‘Chicago Defender’ Drops Print: Not Just Another Bad Newspaper Story

So many newspapers have consolidated, shrunk, starved or folded the last few years that to single out one of them feels almost disrespectful to the rest.

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I’m going to do it anyway, because the Chicago Defender was such a powerful symbol of the most underappreciated force in American media history: the black press.

The Chicago Defender, which launched in 1905, isn’t going out of business. But like other newspapers and magazines, it has published its final print edition and henceforth will operate exclusively online.

Someday that may be a winning strategy. Right now it’s a gamble, at the very least shutting out thousands of readers who still like to hold a newspaper in their hands.

And any drop in readership, whatever the platform, makes us all a little less informed about a world that generates information faster than a swamp generates mosquitoes.

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That’s an acute problem in communities of color, which have never been able to rely on the mainstream media for satisfactory coverage of either the big issues or the nuts and bolts of everyday life on the streets.

The civil rights movement, going back a hundred years or more, was often treated as little more than a curiosity by much of the mainstream media. It was black media, newspapers and radio, that recognized it as more.

It was black sportswriters who wouldn’t let Major League Baseball forget it didn’t allow “colored” players, until it finally did.

In the modern era, you could have scoured every mainstream newspaper in 1995 and scarcely seen a word about this “Million Man March.”

Black media spread the word and to the mild shock of the other media, hundreds of thousands of people showed up in Washington.

Imhotep Gary Byrd, a host on black radio in New York forever, called black radio, and black media in general, “the drum,” the means by which communities spread the word in a language to which their adversaries were often oblivious.

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The late Jack Gibson, another long-time black media voice, remarked that “if they knew what we were doing [in black media], they’d have shut us down long ago.”

Gibson was speaking in an historic context. It remains true today that communities of color often are heard only in a whisper, if at all, in the halls of power.

It also remains true that the most basic data of life in those communities — births, deaths, marriages — would often have been invisible without black newspapers. Like the Chicago Defender.

I should admit that I’ve almost never put my money where I’m now putting my mouth. I’ve never lived in Chicago and have bought maybe half a dozen copies of the paper in my life. That’s not a sustainable economic model for a publisher.

But I’ve read Defender stories and I’ve seen the way they have spread far beyond Chicago. I’ve read the Defender’s coverage of issues like housing policy, pointing out how the Chicago political machine split the city and divided its people. That truth was much less clear in, say, the Chicago Tribune.

The Defender was often a minority voice, which made it all the more vital for that voice to exist, and to put the chronicle of events on the record from the perspective of communities that were getting walled off.

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On a note that could be considered less important, but still has indelible value, the Defender has been a priceless repository for the history of “race” records.

In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the Defender carried ads for 78 rpm discs recorded by blues, gospel and occasionally jazz artists.

Most of the artists were from the South and were working for specialty labels like Paramount and Gennett, or the “race” division of bigger labels like Columbia, Victor and Vocalion.

The artists made little money, usually a small flat fee per side, and sales were modest, rarely more than a few thousand copies. That wasn’t surprising. Even if you could afford a record player, records could cost a dollar apiece at a time when 60% of the country earned less than $40 a week.

The recordings themselves often sounded primitive, recorded in single takes with modest technology by artists who had never done it before.

As musical art, however, the collective results were extraordinary. Those recordings, by artists like Blind Willie McTell, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis, Blind Willie Johnson and a thousand others, played a huge role in shaping the music of the next half century, right up into rock ’n’ roll.

Those songs aren’t heard so much today. Popular culture moves on. But they live, and the best have lost not a quarter-note of their brilliance.

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Record companies like Paramount placed advertisements in various black media. Their epicenter, however, was the Chicago Defender, both because it had such wide reach and because much of the target audience was Southern black folks who had made the pilgrimage up Highway 61 and settled in Northern cities like Chicago, hoping life was better in the factories there than on the plantations of the South.

They soon realized, probably not to everyone’s surprise, that life up North had its own challenges.

Those challenges may have occasionally gotten passing attention from the Chicago Tribune. They were discussed all the time, in an honest and understanding way, in the Chicago Defender.

Those issues don’t need any less discussing today, which is why we have no less need for a Chicago Defender.

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