By Charles K. Poole
The St. Louis Metro Sentinel, the youngest of the three black St. Louis weeklies after nearly 21 years of publication, has somewhat of an identity problem. As a self-described “independent newspaper,” the Sentinel has frequently been the odd man out with readers who think of black newspapers as Democratic vehicles. And the newspaper’s recent endorsements of Republicans have added to the confusion.
But both the newspaper’s editor and publisher contend the Sentinel has no intention of trading its bipartisan philosophy for Republican status. And they said after explaining the newspaper’s position so many times in the past, the identity question has become the proverbial thorn in the newspaper’s side.
The Sentinel was founded in 1968 by the late Howard B. Woods, a journalist and civic leader. Woods was a former executive editor of the St. Louis Argus and associate director of the United States Information Agency. He served as editor-in-chief of the Sengstacke newspapers, which included the Chicago Defender and 13 other black newspapers across the nation, before returning to St. Louis to found the Sentinel.
Woods, who was also president of the St. Louis Urban League, said he founded the newspaper with the hope it would be “independent and work actively toward the establishment of the effective two-party system.”
When Howard Woods died in 1976, his widow, Jane, took over as president and publisher of the newspaper. Michael Williams, the Woods’ son-in-law, became the Sentinel’s editor and associate publisher. Williams said the newspaper’s pledge to “entertain, agitate and provoke readers to constructive thought” is as important today as when Howard Woods founded the newspaper. But, he says, community service is its main concern.
Williams said he wanted to set the record straight for those who still question the newspaper’s political philosophy: “The Sentinel is not a Republican newspaper,” he said. “The Sentinel is more of an independent newspaper.”
Williams said the Sentinel’s history is proof of that fact. “When you look at the history of the Sentinel,” he said, ‘it has always had a tendency to endorse candidates that it thinks most benefit the black community, whether they be Democrat or Republican.”
As editor, Williams oversees the day-to-day operations of the newspaper, although he said Jane Woods also “makes some of the most important decisions for the paper.” Williams said the Sentinel’s readership consists primarily of upper-income blacks, but that “black newspapers (including the Sentinel) don’t make a lot of money.” Because of that fact he said, Jane Woods could not afford to oversee the newspaper’s operations on a full-time basis. Instead, she works for Barnes Hospital.
Having opted for free distribution in 1971, the newspaper relies on advertising for its revenue. The Sentinel prints four promotional issues yearly to increase subscriptions and offset production and administrative costs. Williams said the Sentinel is doing well financially. “We’ve come a long way. It’s been tough at times – I don’t kid you about that – but we’re holding our own.” Williams said the newspaper made a profit in 1988, but would not release actual figures.
The newspaper is published every Thursday, as are the St. Louis American and Argus. Both the Sentinel’s and American’s typesetting operations are handled in house. Another similarity between the two newspapers is that each uses the free distribution system. The Argus charges 25-cents a copy.
Politics Make the Paper
The Sentinel has a strong political influence in the black community. One of the most-read features of the newspaper is “Big City Shop Talk,” a column by Al “Big City” Wallace, the Sentinel’s city editor and a political insider who works for St. Louis City Treasurer Larry Williams. Wallace worked for the Argus prior to joining the Sentinel.
In his column, Wallace predicts political appointments, discusses battles between Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, Jr., and various aldermen, and offers up some of the hottest political gossip in the city. Wallace’s column is so well-read, Williams claims, that white reporters with national publications contact him to learn about St. Louis’ political scene.
Williams believes the decision by the other black weeklies to print similar columns is probably a direct result of Wallace’s popularity. He pointed out, however, that Wallace’s success came to him only through continuity He said if newspapers do not focus on politics “on a continuous basis, they might as well get out of the business.”
Republican or Independent?
Last year, the Sentinel’s decision to support several white Republican candidates over black Democrats angered and confused a number of blacks, leading many to label the Sentinel a “black Republican newspaper.” Williams scoffed at the label.
