Taking on a Legacy; Payback Time; News Bite | Media | Chicago Reader

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Taking on a Legacy; Payback Time; News Bite

Roland Martin got Dubya to all but admit he didn't deserve Yale. His next task is to revive the Chicago Defender.


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An op-ed essay in the September 13 New York Times jumped out at me because I knew the backstory. The writer, whose topic was favoritism in the admissions policies of top universities, noted that last month President Bush "acknowledged that while he was the beneficiary of a so-called legacy preference [at Yale], he believed that admission to college 'ought to be based on merit.'"

Bush's acknowledgment made news at the time. And it didn't come about because he knew confession's good for the soul and decided to admit he was a C student in prep school and in a just world would have gone on to the local junior college.

The president was appearing before a Unity: Journalists of Color conference in Washington, D.C. A black columnist asked him about his opposition to racial quotas, then said, "If you say it's a matter of merit, and not race, shouldn't colleges also get rid of legacy?" Bush made a joke, but the columnist persisted and got Bush to concede that no "special exception" belonged "in a system that's supposed to be fair."

The columnist was a 35-year-old fast talker named Roland Martin--the new editor of the Chicago Defender. Whatever Martin's managerial abilities turn out to be, he brings to the Defender one indisputable strength. He's a fireball--and the Defender is a profoundly exhausted paper.

"Who wants a boring job?" says Martin, who came to Chicago from Dallas. "The hardest thing in the world is to change a culture. I would say the strength of the Chicago Defender is its rich history--and its weakness is the same. Things have been done a certain way for a long period of time. When you think of the Defender you would not think of quality stories, you would not think of top-notch photos. We could not live off of our reputation any longer."

What reputation? The Defender put together a focus group of 75 Chicagoans last May and found out the public identified the paper with shoddy quality, irrelevant content, and detachment from the community life of black Chicago. Instead of a reputation the Defender had a history--as the powerful voice of black middle America that sustained the great migration north, an era that barely anyone remembers. Its circulation, 250,000 in its heyday, is now less than a tenth of that. Its audience, says Martin, had become "a handful of people in one part of town. If there's no outreach to the south suburbs, no substantial outreach to the west side, you're not going to survive. We're the third daily in town. You've got to walk like the third daily, talk like the third daily, and have content that reflects that."

The only attention the world's paid to the Defender in recent years was because of the battle for succession after John Sengstacke died in 1997, leaving his controlling share in the paper in a trust. His granddaughter Myiti Sengstacke and her three brothers fired the trustee to keep the Defender from being sold outside the family, and in 2003 the paper was finally taken over by Real Times, a company controlled by Tom Picou, John Sengstacke's nephew. Picou brought in some new people, but the Defender, which I saw from time to time, didn't change dramatically. I last wrote about the Defender in April. It lifted, without attribution, an editorial that had originated in a Chicago neighborhood paper. Blunder or theft, it was a classic Defender embarrassment. I also reported that Chinta Strausberg--who "sometimes seemed to write the paper singlehandedly"--was calling it quits as City Hall reporter. She was going to be replaced by Joe Ruklick and Ferman Beckless.

Martin came on in May as a consultant and took over as editor in mid-July. Ruklick and Beckless don't work for the Defender anymore. Ruklick argued with Martin and quit; he doesn't want to talk about it. Beckless was laid off. "I guess," he says, "they decided they can put out a paper with Roland Martin's ego."

His ego and his inventiveness are the most important things Martin has going for him at the moment. He says he's down to one metro reporter. The entertainment editor and the sports editor--both old hands--are on leave. He gets by with freelancers, the AP--which he added--and commentators he's allowed to pick up free from black Web sites because the visibility "extends their brands." The problem, says Beckless, is that "there's very little local stuff."

Martin says economics and the quality of the small staff he inherited dictated that attrition be part of his plan: "We must downsize our staff and methodically build it back up based on the revenues we bring in." When he arrived, he says, stories weren't being edited. They weren't even being assigned. He says reporters would write whatever they pleased, turn in their stories with little consideration for deadlines, and expect them to show up in print as written. "That's what I walked into," he says, "and after the first week that's not happening anymore. One time I got a 750-word story, a one-source story based on a single interview, that at one point had six consecutive paragraphs of a quote. That ran at 350 words." Another time he called the subject of a story and asked questions the reporter hadn't. The reporter protested. "That's tough," says Martin. "It's called editing."

Next May the Defender turns 100. It's an anniversary the paper will find much easier to celebrate if it's no longer an embarrassment. "We have hit the island, burned the boats, and said this--'We are not going to fail,'" says Martin. "This newspaper is going to go into its second century of operations as a strong and vibrant newspaper. That will happen. And if the folks here aren't willing to do that, we will find people willing to do that."

Martin majored in journalism at Texas A&M, worked at black papers in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, and went on to cover county government for the Austin American-Statesman and city hall for Fort Worth's Star-Telegram. He has his own multimedia company, ROMAR Media Group, and edits blackamericaweb.com, a news and information Web site founded by radio personality Tom Joyner. Since February 2003, Martin's weekly column has been distributed by Creators Syndicate.

About 20 papers carry it, he says, though none in Chicago until he brought it with him to the Defender. The column describing his face-off with Bush began, "I've always hated the hypocrisy of conservatives on certain issues."

"I represent the post-civil rights movement," he says. "I have no living knowledge of Martin Luther King, of the civil rights movement, of actual marches." Yet he doesn't repudiate collective memory. The most conspicuous change he's made so far at the Defender has been to create a strongly visual front page, and when the public schools opened this month he covered it with a 1957 picture of soldiers escorting black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The headline superimposed over the photo said, "Education matters!"

