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The St. Louis American

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The St. Louis American

            The St. Louis American came into being in 1928. It was the brainchild of three men: Dick Kent, owner of a fleet of taxicabs and the St. Louis Giants Baseball team; Charlie Turpin, leading politician and first Negro constable in St. Louis; and N.B. Young, Yale-trained lawyer and historian.

            The American, not pulling any punches, has had a strong educational policy from the beginning. It has taken a forthright policy towards critical issues in the community. In the thirties The American initiated a “Buy where you can work” campaign that resulted in the increased employment of Negroes in sales positions.

            Born in a political boom year, with predictions that it would not last, The American lives on. Under the leadership of N.A. Sweets, editor and publisher, it has proved that with hard work it can survive.

            (From St. Louis Memories, Vol. 7).

American Expands Under New Stewardship

By George Curry

            The St. Louis American is getting a new face-lift. New reporters are being hired, special features have been added and many more ads are appearing in the black weekly.

            These changes have come about as a result of the N.A. and Melba Sweets family decision to sell the paper to a group that includes former Argus ad man Gene Liss; Dr. Benjamin Davis, Sr.; former police commissioner and real estate developer Clifton Gates, with a minor share of the new corporation to be retained by the Sweets. At press time, final papers had not been signed, but a source involved in the negotiations said, “There is no reason to think they will not be signed.”

            Although the sale of the American has not been completed, there has been no delay in embarking on a new course at the paper, which was founded by retired St. Louis Circuit Judge Nathan B. Young. Ruth Thaler, former youth columnist for the Argus, is writing a new column from Washington, D.C.; Hank Thompson, a one-time columnist for the newspaper, has been brought back to do political commentary; a man-in-the-streets – and woman-in-the-streets – feature has been added; LaVerne Burton Vaughn, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, has been added to the staff to report and do reviews; Stan Newsome has been hired to be the American’s version of Jean Dixon with his column, “The Amazine Mr. Newsome Predicts.” Liss has also enlarged the advertising staff.

            The American will continue to feature Wilson’s commentary, Willie Oates’ entertainment reviews, Mel and Thel on the social scene and editorials by Elwood Randal.

            Dawn magazine will now run exclusively in the newspaper. Advertising revenue has increased by 500 percent in one month, according to Liss, and the press run is up 30 percent. The paper has started same-day home delivery in some zones and has purchased a new building at 3203 Olive Street that will be ready for occupancy in three months.

            Many observers are wondering if the new ownership will simply add new features to attract more readers or will those items, in time, become a substitute for what has traditionally made the St. Louis American a great newspaper – its hard-hitting editorials and its courage in tackling controversial issues?

            The American’s fate lies in the fate of Bennie G. Rodgers. He is listed on the masthead as executive editor and is still in charge of the editorial operations of the newspaper. But it is clear that Liss, a man with a background in advertising and not news, is playing a larger – some say key – role in what goes into the newspaper, while the other investors stay away from daily operations.

            However will-intentioned Liss may be, some observers feel, he simply cannot provide the black perspective on the news. In the Feb. 19th issue of the American, for example, Liss did a column suggesting that gifts be made to reduce the national debt. For the person-on-the-street interview, he asked: How did you make out last week when the temperature hit 8 degrees below zero and the wind chill factor was 50 degrees below? In addition, Liss is also suggesting  stories and making it clear to staffers that he will be involved in the daily operation of the paper.

            Liss may be headed for a possible head-on clash with Bennie Rodgers, perhaps the most-respected journalist in the black community. There are no signs of friction between the two, but those who know Rodgers say that he will not back down from a fight nor will he ever compromise his principles. The future of the American might very well rest on how well each man is allowed to carry out his duties – Liss handling the business end and Rodgers directing the editorial operations.

            As the American embarks on a larger mission, Argus publisher Dr. Eugene Mitchell is not standing still. He notes that he is not in competition with anyone else and that, as Missouri’s oldest black business, the Argus will continue to put out the best product possible. He has hired Steve Korris, his former city editor, back as a full-time reporter. The paper has picked up Andy Young’s syndicated column and made several additions to the advertising staff. He is not threatened by the fact that the American is now adding many items – a Washington correspondent and person-on-street interviews – that have been regular features in the Argus.

            “I haven’t made any moves because of changes at the American,” Mitchell said. “We will continue to do the job that we’ve always done.”

            Liss said, “I don’t consider the American in competition with anyone but ourselves. We want to be as good as we possibly can.”

