For nearly 115 years, the Chicago Defender has been a vital news source for African Americans in Chicago and beyond. At a time when Black voices were largely excluded from mainstream media platforms, the Defender covered both major events—the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, the murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and the details of Black community life: births, deaths, weddings, graduations, you name it.
“It was at everybody’s house,” Glenn Reedus, a former Defender editor, tells Monica Davey and John Eligon of the New York Times. It was at the barber’s. It was everywhere, South Side or West Side. There was a joke that if someone said something had happened and someone else said it hadn’t, you knew it didn’t happen if it wasn’t in the Defender.”
This week, however, marks the end of an era. On Wednesday, the Defender will release its last print issue, shifting its focus exclusively to digital content. At its peak in the late 1920s, the newspaper boasted a circulation of 250,000, but that number had dwindled to 16,000 in recent years, reports Mitchell Armentrout of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Defender’s website, on the other hand, reaches 475,000 unique visitors each month. Transitioning to digital content made sense, though it didn't make it any less of a "difficult decision” to do so, Hiram Jackson, CEO of Defender parent company Real Times Media, tells Robert Channick of the Chicago Tribune.
“[B]ut I think it’s the right decision,” Jackson adds. “The Defender is about providing information to the African American community. The numbers are evident that the best way to do that is through doubling down on our digital platform.”
The publication was founded on May 5, 1905, by Robert S. Abbott, who initially ran the operation from the kitchen of his landlord’s Chicago apartment. In its early days, the Defender consisted of four-page, six-column handbills, filled with local news tidbits and clippings from other papers. Five years later, Abbott hired a full-time reporter and started to expand the Defender’s focus to issues of national importance—and in turn, the paper began to attract a national audience.
Borrowing the splashy approach deployed by publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Abott sought to call attention to the racial injustices that permeated America during the Jim Crow era. According to PBS, the Defender was rife with sensational headlines, red ink and graphic images, but it took an unequivocal stance against gravely serious subjects: white oppression, segregation, lynchings and other crimes perpetrated against African Americans. To distribute the paper beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, Abbott partnered with Black railway porters. Despite the Klu Klux Klan's attempts to confiscate its pages, the Defender spread through the South. By the start of World War I, two-thirds of the paper’s readers were located outside of Chicago.
The Defender is considered to be a major driver of the Great Migration, which saw more than 6 million African Americans move from the South to the North, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970. It actively worked to encourage African Americans in the South to leave the region.
“The Defender spoke of the hazards of remaining in the overtly segregated south and lauded life in the North. Job listings and train schedules were posted to facilitate the relocation,” PBS explains. “The Defender also used editorials, cartoons, and articles with blazing headlines to attract attention to the movement, and even went so far as to declare May 15, 1917 the date of the ‘Great Northern Drive.’”
Over the years, the Defender campaigned for anti-lynching legislation, called for the integration of sports teams and argued against the segregation of the armed forces. The publication attracted such illustrious contributors as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. By 1956, it had transitioned from a weekly distribution schedule to a daily one.
More recently, however, the Defender has been struggling through the same challenges that have afflicted most other newspapers in the country—namely declines in print advertising and a growing number of readers who prefer to get their news online. In 2008, the paper switched back to a weekly circulation. And now, it is starting a new chapter, one that will be centered around the demands of the digital era.
“It is an economic decision,” Jackson tells Davey and Eligon of the Times, “but it’s more an effort to make sure that The Defender has another 100 years.”