Saving Chicago's Black Media Market

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.


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  • This seems like a pretty good discussion of the marketing side, although I suppose that one would also have to figure out if the target market has iProducts, smart phones, etc. Apparently they aren't buying the paper, though.

    However, you missed two quotations that indicate one source of the death spiral:

    "An accounts receivables staffer also was laid off"
    "And our receivables are taking longer to collect. We’re facing 60- and 90-plus days from advertisers, which creates a back-up in terms of our being able to make our own payments."

    This is essentially saying that the advertisers are not paying up, and the "cure" seems analogous to the IRS laying off auditors.

    The Tribune's revenue problem is that it was dependent on the classifieds, but the housing, help wanted, and, to a certain extent, automobile markets went south. I don't know if The Defender's advertisers have left, but the ones it has aren't paying the bills. The per copy price never did pay the freight in the newspaper business, and certainly going electronic eliminates paper, printing, and distribution costs. However, they still have to figure out (like Google did) how to pump the advertising, and in their case, getting the advertisers to pay.

  • Good points, jack.

    But I didn't miss the quotations. I read the whole article. And I actually covered those points indirectly. My apologies. (I did rush to put this up)

    In my opinion, this is not an accounting problem but one that deals with marketing and operations.

    The Chicago Defender has to decide if it is going to be a mainstream newspaper with a black staff or a black newspaper with a mainstream appeal. That has been the challenge since the civil rights movement when blacks were finally given a chance to work for "white" newspapers like the Sun-Times and The Trib.

    But I do agree that they need to retool some of their accounting functions. I wasn't the best accounting student in college but I do know enough to see that something needs improvement at 45th and King.

  • In reply to MrIsaacs:

    It wasn't so much the accounting functions (although I mentioned the auditors), as the inherent problem that if the main source of revenue (or certainly profit) is advertising, and the advertisers aren't paying, that certainly is a problem.

    Now, maybe they have to reorient the marketing of the "news" to get solvent advertisers, but there is the question whether the newspaper's target market is the reader or the advertiser, although the two are interrelated.

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