available as the Washington Post or New York Times,” says Ada Babino, a Washington, D.C., resident who admits she rarely reads black newspapers. The problem, according to Lester, is that desegregation has significantly changed our demographics over the past 35 years and most black

publishers are still relying primarily on newsstand sales in traditionally black neighborhoods. “Markets that we formerly served are soft now, but our distribution systems haven’t changed. Black people aren’t moving into any one particular area en masse.”

The fact that readers frequently have a hard time finding black newspapers means a loss of sales revenue for publishers, who often find it too expensive to ship their publications to retail spaces outside of traditional neighborhoods. There is also the concern and expense of returns on unsold papers. Yet despite the travails of many newspapers, some publishers, such as Mark Kimber of the California Advocate, believe the black press still serves a vital need in the communities it serves and often acts as a training ground for young journalists. “Young black journalists coming out of college have been very receptive,” says Kimber.

The Advocate has been a part of Kimber’s life since 1967, when it

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