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Belleville News-Democrat

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Belleville News-Democrat Short History

            The Belleville News-Democrat was founded in 1858. In 1883, the Weekly Democrat merged with the Belleville News and has carried the name Belleville News-Democrat ever since.

            Ownership of the News-Democrat changed often during the latter half of the 19th century, but publishing never ceased. In 1891, Fred J. Kern purchased the business and held the position of editor and publisher until his death in 1931. His sons, Bob and Pete, took over the family newspaper in a partnership that lasted until 1972, when both retired. One of the two daily newspapers in Belleville, the News-Democrat purchased the 118-year-old Daily Advocate, merging the two afternoon papers.

            Upon their retirement, Bob and Pete Kern sold the News-Democrat to Capital Cities Communications, Inc. At the time, the paper was a Monday-through-Friday afternoon publication with a circulation of 30,000. Cap

Cities upgraded the production equipment and expanded editorial content. A Sunday morning edition was added in 1976. The News-Democrat became a seven-day-a-week morning paper on January 1, 1984.

             In March, 1985, Cap Cities purchased the American Broadcasting Co., Inc. (ABC). In February of 1996, ABC merged with the Walt Disney Co. The News-Democrat became part of a wholly owned subsidiary called ABC, Inc. In May 1997, Knight Ridder purchased the News-Democrat and its weekly publications, including the Highland News-Leader, O’Fallon Progress, The (Scott Air Force Base) Command Post and the Sparta News-Plaindealer.

On June 27, 2006, the Belleville News Group became part of the McClatchy Co.

(Used with permission. From a News-Democrat publication, updated 2/10/2010).


The Rev. Williamson Franklin Boyakin, a Baptist preacher who came to Belleville in the 1840s, first published the Belleville Weekly Democrat on Jan. 16, 1858. His political paper advocated allowing new states joining the union to decide themselves whether to be slave or free. 

Boyakin left in the early 1860s. Eventually known as the “fighting parson” for his valor in the Civil War, he knew personally every president from Thomas Jefferson to Ulysses S. Grant. 

The paper scrapped on for the next 30 years under a succession of publishers until Frederick John Kern arrived. 

Fred Kern quit school to work on the family farm. A hunting accident nearly ripped off his left hand and led him back to school. 

At age 27 he took a chance and joined his friend, Fred Kraft, in Belleville just before Christmas 1891. They bought the Belleville News-Democrat and Kern bought out his partner four years later. 

For the next 77 years he and his family turned a drab, four-page broadsheet into the city’s only surviving daily. When a fire destroyed the paper on Christmas Eve, 1898, Kern moved it into his home—the paper’s current location at 120 S. Illinois St. 

Fred Kern died at age 67. His son, Bob Kern, took over at 27 years old—the same age his dad had been when he bought the paper. 

Bob Kern’s son, Fred A. Kern, started thinking about selling the paper after a lengthy pressmen’s strike in the late ‘60s. In the summer of 1972, Capital Cities Broadcasting Corp. bought the News-Democrat. 

Readers saw the paper double its circulation of 30,000, grow from a few dozen employees to nearly 300, publish every day of the year and produce hard-hitting, in-depth investigative stories that regularly win both regional and national acclaim. 

Starting in the 1970s, the paper expanded its boundaries. The editorial page, which had supported Democratic Party principles throughout its history, turned conservative. The paper’s front page in the mid-1990s moved from a typical mix of local, national and international stories to almost exclusively local content. 

The paper was sold several times and purchased by McClatchy Co. in 2006. Publisher Jay Tebbe said the quality of the newspaper’s work and its continuing commitment to the community remain unchanged.

(Originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat 12/10/2008. Reprinted with permission)


Despite Success, Knight Ridder Tells News-Democrat Management to Take A Hike

By Benjamin Israel

            After years of stability, the Belleville News-Democrat is undergoing changes – and rumors are flying. March 31 [2004] was the last day on the job for Greg Edwards, 51, editor since 1984, and Gary Berkley, publisher since 1987. Berkley, 60, who had been with the News-Democrat since 1978, announced his retirement in December. Edwards announced in February that he would quit. Parent company Knight Ridder announced Jan. 15 that advertising director Jay Tebbe would succeed Berkley.

            Tebbe, 45, started with the News-Democrat in 1976 as a truck driver and worked his way up through the ranks.

            The subject of most of the rumors is Edwards’ quitting. Few people who spoke to SJR believe his decision was entirely voluntary. But Edwards did not respond to numerous phone calls for this story. He has no answering machine.

            More than one anonymous source thought Edwards quit because he wasn’t named publisher, others because of some kind of pressure from Knight Ridder, which had owned the newspaper since 1997 and others because of a controversy over a political cartoon that some characterized as racist. Tebbe discounted all three.

            “Greg thought it was time to pursue other things,” Tebbe said.

            Carl Green, now an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who left an editing position at the News-Democrat in 1997, said, “When I was there Berkley pretty much called all the shots. He made sure his concerns were addressed.”

            In a statement released at the time of his announcement, Edwards said, “It will not be easy to leave, but with Gary’s retirement, the time is right.

            “I am proud to have worked with all of the employees at this great paper, but after 20 years as editor, it’s time for a change.”

