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After 114 Year Run, Chicago's Black Newspaper Ends Print Edition


After more than 100 years in print, one of the country's most celebrated black newspapers is going strictly digital. Today, the final print edition of the weekly Chicago Defender will be published. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Carrie Shepherd reports on the newspaper that has seen Chicago's black community through some of its toughest moments.

CARRIE SHEPHERD, BYLINE: The year was 1955, and 14-year-old Emmett Till is brutally murdered on a visit from Chicago to Mississippi; his body returned to his hometown in a pine box. Sixty-four years ago, it was The Defender that captured the anguished cries of Till's mother when he arrived - oh, God. Oh, God, my only boy. The weekly newspaper has been pivotal in chronicling moments like that in Chicago's black community.

Ethan Michaeli is a former reporter at the paper and author of "The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America." He says Robert Abbott started The Defender in 1905 because he thought residents who moved here during the Great Migration needed their own paper.

ETHAN MICHAELI: There had never been a successful commercial newspaper for the African American community up until that point.

SHEPHERD: Michaeli says those who stayed in the South also wanted to read The Defender, but in the days of Jim Crow, that wasn't easy.

MICHAELI: The Defender had organized, however, a national clandestine network that was distributing the paper.

SHEPHERD: Michaeli says the paper is up against the same headwinds that many other newspapers are facing. Hiram Jackson is CEO of Real Times Media, The Defender's parent company. He says going all digital will allow the paper to meet readers where they are.

HIRAM JACKSON: The Chicago Defender was always at the forefront of influencing messages, influencing pop culture, influencing politics. We want to be that for this new generation, and this new generation is online.

SHEPHERD: Jackson says, while the print circulation is just 16,000, the digital audience is far greater - a few hundred thousand a month. Walking around the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, it's not easy to find a print copy of The Defender. After checking at a used bookstore, produce market, well-known chicken restaurant and lottery ticket window, there was none to be found. Kimbark Beverage Shoppe is one place here in the neighborhood where the print edition of The Defender has been available. Veronica Jackson works here.

VERONICA JACKSON: We recently stopped getting the Sun-Times, The New York Times and the Tribune, while we do have The Defender.

SHEPHERD: She's unhappy with this latest move.

V JACKSON: I feel sad for the older people that's not hooked to the technology. That's going to be crazy.

SHEPHERD: Jackson says that's who usually buys the paper copy for a dollar each. And Jackson says she expects many questions from customers looking to buy a newspaper that's been an integral part of Chicago's black community now for more than a century.

For NPR News, I'm Carrie Shepherd, in Chicago.


As a reporter for WBEZ's news desk, Carrie produces content for daily newscasts and WBEZ's website. She covers all parts of the news, with a focus on arts and culture. Before moving to the WBEZ Newsdesk, she was Senior Producer of Morning Shift where she was responsible for the editorial mission of the program, working with the host and producers to determine what stories to cover, how show segments are executed and what guests are interviewed. She also produced series like Start the Conversation, which included interviews, call-ins and personal stories about how we approach the topic of death and dying. Carrie’s radio work has won awards from Associated Press, Chicago Headline Club, Association for Women in Communications and National Association of Black Journalists.