On a quiet Wednesday morning, Simona French was busy peeling address labels and sticking them onto newly-printed issues of The Chronicle.
Some of them were headed just above the border to North Carolina, others were traveling as far as Virginia and Maryland.
Working on the fringes, though often cumbersome, comes with its own set of benefits. The Chronicle office emanates a sense of tranquility antithetical to the morning rush of most newsrooms, or at least to most newsrooms seen on Aaron Sorkin spectacles. Over the sounds of “Test Drive” by R&B singer Keith Sweat, French informed me that her nephew and the paper’s editor-in-chief, 31-year-old Damion Smalls, might come in today — or he might not. The publisher, Tolbert Smalls, Jr., 32, happened to be away on vacation.
Kansas native James “Jim” French founded the tight family affair in 1971. Simona began working at her father’s newspaper right after high school 34 years ago.
The loyalty of its readership has kept the newspaper afloat, but The Chronicle‘s place in Charleston’s media landscape continues to evolve, as do its surroundings.
Location, location, location
The Chronicle‘s office sits on King Street between Simons and Poplar streets, next to the aptly-named Harbinger coffee shop — one of the creeping commercial interests that are slowly upending, or “revitalizing,” the majority-black neighborhood known as North Central.
“It was gradual, seeing more white people here in this area and people moving out — black people moving out,” says Damion Smalls, Jim French’s grandson. “Parking is harder around here. That’s one of the gradual things. And our customers have to deal with that, they’re coming to pick up the paper and they’re having to park down the street.”
Barney Blakeney, the paper’s lead writer, worked at The Post & Courier for a few years in the late ’80s. He even served a stint as a columnist for CP in the mid-aughts. When he was dissatisfied with the pay at The Chronicle, he’d leave for a year or two before eventually coming back to where he got his start as a reporter in 1977.
He didn’t mince quite as many words as Smalls did.
“Shit, it’s a struggle man,” he says. “You look around us, when we pulled up a few minutes ago, and here are the guys from the restaurant next door, they’re walking up and down with coffee cups and salad trays, stuff that didn’t exist 10 years ago!”
Across from The Chronicle‘s offices sits Uncle Leon’s Barber and Variety Shop. Teeming with garage trinkets, purses that may or may not be real, and sports jerseys, the barber shop doubles as a daily yard sale that, for now, looks more at home in the neighborhood than the specialty wine shop it faces.
Inside, The Chronicle office is adorned with modern Black iconography. A photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs above a door. Next to it is a graphic that interpolates images of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. Past a decorational rotary phone are ads featuring Lebron James and Michael Jordan. On the wall behind us: A 25th anniversary congratulatory plaque presented to the newspaper from the S.C. House of Representatives in 1995.
The red-and-yellow-tinged office has housed The Chronicle since 1995, when Smalls was eight. He remembers helping around the office, primarily by hopping on and off a branded van delivering the paper to churches and newspaper boxes across the tri-county area.
The modest red-plated exterior still advertises graphics and trophy-making services, remnants of a bygone era, Smalls says, that have now given way to a property that is half-shuttered.
The survival of The Chronicle as a physical space is just as significant as its survival as a newspaper. In a time when housing prices continue to push longtime residents out, 1111 King St. is a bulwark against the increasing and inevitable aggression of gentrification.
Charleston’s population was two-thirds black as recently as the early 1980s. It is now 70 percent white, according to The New York Times.
“Less black people live downtown, so I feel like us being here represents the spirit of the past,” Smalls says. “Just to stay downtown and be a black business when so many that existed back then either moved out or don’t exist anymore.”
From broadsheet to broadband
In 2012, Smalls left Coastal Carolina University during his senior year and started working at The Chronicle full-time.
His first task was simultaneously symbolic and monumental.
Talk about the impending death of print is so omnipresent that we think it’s happening tomorrow. But for community papers, especially those writing for underserved sectors of the population, the permanence of print remains comforting and familiar, especially for its older readers.
On a Thursday afternoon, the front door of the sparsely populated office flew open, letting in strands of sunlight and the low hums of passing cars. One by one, representatives from local churches picked up their newspaper orders from a newsstand in the lobby, signed their names on a sheet atop the unattended counter, and directed a familiar wave at Smalls or at Blakeney before loading the issues into their cars.
