My family members and friends give me strange looks when I pick up a Chicago Defender newspaper.
A few years back, the historic publication changed to a weekly format for its print version--but it is still published online everyday. Unfortunately, there is so much competition online for news that a lot of African-Americans frequent gossip blogs or mainstream news sites like Huffington Post.
Earlier this week, Chicago Sun-Times writer Maudlyne Ihejirika dropped the bombshell: the paper is behind on its rent and had to cut three staffers including two prominent editors.
This led me to wonder: Could the black media market in Chicago be dissipating?
History 101: Know Your Heritage
Many people don't know that the Chicago Defender is the reason for blacks in the South migrating to our city from the 1910s to the 1940s. (My mother moved here in the early 1970s because of her aunt and uncle who came here in the 1940s.)
According to a documentary by WTTW's Barbara "B.A." Allen, "Paper Trail: 100 Years Of The Chicago Defender" (2005), the Pullman Porters would hide the papers during their train trips down South. Before Facebook and Twitter, newspapers became the best way to spread a "secret" message because the radio could be heard by anyone. Inside the paper, readers would find advertisements talking about how Chicago was the land of opportunity for Southerners. People wanted better paying jobs and more political involvement; Only a place like Chicago could give that to them.
Marketing 101: Know Your Audience
Fast forward to the 2000s.
The ad-supported model of the Internet, among other things, leads many people to pursue "free news" instead of paying just 50 cents to support a publication like the Chicago Defender.
Blogs start to become a viable source of news and people just don't have the attention span for long form articles anymore.
So, what did the Chicago Defender do? In my opinion: not enough.
I have Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Marketing. Thus, I look at the journalism business differently because of my academic background. If a news organization doesn't know its audience well, it won't survive. But that is usually easier said than done.
Business 101: Know Your Strengths & Weaknesses
There's a term in business called core competency. A core competency is something a company does well that other competitors can not imitate. One competency could be developing a system that fosters a strong relationship with consumers. It could be a unique way of managing a database to "forecast" which people will most likely click on a link for a story. Either that or starting a cooperative with citizen journalists to cover stories that need a professional touch.
As of now, the Chicago Defender doesn't have anything in place like that--that is noticeable, at least.
One immediate goal should be creating a marketing plan for 2012. They could send out a request for proposal to local marketing communications firms to submit presentations. They must find a way to make the Defender more tech-savvy and relevant to a younger, audience. In addition to that, they must find a way to not alienate their older consumers in the process.
The next goal should be to eliminate costs. Next to salaries, one of the greatest expenses is rent. If they are behind on their rent, then they need to consider using a smaller office. While I'm sure that everyone wants their cubicle or corner office--that might not be the best option right now.
But there's a way for them to stay in the building. If they create a black news cooperative with other writers and share the rent with RollingOut, N'Digo, or even EBONY/JET, they could bring substantial talent under one roof that is needed to keep all of the companies afloat.
The last goal would be to give popular bloggers/journalists a platform. (But I'm not talking about myself). If people are reading Zondra Hughes of RollingOut/Huffington Post or LaShawn Williams of Gaper's Block, then they should be able to branch out under the Chicago Defender umbrella. It may sound like a cliche but "teamwork makes the dream work."
We can't afford to lose the Chicago Defender. If we do, we will lose more than just history but a stake in our future.