Here’s what seems to have happened recently at the Chicago Defender: Roland Martin, the outsize personality who as executive editor brought the Defender back from the ranks of the living dead, told Editor & Publisher that he didn’t intend to stay on after his contract expired in March. E&P’s Mark Fitzgerald published the story online January 18 and made his own feelings clear: “Martin’s self-promotion . . .” he wrote, “bolstered the Defender’s image dramatically.” Martin “single-handedly pulled the paper into the 21st century.” Martin’s bosses at Real Times Media “never seemed to know what they had in Martin.” Fitzgerald’s take on the Defender—which coincides with my own—didn’t sit well with those bosses, and Martin was promptly “reassigned.” About a week later Hiram Jackson, the Detroit-based CEO of Real Times Media, replaced Martin with "interim" editor Glenn Reedus.
Reedus doesn’t dispute the broad strokes of this scenario, but he does say there’s less animosity in the air than someone like me might think. Reedus says that when Jackson brought him on in January he already knew Martin was leaving, and that he and Martin sat down and had a very useful conversation: “He didn’t sugarcoat anything. He went into great detail telling me almost step by step what he’d done in two and a half years, what had worked and what hadn’t worked.” So you know your work’s cut out for you? I asked Reedus, and he said, “That’s an understatement.” His top priority, he said, “is increasing our local content--I can’t say coverage because we use things Chicagoans give us who aren’t necessarily reporters, so we call it content.” In fact, Reedus went on, the Defender news staff includes exactly one reporter--though there were also interns, writers under contract, and “rewriters who for whatever reason aren’t called reporters.”
Reedus, 54, tells me he published his first story in the Defender back in 1971, when he was a student at Saint Ignatius College Prep. He’s led the life of an itinerant newspaperman ever since, and to come back to Chicago and find himself “sitting here, right now, in the same desk and the same chair as Mr. Sengstacke and Mr. Abbott used is overwhelming. It’s very very personal for me.” And though Jackson says he'll conduct a national search for Martin’s successor, Reedus wants the job.
There's only one reporter on the news staff because the second reporter, Mema Ayi, quit on February 1. A day earlier, a staff meeting that Reedus called and Jackson attended failed to assure her that the paper was in good hands and its future was something she wanted to be part of. "They want more copy--local, local, local," she says, but with such a tiny staff, "I haven't been able to get a sense of what that means." She intended to leave anyway on March 31, Martin's last day, and when he called and told her he'd been booted out of the editor's chair, "I knew I might have to leave sooner rather than later." Even though Jackson claims to have an open mind on the subject, she expects him to reduce the Defender to twice-a-week publication--she says he's made it clear he thinks the paper would make greater profits on that schedule.
Martin breezily refers to the Defender as a "client" rather than an employer, explaining that the paper hired him by contracting with his consulting firm, the Romar Media Group. He reminds me he's a busy man, who'll continue hosting the morning show on WVON and writing a syndicated column (which Reedus says the Defender will go on publishing). Martin's high public profile made the Defender seem more engaged than it had been in decades, and the page-one slogan he slapped on the paper--"Honest. Balanced. Truthful. Unapologetically Black"--let Chicago know there was a new sheriff in town. But it's already gone--Jackson ordered it off before Reedus arrived. “I was kind of ambivalent,” Reedus allows. He said he’d worked for a while at the Toledo Blade and was dubious of its slogan “One of America’s Great Newspapers” because it had never won a Pulitzer. In Reedus’s view you walk before you talk. But the Blade did win a Pulitzer in 2004 and has been a finalist two other times in the past six years. Sometimes the boasting comes first.