Smalls says that The Chronicle‘s finances have been relatively stable since he started working there. The paper goes for 50 cents a copy, but it’s availability in churches throughout the area makes people think it’s free, a misconception that irks him. They recently started printing a barcode at the bottom of the issues in the hopes of making it easier to scan at local supermarket lines.
“Print is a dying medium, but still it’s a slow death,” Smalls says. “For us, being here since 1971 and seeing us evolve from print and only print, and now our shift to digital, it’s showing how we can adapt and stay in business and fight the tide.”
At the same time, The Chronicle’s survival is contingent on attracting newer and younger readers.
Freddie Allen is the editor-in-chief of Black Press USA, a newswire run by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association representing more than 200 black-owned newspapers across the country.
He says the NNPA is currently pushing to train its member outlets, including The Chronicle, on a “digital-first” approach.
“As your audience ages and passes on, you’re constantly looking for ways to reach a younger audience to continue to build your brand and increase visibility about the work you’re doing in the community,” Allen says. “When it comes to black newspapers and black-owned media companies, a lot of them have pretty strong brands in their local markets.”
The advent of digital journalism has also opened the doors to more publishers. What used to take a printing press, reliable advertising revenue, and a brick-and-mortar newsroom stocked with an editorial staff, can now be replicated with a domain name and a cadre of contributors.
“Today, if you run a newspaper and, say your circulation is 10,000 or 15,000 in a local market, you’re kind of limited, or you were in the past, to how many people you could actually reach,” Allen says. “Now you can track your content in real time online, you can also engage with your readers in a way that allows you to modify and update and revise that content.”
But do community papers still matter?
Pedro De Armas founded the bi-weekly El Informador, or “The Informer,” in October 2008, a year after moving to the Charleston area.
Headquartered in an office space in Mt. Pleasant, the Spanish-language newspaper with a circulation of about 10,000 reaches a growing Latinx market that goes largely untapped by the mainstream press.
De Armas was fearful that the lack of reach would engender an uninformed community.
“Sometimes, the Latino community isn’t going to read a newspaper in English,” he says. “The first and second generation of Latinos here in Charleston prefer a physical medium like newspapers.”
El Informador can be found at Hispanic markets and restaurants across the Lowcountry, including at Santi’s in the Upper Peninsula, where more than 100 copies fly off the shelves after delivery every other Wednesday.
De Armas cites health news, in the form of new studies and quick tips catered to a community that avoids health care for both economic and cultural reasons, as part of the coverage that keeps the paper relevant to its target audience.
The Chronicle takes a similar approach. Where the mainstream press passes, they pounce.
Smalls recalls an April 2015 article about the C.O. Federal Credit Union, a black-owned and operated credit union founded by the late civil rights activist Esau Jenkins in 1966.
The piece highlighted the institution’s commitment to serving people with low credit, no credit, or those who have a hard time securing loans at more popular banks.
“It was surprising how much people didn’t know about this black credit union that was down here and offering their services,” Smalls recalls. “You just won’t see that in the Post [and Courier] or the City Paper.”
Robert Smalls, the board chairman of the credit union (no relation to the Chronicle brothers), says that the organization saw a significant uptick in interest after the article ran.
“We even had folks calling from out-of-state and other locations in South Carolina wanting to become members of the credit union,” he said in a phone interview. “That article made a lot of change for us. A lot of folks had really forgotten that the credit union existed.”
Allen, the editor of Black Press USA, says that such coverage is paramount to the black press. For a community that is not only marginalized, but maligned, positive stories are an inspirational respite from news cycles that remind readers of oppression, erasure, and murder.
The Chronicle’s mission remains the same as it did for the founders of the first black-owned newspaper in America, the Freedom’s Journal, which was published weekly from March 1827 to March 1829 in New York City.
“It’s not necessarily a reaction to today, it’s a continuation of the mission of the Freedom’s Journal to shed light on, and tell a more complete picture of, what’s going on in our communities,” Allen says. “Mainstream media has always had one position when it comes to covering the African-American community.”
Sitting in the offices of The Chronicle, Blakeney jokingly shouts at Smalls about how little he makes. Smalls smiles and continues to fiddle with the keyboard in front of him.
“You gotta be able to tell your own story, and that’s what community papers do,” Blakeney says. “Large mainstream papers, their bottom line is on the financial side. For community papers, the bottom line is on how much influence and impact they can have in terms of the quality of life of their communities. Most community newspapers are struggling to survive financially, but people do it because they’re committed to that obligation.”
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