August 21, 2014, we published our 1,000th issue, David Smallwood, the Editor of N’DIGO, recently reminded me.
Wow. We have printed 1,000 cover stories profiling personalities involved in the total spectrum of Black interest – community development, education, civil rights, business both corporate and entrepreneurial, entertainment, politics, criminal justice and the law, fashion, media, religion, philosophy, the arts and sciences, etc. And always mixed in special theme issues addressing contemporary topics affecting the African-American community.
I started N’DIGO, which debuted in December of 1989, with a determination to present an equitable and authentic viewpoint on Black Chicago and Black America, with a perspective ranging from critical to innovative.
The idea has always been to present stories about the Black community that have not been told, that have been mistold, that need to be retold, and then to present stories of all types that are pertinent to our readership.
That was not happening in the Chicago media landscape when N’DIGO was launched almost 25 years ago and it’s still not happening today.
We have been avant-garde in our coverage, reporting and commenting on what others didn’t and wouldn’t for a variety of reasons, from outright racism to outright ignorance in the mass media – both of which we find still to be true today.
In fact, the mainstream media’s numbers on minority inclusion and diversity on its editorial staffs – the people who would tell the Black stories – are at far lower levels than when N’DIGO first began, to the point that Black male reporters at Chicago newspapers are virtually non-existent.
If you’re Black in Chicago today, your story is not being told, your community is not being covered, unless you are a young victim of the city’s senseless violence, a criminal, or a Negro who messed up a grant.
When the paper was still in its formative stages, I sought out every publisher in town to discuss the newspaper publishing business. I wanted to learn first hand the business, the editorial process, the purpose and the function of media in today’s world…at least as it existed a quarter of a century ago; today’s world and media landscape are quite different.
My early conversations with John Sengstacke of the Chicago Defender and my off-and-on conversation with Mr. John Johnson of the Johnson Publishing Company are most memorable.
John Madigan of the Chicago Tribune, with his top executives, Mark Thomas and Fred Hunter, were most beneficial and helped us take our publication and media business to another level. From them I learned the newspaper business from top to bottom.
Dennis Britton, then-editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and others from that paper were most helpful as they engaged the possibilities of an N’DIGO. At one point, we were a Sunday insert in the Sun-Times for about 18 months.
I was in the hospital recovering from a brief illness when the idea of N’DIGO crystallized for me. I had been a Vice Chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago and was pondering my next career move, which I knew would involve media, as that had been my forte for most of my adult life.
Envisioning running a publication that would address and serve the Black community, I had worked with the Sun-Times on a pilot supplement that focused on the Black church in Chicago. The success of that project made me sure that N’DIGO as a publication would also be a winner.
I sat with friends one Saturday afternoon to introduce and discuss the vision, the idea, the concept of N’DIGO. They were photographers, writers, graphic artists, and marketers. They were all qualified and talented professionals with varied histories of involvement with media in this city.
They were what I call N’DIGO’s “founding members.” As we discussed the concept, we all saw something new and different. We improvised and were innovative in the refinement, deciding that N’DIGO would be a magazine not a newspaper, but on newsprint…thus we became a “magapaper.”
Finally, we came out with the premiere issue of “N’DIGO, A Magapaper for the Urbane,” with the first cover story profiling civil rights activist and “God’s Little Warrior,” the Reverend Willie Barrow.
We put out 50,000 copies of that free paper on the South Side of Chicago, and were an immediate success; Chicago – Black Chicago, especially – had never seen anything like it, and the community immediately embraced us. We never had enough issues. People took a stack of free papers for their jobs, churches and families.
The founding members, who comprised the editorial, production, administrative and distribution staff, agreed to work together with more commitment than money in the beginning. As a team we challenged each other, sometimes in heated conversations, about stories and subject matter, who would write what, and what should or shouldn’t be published in any given issue.
I vowed that the cover would always be special. The pictures would represent the best photography and the stories would be excellently written. We would share our viewpoint and in essence tell our very own story.
We were very careful and strategic in the first year with our then-monthly publication as to who would be the subject of the cover story. We wanted to feature pillars of the Black community who had substantial stories to be told, but somehow had been ignored by the major press.
“Stories that had been untold, mistold and needed to be retold” – that became our mantra. We argued over the headline, the personality and the message. Our first covers included “Paul King, The Man who Put Firm in Affirmative Action,” and the late Judge R. Eugene Pincham, who was running for Cook County Board President.
I thought Pincham had gotten a bad rap for a remark that mainstream media called “racist.” The media lost out on his judicial genius, which we were able to convey, and that was the first stark example of how important it was for Black media to be able to cover Black subjects on our own terms instead of through the filtered prism of White society. We told Pincham’s story differently, and with a sepia tone cover.
