Focusing: Why the Chicago Defender Went Digital-Only

The Chicago Defender, a highly influential black newspaper founded in 1905, announced in July 2019 that it would go online-only because of dwindling print circulation.

The Defender was a key driver of the Great Migration, telling Southern blacks about opportunities in the North. It was also strong on such stories as the murder of Emmett Till and the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African American mayor.

While there is robust journalism taking place in some parts of African American news media, such as the Los Angeles Wave, Blavity, Grio and The Root, other sectors are struggling. The Medill Local News Initiative’s News Leaders Project talked to Hiram Jackson, CEO of the Defender’s parent company, Real Times Media.

Hiram Jackson is CEO of Real Times Media, a chain whose holdings include the Chicago Defender and other news outlets serving a mostly African American audience.

On dropping print and going online-only:

We’re a for-profit business. We’re in the business of trying to expand and grow and have a bigger impact, and I just looked at it, and we had gotten to a fork in the road where we needed to make a bold statement and make it clear that we want to expand our audience, we want to be a part of the future, and I think that there was no way to build a better newspaper company. So we want to be digital-only and we want to invest our resources in expanding how people experience our brand online. A very tough decision.

On a side business that’s working:

Print is declining pretty rapidly, but we’re seeing that we’re having a huge spike in our special events. … We have a company called RTM360º, and that division is really focused on creating unique experiences for our clients, utilizing our brands and our audience. We’re really finding that a lot of consumer brands want to be culturally relevant, but they don’t want to be gimmicky. So they want to develop events and develop traditional experiences for the African American community, but they just don’t know how to do it and they don’t want to be offensive in the kind of things that they create, so they hire us. It’s somewhat outside of our traditional news role, but the fact that we have such a trusted relationship with the audience, our clients really rely on us to help them develop culturally relatable events.

Why established brands still matter:

The Internet in many ways, it’s a blessing and a curse. Everybody with an iPhone thinks that they are a reporter today. I think the advantage that traditional media has is the recognition of our brand, whether it be the Pittsburgh Courier, or the Atlanta Daily World, or the Chicago Defender, or the Michigan Chronicle. These are brands that black people know and black people trust. … You can’t speak to today’s millennial the same way you spoke to people in the ’30s, in the ’40s and ’50s. It’s really incumbent upon owners of local black media outlets to redefine their role.

Why he’s upbeat about the industry:

I’m optimistic because I see the demand for the information is through the roof, especially in the black community. We are under siege politically, economically, our organizations are needed more than ever. Education, health care, sports, fashion, music. I really believe that the African American community is at the forefront of re-creating who we are as a country. … The challenge is, how do you monetize that? That’s the challenge and that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Georgia Publisher: What If No One’s Watching the Store?

Jennifer Parker is Editor and Publisher of CrossRoadsNews, which serves a mostly African American audience in Decatur, Georgia. Her publication went online-only in August 2018 and is struggling to maintain a digital presence. She talked with Medill’s News Leaders Project about the struggles for news outlets like hers.

Jennifer Parker is Editor and Publisher of CrossRoadsNews in Decatur, Georgia.

On the lack of appreciation for public service reporting:

I even find that …consumers of news, they’re so used to getting everything for free that they don’t want to pay to be subscribers … because they’re going, “Oh, I can get this … I can go to Facebook, or I’ll get a tweet,” and stuff. Nobody seems to understand the significance of having reporters covering daily. Because if there’s nobody watching the store, you know, eventually they’re going to discover that because you don’t have the Fourth Estate out there making sure that elected officials and other folks are doing the right thing, then they’re going to wake up one day and they’ve all run off with all the taxpayer money.

On the pressure from tech companies:

Even when you post stuff on the Facebook page, Facebook was turning around and wanting you to pay for them to release the information to all the folks who like your page. … You know, so we put a post for a breaking story online, and then they’d be going, “Give us $10 to release it to this number of people.” … So they’re the arbiter of who gets what, when, and at what cost and so they’ve taken away the revenue from the newspapers. … Facebook, I mean, they’re not covering the news. They’re not covering local government, they’re not covering our local schools. They’re not doing any of those things, you know?

About the project

Medill News Leaders Project 2019 Sustaining the Business of Local Journalism

The crisis in local news is indisputable: Round after round of layoffs, expanding news deserts and abandoned areas of coverage, particularly in the case of long-established print publications. Now, the challenges to local television news are beginning to accelerate.

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