"I wanted to make a statement to black Chicago to get off your ass and get your kids to school," he explains. "There are no angry white mobs and George Wallaces standing in the doorway today. There are no excuses."

Hiram Jackson, a Detroit businessman and Defender investor, met Martin at a session of the Congressional Black Caucus last year. This spring Jackson recommended Martin to the Real Times board. "We immediately recognized when we bought the paper that it needed a boost of energy and creativity," says Jackson. "We needed to find a way for the paper to become relevant in a vibrant city like Chicago, to get into the mainstream of city activity. A guy like Roland, who's so connected, brings immediate credibility and energy to the paper.

"He has the aggressiveness of the thirtysomethings. He believes all things are possible and that a minority newspaper can be the best newspaper. But at the same time he has the pride and ethics the old generation had. You never have to wonder what his position is. He's very forthright."

Myiti Sengstacke's dream was to run the Defender herself, but she was 25 when her grandfather died and she met opposition on all fronts. Everyone I talked to considered her too young and inexperienced. "I guess they assumed that if Sengstackes [she and her brothers] took over we'd continue to keep everything the way it was," she says. "But I could see you had to put fresh blood in there to keep it going. I would have done it myself."

So she approves of Martin, with conditions. "If he has it in his mind that the people he's working with now are part of a quote-unquote old-blood mentality, it won't work. But if he gets them on board with his fresh new ideas he shouldn't have a problem."

Sengstacke left not only the Defender but Chicago. She became a partner in a Harlem-based upscale quarterly called Uptown that's just been launched. She's editor in chief. "What I'm doing now is carrying on the family tradition and living out my purpose," she says. But she keeps a close eye on the Defender, and not simply for sentimental reasons. Under the terms of the sale, she says, Real Times owes her and her brothers almost $5 million.

"Martin's getting a paycheck, and if they don't pay he can walk off and get another job," she says. "If they don't pay us, they don't have a newspaper. I support Tom Picou and what he's doing, and I hope they do well. I want to see the paper succeed. That's what's most important. However, there comes a point where it could get a little uncomfortable. I hope that doesn't happen. I haven't really pressed the issue."

Payback Time

If anything good can be said about the impact of the Hollinger scandal on the Sun-Times, it's that when publisher David Radler went away in disgrace ten months ago everyone left felt like a survivor. Staff and management were one, stumbling into the light together.

Unity time's over. The paper's three-year contract with the Newspaper Guild expires at the end of the month, and to show it means business, the membership held a strike-authorization vote Monday night. It passed 89 to 2. Normally such a vote isn't taken until weeks or months after the old contract's history, but the guild believes it's catch-up time.

The Sun-Times "has paid annual raises of 0 percent, 1 percent and 1.25 percent to an award-winning, dedicated staff that has watched angrily as well-documented allegations of corporate malfeasance have swirled around Conrad Black and F. David Radler, the men responsible for shrinking the unionized newsroom operation from 255 employees in 1994 [when Hollinger bought the paper] to about 180 now," the guild said in a statement released after the vote. "During the last round of negotiations, management blamed its lousy contract offer on the post-Sept. 11 economy. The newsroom is having a hard time buying that now because of the allegations against Black and Radler. The employees are seeking a fair deal that makes up for how they were treated the last time around." The salary for a reporter with at least five years' experience is now almost $63,000 a year.

The guild's most recent proposal was a four-year contract with an annual raise of 9 percent the first year and 6 percent each of the next three. Management has proposed a one-year contract with a 2 percent raise. The guild's reality is that Black and Radler allegedly siphoned off $400 million in profits while they ran Hollinger International, and if that tap's been turned off the Sun-Times and the rest of Hollinger's Chicago Group should have millions of extra dollars to do business with. Management's reality is that Hollinger might not even own the Chicago Group a year from now, and anyone kicking the tires won't want to inherit a labor contract they think gives away the store.

In an unusual gesture of comity, features editor John Barron has been posting memos that, in civil language, convey management's take on the negotiations to the staff. "Talks were halted by the union's stance that these are not 'typical' negotiations," Barron wrote after the September 8 session. "It is difficult to negotiate when the union continually expresses its desire to be unbending and unrealistic."

I asked a reporter to respond to the argument management might make that the best use of any extra money would be to expand the size of the staff, not the paychecks, because in the long run a better paper would benefit everyone.

"I would imagine," the reporter e-mailed me back, "there would be a high degree of skepticism among my colleagues to any promise to add bodies if it meant forgoing some recompense for past ills. When I joined the staff it felt like we were well compensated. But that feeling has gradually disappeared as wages stagnated under the Black and Radler regime.

"Is a 9-percent pay increase greedy? To some, perhaps. But is it too much to ask to be paid salaries that keep pace with inflation? That hasn't happened in five of the last six years. . . . No, at our newspaper all of us have lost ground, and it's got to stop."

News Bite

The Sun-Times's Curtis Lawrence and the Tribune's H. Gregory Meyer rose to the occasion with their obituaries for Lu Palmer, a journalist who believed that the truth must be told and once told acted on--and who saw no reason not to do both. The stories did their best to recall the papers Palmer wrote for and the causes he fought for--the most important being Harold Washington's 1983 mayoral campaign. Inevitably there were omissions. During the 70s and 80s--after he quit the Daily News and the paper he launched, the X-Press, folded--Palmer wrote regularly for Chicago Metro News, a weekly with a black professional readership. And in 1989 he ran for the post of community representative on the first local school council at Phillips High School. He served with Ferman Beckless, a parent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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