Jacoby Dickens, the Seaway banker and bowling alley owner, was a major player in Chicago’s business community – not just the Black business community – but he had never been profiled in major media. We covered the ministry of The Reverend Johnnie Colemon. We talked about Ted Kimbrough, the new superintendent at Chicago Public Schools, and Chicago Urban League head James Compton.
These stories established our style, with signature portrait photography. We were moving carefully, strategically and with soundness. People wondered who we were and why we happened.
I was accused of being Jewish and trying to invade the Black community with commentary. I was challenged on Black talk radio when I said we where a paper for the Black middle class, and major media took notice by profiling us as something new and different.
The Development of a Voice
N’DIGO happened because mainstream media missed us. Talk about a niche needing to be filled. Talk about a community desperate to see itself in its full glory. We did that and we kept coming.
Politicians most of all began to pay attention to us because we began to be esteemed in the Black community as a serious voice. I wrote a column – my “Publisher’s Page,” which neared the impact of the likes of Mike Royko, Vernon Jarrett, and Lu Palmer.
I wrote my opinions, thoughts and positions on topical news. I didn’t want anyone else on the staff to take a hit or write crazy, so I did it myself. But I had backroom, never- revealed assistance – my mother being one, The Reverend Johnnie Colemon, my minister, the other.
She and my mother cautioned me to watch my words carefully because I was being discussed. Write carefully. Bishop Arthur Brazier liked my boldness. He said write boldly and don’t discuss our issues faintly. Vernon Jarrett said always tell the truth and don’t worry about what others say. Just keep them talking.
We had all of the problems a startup has, from staffing to money problems to distribution, but we managed to address them along the way and kept growing.
Staffing Was Our Foundation
Slowly we built a team that represented experts or opinion makers in politics, fashion, gossip and business, movies, music, theater.
Founding member Derrick Baker wanted to write a column that represented the Black urban male perspective. Great idea and totally unheard of in Chicago media, then and now. Derrick’s “The Way I See It” became a juicy column with a witty view and one of our most popular features ever.
I asked Northern Illinois University political professor Robert T. “Bob” Starks to write on politics. It is his love and passion. Noted fashionista Barbara Samuels wrote beautiful articles on fashion and design and for years presented Spring and Fall fashion previews. Wanda Wright was our undercover gossip columnist, Mark Ruffin wrote on music and Donna Hodge wrote on food.
My good friend Thelma Shirley wrote one of our most endearing features, “Spiritually Speaking,” which had Black ministers from around the city addressing issues of the day from a theological point of view, while on the other end of the spiritual spectrum, my other good friend psychic Irene Hughes, not only wrote on astrology/horoscopes, but also personally advised me on when it was in the stars for my business to make particular moves.
My protégé was Kai El’ Zabar, who worked with me at City Colleges. Her creative talents were in play in our first nine years before she moved to California. Kai was a jazzy hip writer and had a great visual eye.
N’DIGO has had few editors; Kai was the first after me, but I only guided the editorial until we were successfully launched and had our oars in the water, though I’ve always remained Editor-in-Chief.
David Smallwood has been the paper’s main editor and writer. In two separate stints, he’s been at the helm for a total of 10 years, supervised 490 of our 1,000 issues, and written at least 125 of the cover stories. David is a traditional print journalist with a background at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jet Magazine, Dollars & Sense Magazine and the Black X-Press newspaper, where he was mentored by Lu Palmer and Ellis Cose.
His leadership has organized and structured the quality of our editorial perspective and impact. Between David’s two stints, Jeniece Drake, Monroe Anderson, and Zondra Hughes served as our editors. All the editors brought different talents to the paper.
The distinctive look of N’DIGO, which is an integral part of our brand, has been developed under the creative eyes of art directors and graphic artists Steven Johnson, Darnell Pulphus, and Paul Mainor. Major photography has been contributed by Doyle Wickes, Victor Powell, David Jenkins, and Reginald Payton.
Building A Business
I have an eye for talent. I love developing the new. We hired young writers, new writers and even some established writers that wrote for the mainstream press but could not write the type of articles they wanted to there. We trained a crew from sales to graphics, from photography to delivery.
My father, Herman Hartman, was a sales pioneer with Pepsi-Cola. He gave me many tips on distribution and how to build a brand. I took good counsel from so many business people on good business practices. Many people made a real contribution to all segments of the business.
We grew up to be the largest paper of our kind in the United States. Before the 2008 recession and subsequent technological changes affecting the newspaper industry, N’DIGO was the largest circulated weekly Black print publication in the country behind Jet Magazine and the largest alternative paper in Chicago.
We remain a niche publication targeting African-American readers. I like to think of NDIGO as a progressive lifestyle newspaper. We followed the lead of alternative press like New York’s Village Voice and The Reader, with in-depth stories and new news. We took baby steps, moving from being a monthly to a bi-monthly and eventually to becoming a weekly in May of 1997.