            Edwards did face criticism over a controversial cartoon by staff cartoonist Glenn McCoy, which ran on Feb, 25 next to an editorial criticizing a group of East St. Louis parents who protested the dismissal of school Superintendent Nate Anderson. It showed two children holding picket signs that read, “Stoodints Far Nate Anderson” and “Heez doin a gude job!!”

            Peggy Lewis LeCompte, president of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, said in a letter to the editor published March 2 that the cartoon “belittled and denigrated” East St. Louis students.

            Edwards replied that day with an editorial that said the cartoon’s intent was to comment on “the shoddy education those students are receiving in the East St. Louis schools.”

            He noted that a cartoon showing similarly illiterate students in Collinsville criticizing low standards there produced no protests. Tebbe chuckled at the suggestion that Edwards would resign over it.

            Polk Laffoon, spokesman for Knight Ridder’s home office in San Jose, said, “I am not aware of any specific reasons for Greg Edwards’ departure.”

            He added that he wouldn’t say if he knew.

            “It’s been a very successful paper,” Laffoon said. “Its circulation has always been a positive story.”

            Knight Ridder surveyed the News-Democrat staff last year. Laffoon said the central office does that in all of its papers every two years.

            The News-Democrat emphasizes local news to such an extent that about the only time a national or international story appears on the front page is when there is a local angle. In the weeks since Berkley and Edwards left, Tebbe moved the first national and international news pages to page 3 from page 5, replacing a feature called “News You Can Use” that moved to the Lifestyles section.

            Investigative Reporters and Editors (I.R.E.) and the Illinois Press Association have honored the News-Democrat many times during the Berkley/Edwards regime. Circulation has risen by about one-third in the last 20 years to about 54,300 daily and 64,600 Sunday in a market with a stable population. (The Census Bureau counted just fewer than 600,000 in the Illinois portion of the St. Louis metropolitan area in 1980 and 2000.) Tebbe said most of that circulation is in St. Clair and southern Madison counties.

            In June of last year, Editor & Publisher magazine named the News-Democrat one of ten papers “that do it right.”

            It cited Edwards’ record of changing the paper from one whose typical banner headline was “Belleville Loves A Parade” to one that prides itself on its investigative reporting. The E&P story noted that the News-Democrat “aggressively reported on alleged sexual misconduct by local Roman Catholic priests long before priest abuse became a national story, and its 1992 reporting on racial profiling by police and lack of African Americans in municipal jobs was picked up by CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

            Still, the paper’s detractors are legion. Belleville Mayor Mark Kern whose family sold the News-Democrat to Capital Cities in 1972 said, “I look forward to a new day at the News-Democrat when they are focusing more on the community and what’s positive about the community.”

            John Baracevic, chairman of the St. Clair County Board, said that of all the newspapers he reads, “I’d put them at the bottom in fairness and accuracy.” He added, “I generally don’t give them interviews because they are not going to quote me accurately.”

            He said he believes the News-Democrat too often looks for a negative angle when none exists.

            As an example, he told of the story of an airplane that made an emergency landing at Mid-America Airport. Everything went perfectly, Baracevic said, except for the News-Democrat story.

            “The headline is a passenger is upset because there aren’t enough pay phones,” Baracevic said.

            Sue Britt, who was a News-Democrat reporter for 13 months ending in the spring of 2002, said editors often insisted that her stories conform to Edwards’ preconceived notions.

            Britt gave an example of a story about granting permits for home day-care centers in Fairview Heights. After two women’s applications came up at the same city council meeting, the white woman’s application was approved and the African-American woman’s was denied. Britt said an editor ordered her to put the racial disparity in the lead, although the white woman had a state license and the black woman did not. The Council told her to come back when she had a license, Britt said. In a later story, the Council considered outlawing all in-home day-care centers.

            Britt included a quote from Councilwoman Carol Warner indicating her position and her explanation, but the copy desk cut the explanation from the quote.

            “They totally slanted the story, and it was completely unfair and obvious,” Britt said in an email. Britt said that when she saw the News-Democrat the next morning, she called Warner to apologize and drove to her house to show her a printout of the story as she sent it to the copy desk. She said Warner told her her version was accurate.

            Warner confirmed the gist of the story but said she didn’t remember all the details. Britt “said she didn’t write it that way,” Warner said. “I chose to believe what Sue said. She brought was Sue said was corroborating data.

            “The News-Democrat, in my opinion, has a history of manipulating the facts,” Warner said. “When my constituents call and complain, I tell them ‘please don’t believe everything your read.’”

            Baracevic, Warner and Britt were not alone in their complaints.

            But other public officials say they trust the News-Democrat. Mayor Cary Graham of O’Fallon, for example, said, “Basically, they try to be accurate. I’ve never seen them to be intentionally misleading.”

            And Green, the former News-Democrat editor, said he did not see any intentional distortion of the news content when he was there. Edwards, he said, “can be very demanding and very insistent. I did see him say, ‘What about this? Did you ask him this?’ Overall, you’d have to give him a strong grade.”

            At press time, Tebbe had not hired a replacement for Edwards. He said he has interviewed candidates from within the paper and from out-of-town.

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 5/2004).

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