The Sentinel has traditionally endorsed Democratic candidates on a city level, and sometimes at the state level, Williams said. In other cases, he said the newspaper had opted to endorse white Republicans who clearly had the best interests of the black community at heart.
But, Williams’ explanation aside, the newspaper’s recent endorsements of John Ashcroft for governor, Christopher Bond for U.S. senator and George Bush for president were not applauded in the black community.
“When we endorsed George Bush for president,” he said, “we had two people call up and cancel their subscriptions. When we endorsed Kit Bond, we had a couple more cancel…Same thing with Ashcroft.”
Williams says the newspaper’s endorsements need no justification.
“We (the Sentinel) do believe in the two-party system. We think it’s very dangerous for black people to have blind allegiance to one particular party.”
Williams said that the newspaper is currently supporting Michael Roberts in his mayoral race against incumbent Schoemehl, and has supported St. Louis Democrats including U.S. Rep. William Clay, State Sen. J.B. “Jet” Banks and many others in the past. He said he does not understand why the Sentinel’s detractors construe its support of black Democrats – and white Republicans – as being the mark of a Republican newspaper.
According to Williams, the Sentinel operates in a fashion akin to large white newspaper, which “have the prerogative to endorse and support anyone they choose.”
Publisher Jane Woods said the Sentinel is “definitely not Republican. We always endorse those who we think will do best for our people.
“Personally,” she continued, “I’m a Democrat. But a newspaper should not be labeled. A newspaper should be bipartisan. I think we have an excellent newspaper, and at least we’re truthful.” Woods added that she was not implying other newspapers are not truthful.
St. Louis City Alderman JoAnne Wayne (D-1st Ward) is not so sure the Sentinel tells the whole truth, however.
“I have no more of a problem with the Sentinel than any other paper. But I don’t think it always gives people the opportunity to respond,” Wayne said. “They may be truthful according to what they’re told, but they don’t get both sides of the story.”
Wayne added that the newspaper’s support of Republican candidates was of no real concern to her. “I feel if the Sentinel has found Republicans more concerned with black issued, then that’s what they should print.”
St. Louis City Circuit Clerk Freeman Bosley, Jr., agrees. “In my view, the Sentinel makes a contribution to the community. In terms of its political leanings, it’s a non-issue to me.”
The Bush Factor
While some dwell on the newspaper’s politics, others are uncomfortable with its knack for self promotion. For example, in the newspaper’s “Yes I Can” promotional issue last year, a headlines photograph of Williams greeting then-Vice President George Bush read: “Sentinel’s Endorsement Puts Bush Over Top In Missouri.” It was a bold claim coming from so small a newspaper, but Williams said he felt justified in printing it because “Missouri put George Bush over the top. We were one of the few newspapers in the state to endorse him. I’d say we had something to do with it.”
But leaders of both parties disagree with Williams’ claim
Charline Sherrill, vice chairman of the Republican Party for the city and state, laughed as she said, “I think it’s a bit far-fetched that they would take that position. I don’t think any one particular endorsement from a newspaper had that effect on the outcome.”
Sharon Quigley Carpenter, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party said, “The election results speak for themselves. Since the Sentinel is distributed predominately in north city, and the north city went overwhelmingly for Dukakis, I don’t think the endorsement of Bush had any impact among the Sentinel’s readership.
Carpenter added, however, “Given the three papers (Sentinel, American and Argus), I’d say the Sentinel does provide a different point of view. Whether it’s an effective point of view is another thing. But I’d have to say, all things considered, it’s probably a good thing.”
As the Sentinel continues to define its “independent” identity, Williams said he would like to see the newspaper become a semi-weekly publication, and eventually, a daily. “Right now, we’re treated as a stepchild to the white press,” Williams said.
In the immediate future, he does not see the newspaper’s admitted identity problem as a real issue. “We don’t have to prove our allegiance,” he said. “The Sentinel’s an independent newspaper. We’re not just independent; we’re fiercely independent. I think our readers appreciate us for that.”
(From the St. Louis Journalism Review, March 1989).