Black newspaper dynasty gives way to new guard

3/22/2014 6:15 AM
By Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Whenever M. Alexis Scott walks past the old Atlanta Daily World headquarters on Auburn Avenue, a tinge of melancholy sweeps over her.

"I think about all of the family members who worked here," she said standing outside of the abandoned building that was ripped open in 2008 by a tornado. "I think about my dad, who dedicated his whole life to the paper and died too young."

In January, Scott became the last family member to leave the black newspaper dynasty that lasted 85 years.

Her departure, and the ultimate exit of the Scotts from the nation's first black daily paper, marks a significant turning point in the history of the black press, which like the Negro Leagues or historically black colleges, served as an independent industry specifically catered to a group that was separate and unequal.

"The black press played a vital roll, even before the modern civil rights movement, in covering events that wouldn't be covered --- or at least covered fairly --- in the white press," said George E. Curry, the editor and chief of the newsletter distributed by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of more than 200 Black newspapers from across the country. "The black community trusted the black press. They still do today."

While the mainstream press ignored or downplayed the black community, the Atlanta Daily World --- along with contemporaries such as the Chicago Defender, Philadelphia Tribune, Baltimore Afro-American and Pittsburgh Courier --- stepped in to fill that void, offering extensive coverage on the subjects like the Emmett Till lynching, Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycotts, while also covering local weddings, births, church news and cotillions.

"And we are still talking about up until the mid-1960s, when many daily newspapers either segregated or didn't cover us at all," Curry said. "In some cases, even the ads were segregated. The black press was our own source of getting news about ourselves."

With Scott's departure, leadership at the Atlanta Daily World passed to Misha Helvey, the vice president of integrated marketing for Detroit-based Real Times Media, which publishes a handful of other black papers. The family had already sold the paper to the Real Times in 2012, but Scott stayed as publisher. Helvey is the only full-time staffer in Atlanta; she depends on wire services and freelancers for stories.

The aggregated content that comes on the ADW's Digital Daily is geared more toward national news and entertainment than local stories. On Thursday, only one local item shared the page with several stories about the Obamas and celebrity news about Oprah, Pharrell and Queen Latifah.

Helvey said that does not mean a reduction in local coverage. "It may seem like that, but there has been so much national news so worthy of our coverage as well," she said. "We still plan on covering things that are very relevant to the region."

Stan Washington, who interned at the Daily World as a Clark College student, now edits the rival Atlanta Voice. He sees the paper's sale and Scott's exit as part of a larger saga: the gradual eclipse of the Atlanta Daily World.

"Our competition is any other media that would gear ads toward Africans Americans in metro Atlanta," he said, "not the Daily World."

The Daily World prints 5,000 copies a week; the Voice prints 27,000 copies and sends out 80,000 email blasts weekly to drive traffic to its website.

Washington is quick to give the Scotts and the Daily World their props. "For the Scott family to keep this business going for 85 years is a testament to them," he said. For decades, he said, the Daily World was "an important voice to get news out about things that were happening in the black community that you probably wouldn't have seen in the AJC."

But one person you won't find dwelling on the past is Scott herself. She is now vice president of member relations for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Asked if she considered keeping the paper's tornado-ravaged building on the potentially lucrative Atlanta streetcar route, she is exact:

"Nope. I have done my mourning and I came out on the other side happy. I really felt pretty good about leaving. ... Time to move on."

It all began when William Alexander "W.A." Scott II, 26-years-old at the time, opened the Atlanta World as a monthly newspaper on Aug. 5, 1928. Before that, the average lifespan of black newspapers in Atlanta was five years.

By the time the Atlanta World reached that milestone, it had grown into the country's first black daily.

Scott had even bigger visions: He wanted the paper to be an anchor for a nationwide chain. And it was. Scott published 50 papers through the Scott Newspaper Syndicate. Those papers were spread throughout the South and in cities as far west as Phoenix and as far north as Des Moines.

Then, in 1934, W.A. Scott was mysteriously gunned down. His killer was never caught.

Cornelius Adolphus "C.A." Scott promised his dying brother that he would keep the empire going. At its height, circulation reached 35,000, with the entire chain reaching as many as 90,000.

The paper took aggressive stances on civil rights and railed against segregation and lynchings. It was the first black paper to have a White House correspondent, Harry S. Alpin, who first started covering Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944.

But over time the tone of the paper shifted toward conservatism and away from the Civil Rights Movement. Paul Delaney, who started working at the paper in 1959, said that as a dedicated Republican, C.A. Scott worked with whites to promote Atlanta's image as "a city too busy to hate." He even instituted a policy against putting Martin Luther King Jr. on the front page.

That alienated many readers in the 60s, 70s and 80s and led to the emergence of more radical black papers like the Atlanta Inquirer and Atlanta Voice.

"I had fights with C.A. all the time and eventually, after two years, he fired me," Delaney said.

Delaney, who eventually spent more than two decades as an editor at the New York Times, is just one member of an all-star team of black journalists who started at the Daily World and moved on to established mainstream dailies.

"The World actually had a tremendous influence on me," he said. "We did real journalism, and some of the best black journalists came through. Nobody stayed, but they came through. That is the legacy the World had."

One who came and went was Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, who was hired by C.A. Scott in 1975, fresh out of the University of Georgia.

"I was idealistic and thought I wanted to work for the black press," Lamb said. "For a young person, it was a wonderful window into journalism. But the paper, as much as it tried, was still limited in its impact. I covered lots of different things --- from the Atlanta Child murders to Jimmy Carter to Billy Dee Williams --- but I didn't see my future there."

Lamb left the World for stints in Macon and Tampa, before retiring in 2008 after 22 years at the Washington Post.

Generations of Scott family members also cut their teeth at the paper. Maria Odum-Hinmon, a family member and former managing editor, wrote in her 2005 doctoral dissertation that more than 40 family members worked there, doing everything from sweeping floors to typesetting.

By 1997, the Atlanta Daily World was struggling. No one could remember the last time it turned a profit, the Internet was changing the way news was delivered, other black papers were stealing readers, and young reporters didn't see the paper as a necessary starting point.

Over in Dunwoody, Alexis Scott was a world away in her office at Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was director of diversity and community relations.

"I thought what I was doing at Cox --- trying to get more women and minorities in the company --- was important," said Scott, who joined the AJC in 1974 as a reporter. "I never thought I would work at the Daily World. I really thought I would have my own separate career and the family business would go on."

But C.A. Scott, having run the paper since 1934, wanted to retire and the paper was on the brink.

"It should have been my father, W.A. Scott III, but he died in 1992," Alexis Scott said. "I was the only one in the family with the experience to run it. The reason I came in the first place was the paper was in trouble and I wanted to see if I could save it."

For 15 years she held on. Through dwindling readership and advertising. Through increased competition. Through a tornado.

Between 2008 and 2012, the paper experienced some of its worst times. Advertising fell 20 percent, while readership hovered at 25,000 --- half of that unpaid readership via the Internet.

"With the changes in our industry and the tornado, it made us realize we needed to make a change," said Scott, who is still a regular on "The Georgia Gang." ''To us, that meant joining another group. I think it was a necessary one to maintain the legacy of the paper. We could no longer be a mom and pop."

When Real Times called in 2012, it was time too loosen the reigns. And when the National Center for Civil and Human Rights called with a job offer, it was time to let go.

"I think the Atlanta Daily World is positioned well for the 21th Century and I am real happy about that," Scott said, now walking back to her office in a gleaming tower on Ivan Allen. "Now it is just as exciting to be a part of creating a new legacy, as it was in saving one. Once that was achieved at the Daily World, what else could I do?"

___

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com


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