Along the way the continuing battle has been advertising, and it still is. We have fought for advertising. We became expert in telling the Black buying power story. We opened a few doors, sometimes with the collective force of other Black media outlets.
We have fought to get in the budgets of retail, banks, movies, inserts and others. We have been insulted and complimented. The Black audience, the Black shopper, the Black media, conveys a different standard when it comes to how the media world approaches advertising buys.
In our 25 years, N’DIGO introduced a couple of politicians to the world. We profiled Jesse Jackson Jr. in his first election, with the posture that he was a real candidate and not just his father’s son. He won that congressional race in a multiple field of veteran candidates.
N’DIGO was the first publication to devote a cover story to an unknown candidate named Barack Obama, who was trying to move from the Illinois State Senate to the United States Senate. He won and became the first Black President of the United States.
We have reported the many crusades of The Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., including both of his runs for the United States presidency. We have profiled members of the clergy. We devote a special issue each January to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., showing his impact and meaning to the world.
We wrote about the talented before they joined the celebrity circuit, like Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey. We talked about and gave the first major media coverage to the business crop like Frank Clark, Jim Reynolds, John Rogers, Valerie Jarrett, Leon Jackson, Vernon Williams, Lester McKeever, John Sengstacke, Robert Blackwell, Barbara Bates, Melody Hobson, Desiree Rogers, Melody Spann Cooper, Chris Gardner, Augustus Cage, and the Leak Family, among them.
We put educational news on the front page with Dr. Wayne Watson, Manford Byrd, Michael Scott, Conrad Worrill, Dr. Harold Pates, Zerrie Campbell and others. We’ve told the Black political story with Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, Donne Trotter, William Beavers, Rickey Hendon, Toni Preckwinkle, and Mayors Richard Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and Harold Washington. We have covered Blacks in the media, including Warner Saunders, Stella Foster, Art Norman, Linda Johnson Rice, and of course, her father Mr. John Johnson.
Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee, Herbie Hancock, Debbie Allen, Johnnie Cochran and all the other celebrities that have passed through town have graced our covers to the point where the question almost becomes, in 1,000 issues, who haven’t we covered?
The Changing Media
During our 25 years, we have seen the face of media change several times. When we came into the space, we entered in the desktop publishing age. We never knew typesetting. We learned the press boards and the knife. We learned the press room. We worked on real drop-dead deadlines. We watched the press.
But we saw the world change to total computerization. We saw the press room change and die. We saw deadlines become 24 hours. We saw writing change from serious to silly. We saw intelligence become the reality show. We saw decency become vulgarity.
Enter the Internet. We saw it first as added and extra value, but then to becoming a news entity itself, and one more powerful than the print platforms that it has almost single-handedly put out of business.
I remember when Adrianna Huffington called to say she wanted to include me in Huffington Post, which was moving from New York to Chicago. She asked me to send her my columns and they would post them on HuffPo and give us great exposure. “We call it blogging,” she said.
I saw digital evolve and have been trying ever since, as have all print publications, to figure how and where do we fit. Where is our voice? What happens to it? I saw the world of media change.
Columnists – one of the most esteemed positions in media – have become bloggers, and now anyone can blog and give their opinion. I saw film photography with professionals become phone photography without any film at all. Just shoot and post. I watched the Sun-Times dismiss its entire photography department, including the legendary John White.
I have seen the world of news change from quality to “what was that?” Everyone has a voice now. TV became You Tube and digital broadcasting ranging from high quality to the bizarre. I have watched professional journalism die.
The newspaper world is on its ear and lives in the Wild West, where anything goes and we’re all looking for the next innovation. We have done some things very right, yet still try to figure it all out in the digital social media age. It breaks my heart, but it is also a wakeup call when venerable Newsweek and Jet magazines move to online editions exclusively.
The Future Remains Now
What, now, is this thing called “media” and where does Black media fit in the new age? I think for the Black Press, there is still significance and value in the printed published word. Our perspective is still absent from the main, as it has always been, though digital media has provided an opportunity to squash that.
Social media has opened up and we make new friends with clicks and tweets daily. We see “stars” being made everyday – for better or worse – that would not have had the opportunity with traditional media. We have seen amateurs with the next new thing win million dollar contracts.
One of the things I love about the profession of media is that it is ever changing, never boring. It always brings forth something new. Change is the media constant.
It is highly doubtful that N’DIGO will publish another 1,000 issues in a printed version. We move more and more toward the digital world, where we will continue to tell the story not told about Black Chicago and Black America and expose it directly to the world, unfiltered and without hesitation.
We look anew into opportunities in television and books through which to tell our contemporary story. We search the new ad dollars, the new friends, the new writers, the new photographers, the new clicks and the new media.
And we thank all of you for having been and still being part of our continuing journey.
(N’DIGO Editor David Smallwood contributed to this story.)