Robert Abbott, the Defender's founder, appears in the paper. | Submitted photo

Shari Noland, 49, of Oak Park, knew what she was getting into when, in 2017, she decided to leave her job as communications director for the Oak Park Education Foundation in order to become executive editor of the Chicago Defender. The cash-strapped newspaper’s best days were behind it, but the Defender’s rich legacy still resonated with the veteran journalist. 

“I had a contact who knew someone who said they were looking for an editor,” Noland said in a recent interview. “I hadn’t planned on leaving the Education Foundation. I liked it. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work for the Defender.” 

Last Wednesday, the nearly 115-year-old newspaper, once the most authoritative voice in Black America, released its last print issue — the cover boldly announcing the paper’s ambitions to publish its content exclusively online (a photo of a phone displaying the paper’s website on its screen hovered above a hashtag: #DigitalMoves). 

“It is no secret that the media and publishing landscape has shifted drastically and the pace of change continues at dizzying speeds,” Hiram E. Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media, the Defender’s parent company, explained in a statement the company released on July 5. 

“That is why, over the past few years, we’ve made significant investments in digital media. Having experienced initially promising returns, we have concluded that we need to do more to continue building a business model for the future,” Jackson said. “It is simply time for the publication to break away from the printed page and put more focus on bringing our readers daily content from the African-American perspective and increasing the impact of our community voice.”

Jackson’s optimism notwithstanding, many African Americans across the country have been mourning the loss of the print product, which, judging by what’s happened to other iconic African-American media companies, could be a harbinger for more bad news to come. 

In May, for instance, Clear View Group, the Austin, Texas-based private equity firm that owns Ebony and Jet magazines, told employees they would be suspending the print edition of Ebony, according to the New York Post. The following month, after laying off its print staff, Clear View started laying off its remaining digital staffers as well (Jet went all-digital in 2014). 

For Nolan, who was at the Defender for roughly five months, the grief is palpable. 

“My dad was very active in politics and the Defender meant a lot to him, so I was sad that I became the editor and he never got to see that,” she said. “It was definitely a paper I knew and respected, so when the opportunity came I had to take it. But I knew going in, it might not last.” 

Nolan — who has worked at multiple large newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Charlotte Observer — said she’s seen firsthand the decline of the newspaper industry. The signals of decline at the Defender, she said, were particularly acute. 

“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “I could see the beginning of the end, but you don’t want to accept it. I was let go for ‘business reasons,’ but I knew what that meant. [When I was there], the paper was down to four or five people. You’d walk in the building and see all these empty cubicles. You knew at one point there were people in these cubicles. You saw the physical paper getting smaller and smaller.” 

In a way, the Defender is returning to the struggles that forged its founding. Robert Abbott, the Georgia-born lawyer and son of freed slaves, published the paper’s first print issue on May 5, 1905, according to Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.

“The bill for the first edition’s printing was $13.75, a sum Abbott raised through the pennies collected from the sales of individual copies as well as from advertising,” writes Michaeli, who worked as a copyeditor and investigative reporter for the Defender from 1991 to ’96. 

When Abbot realized, weeks after publishing his paper, that he “would not be able to afford even the simple desk space he had rented” at a local real estate office, his landlady, Henrietta P. Lee, offered Abbot her dining room as a newsroom. 

To keep the paper alive, Abbott skipped meals, went without shoes and clothes, “used the street car but once a week” and sold copies of his paper downtown on State Street, often to mocking laughter from people who thought he was “kidding himself.” 

By 1909, however, Abbott was in the position to hire Lee’s teenage daughter to handle clerical tasks for the newspaper and the Defender was well on its way to becoming the newspaper of record for African Americans across the country. In 1956, the newspaper transitioned from a weekly to a daily. 

The Defender spotlighted everything from race riots and lynching to the social trappings of a burgeoning black middle class that Abbott’s paper helped create by persuading throngs of African Americans in the South to head North during the Great Migration, which lasted from 1916 to 1970.

“[Abbott] had Pullman porters take the papers on their route to the South and drop them off down there,” Glenn Reedus, a former Defender editor, told the New Yorker. “That is when people started reading about Chicago and opportunities for black people, and that’s when they started coming. And once they were here, because they were familiar with the Defender, it was almost like the Bible.” 

Recently, however, the Defender’s primacy has suffered as the newspaper dealt with the same challenges that felled traditional media companies across the country in the digital age — from declining readership to disappearing ad revenue. In 2007, the paper went from printing daily to printing bi-weekly. Eventually, the paper would switch back to printing weekly while staffers tried to bring the aging institution into the 21st century. 

“One of the highlights at the Defender was just being able to re-do the website and make it a little more lively because that’s my passion,” Noland said. “We had a youth advisory group and they shared what they thought the Defender could be. We were trying to motivate that younger generation, but I think the website, and seeing so many people so passionate about trying to keep the paper alive, is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.” 

Although she laments the decline of legacy newspapers like the Defender, Noland contends there’s a crop of younger journalists who are poised to create new institutions. 

“You see change happening,” she said. “I think it’s just time for a new generation of journalists of color. Before, nobody wanted to tell black stories. Now everyone wants to tell black stories. [The newspaper is] not as much of a niche like it once was, but it served its purpose and when you look back on history, you know it made its mark. Hopefully, the next generation of independent journalists will pick up the torch because there’s still a black perspective that needs to be shared.”