Before I reached the age of literacy, long before I became a news-hungry information gatherer, St. Louis' oldest newspaper dedicated to the cause of informing black people began its decline.
The St. Louis Argus, founded in 1912 by brothers Joseph and William Mitchell, fell prey to the same forces as many black institutions after the successes of the national push for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s. As opportunities opened for black professionals to work in institutions that had always excluded them before, African-American doctors left black hospitals, black educators went to teach at larger colleges and universities and black journalists moved into larger news organizations with more resources and better pay. What resulted was a decentralization of black talent, political power and the black economy.
While many black newspapers folded across the country during the '70s and '80s, The St. Louis Argus continued on, if only a shell of what it once was. At its height, the Argus had a circulation of more than 50,000. It was considered one of the best black newspapers in the country, a comprehensive record of what was going on any given week in black St. Louis and America. By the early 1990s, it printed fewer than 5,000 papers a week and averaged more spelling and grammatical errors on the front page than it had full-time staffers.
Around that time, I was in high school a north side kid commuting to a Clayton private school, counting the days to when I would graduate and leave St. Louis forever. I wrote for the school newspaper at C.B.C., mostly covering the activities of the small minority of black students at the all-male Christian school. It was around that time that I discovered the Argus, and the American, and the Sentinel, and even the Evening Whirl.
Being a black kid in a white school, looking for black faces in the crowd was more than a pastime; it was a survival technique. So it makes sense that looking for black faces in newspapers and magazines became a second pastime for me. I believe that is what first drew me to the black press, and I also believe that that need to see people like oneself is one the black press continues to fulfill today.
How can you tell a black newspaper is a black newspaper? Because it has black people on the cover. Inversely, how can you tell the daily paper in your town is not concerned with you? Because they don't have people that look like you on the cover that is, except for nuisance pictures: the mug shots of killers, thieves and rapists that plague our society.
In 2005, it is still true in St. Louis city, a city with a majority minority population, that the only consistent source for positive news about black people is the black press. If an outsider picks up a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is no indication whatsoever that there is a significant African-American population in its coverage area. This is a sharp contrast to other daily papers from black cities, such as Atlanta's Journal-Constitution.
The need for the black press is still very much present as are the challenges that led to its decline. Talented black newspaper professionals can still make more money, reap larger praise and benefit from the support of much larger and better-funded organizations in the mainstream media.
As a matter of fact, what has happened over the past 15 years is that the most successful black newspapers across the country are more and more run, if not outright owned by, whites. The St. Louis American, the city's largest black newspaper, has a white editor and several white reporters, contributors and executives.
This new model, adopted across the country at many of the oldest black newspapers, has begged a reexamining of the question of what is a black newspaper? Is it just a newspaper with black people on the cover?
When I came into the St. Louis Argus organization last year, the paper was not far from the old paste-up method of newspaper production. The then-92-year-old company had just a year before been purchased by a group of investors led by Mr. Eddie Hasan. The office on the 4500 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive had recently received its first computer into the operation.
I had one central goal in mind for my first six months as the editor of city's oldest black newspaper: to make it relevant again.
We set out build a newsroom first. George Jackson (a pseudonym) and I took much of the writing burden upon ourselves in the beginning. The paper purchased three Macintosh computers to help bring the layout and production of the paper into the 21st Century. Pretty soon, we added color back to the cover of the paper. We then began to break news stories and receive some notice from the St. Louis Journalism Review and even a few mentions in the Post-Dispatch.
In just nine months, the St. Louis Argus tripled its circulation, re-established itself as a legitimate news organization, and even launched an attractive website. But most importantly, the paper has become relevant again to people.
In a time of media consolidation and forgotten mission statements, the Argus is dusting off its wings and shining its wooden and bronze plaque bearing the words from the old Negro Press Creed that still today graces its editorial page:
"Hating no person, and fearing no person, the Black Press strives to help every person in the firm belief that all are hurt as long as anyone is held back."
It feels great to be the underdog. It feels even better to be in a position to advocate for the underdog. In 2005, the paper's 93rd year of publication, the challenges facing the St. Louis Argus are the same as many papers far younger; increasing ad revenue, further increasing circulation, and not losing sight of what the paper was established to do: to help people.
Still a kid counting black faces, I am proud to belong to an organization that has many. I am also proud to be in a world where not only are black journalists, photographers, production artists and sales people able to find work in mainstream organizations, but white newspaper professionals feel free to look to the black press for work and a place to exercise their talents as well.
In the end, it's about serving our readers and bettering our community. "Be the change you wish to see," I think is the saying. I wish to see a St. Louis that is comfortable with itself and embraces its diversity. I wish to see underdogs rise again.
Antonio D. French is the news editor of the St. Louis Argus, the oldest black newspaper West of the Mississippi River. He is also the publisher of Public Defender, a progressive alternative newspaper reporting on the people and politics of St. Louis, which is currently in hiatus.