            Though publicly downplaying the competition between the two papers – and to a lesser extent, the St. Louis Sentinel and the Whirl – executives at each paper are out to dominate the St. Louis weekly market in content and advertising. And the increased competition can’t help but benefit the primary target community – blacks.

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 3/1981).


No More Growing Pains for the American

By D.J. Wilson

            Anyone rolling into St. Louis in the ‘70s might have found a local dentist named Donald Suggs driving a Volkswagen, listening to Miles Davis and spouting some radical notions about civil rights, social justice and economic equity.

            Checking out that same Donald Suggs in 2007 revealed a member of the ruling elite. He is president and publisher of an award-winning African-American weekly, a member of numerous corporate boards, an art aficionado, a power broker with a seat at most important deal-making tables and a man comfortable in the uniform of folks who travel in those circles: an expensive suit, snappy suspenders and a well-placed kerchief in his chest pocket.

            The times they have a’changed . Yet from his point of view, Suggs is doing what he needs to do to run a business and get things done. That transition from rabble-rousing to routine respectability has engendered both criticism and credibility.

            “I don’t feel differently,” Suggs says. “In the business world they’re not comfortable with you if you’re not dressed like this. I’m on the front lines trying to produce a community newspaper that is relevant. Hopefully – hopefully – because of my efforts some lives will be touched.”

            Whatever else they say about Suggs, they can’t take away the visible success of The St. Louis American. With an audited circulation of 70,000, the American is distributed free on Thursdays at 845 locations throughout the metro area, including many supermarkets. It’s won a raft of awards and has been named the best African-American newspaper in the country in six of the last 11 years by the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

            The American has published continuously since 1928. Suggs did not get involved in its ownership until the early 1980s. After graduating from the University of Indiana Dental School, Suggs came to St. Louis to do his internship at the old Homer G. Phillips Hospital. He chose dentistry after working summer jobs summer jobs in the steel mills in his hometown of East Chicago, Indiana. He recalls always having a newspaper at home growing up, and he saw owning a newspaper as a way of affecting public discourse on issues.

            The leading African-American newspaper at the time was the St. Louis Argus, with the American printing only about 8,000 copies. Suggs eventually bought a share of the paper along with others, including Clifton Gates. Back then, African-American newspapers often relied on national advertisers, particularly cigarette ads.

            “Any given month you might get 10 full-page ads for cigarettes, usually menthol cigarettes,” says Suggs. (That revenue later dried up.) “It meant you could run a newspaper at a profit if you kept your expenses low.”

            Suggs thought of a different route and invested in the quality of the product. He also got some advice from Riverfront Times founder Ray Hartmann that distributing the newspaper for free would reach more readers.

            “We took a lot of risk in building a well-circulated, professional product that had some journalistic quality and good, clean graphics. That’s been a long haul,” Suggs said. “There is a price you pay for that.”

            It meant using his practice as a dentist and oral surgeon and dipping into those resources to keep the paper running. “First of all, you are operating a business,” Suggs says. “Whatever your intentions are, unless you’re Sun Myung Moon with unlimited resources or Rupert Murdoch, you’re solvent, insolvent or subsidized. So, the paper was subsidized by me for a long time. The paper did, and does, owe me substantial amounts of money.”

            He said the paper “is profitable now on an operating basis.”

            There were legal hassles, too, involving a long-running lawsuit with Gates that was settled last year. Suggs picked up the 20 percent share Gates had, and now he is the sole owner of the American.

            His paper is the preeminent voice of the local African-American community, though that doesn’t mean the paper is without its critics, or its running feuds with people outside, and inside, that community. In the “Political Eye” column, there has been an ongoing back-and-forth with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Sylvester Brown, the daily’s featured black columnist.

            Brown had published and written for his own paper, Take Five, before it folded. Most of the flap lately has come over Brown’s criticism of Suggs backing the “reform” slate for the city school board that included former mayor Vince Schoemehl and the Missouri History Society’s Robert Archibald.

            “Doc and I have our differences, but I’ve always appreciated the fact that he supported me and Take Five when I first started,” recalls Brown.

            One of the flaps, Brown says, centers around Suggs’ belief that Brown feels Take Five was run out of business by the American and Suggs.

            “That’s total bullshit,” Brown says. “Take Five went out of business because there’s not a black newspaper in this town, including the American, that can survive without white advertisers.”

            Once Brown was hired by the Post, other issues surfaced. “I think our feud started when I publically disagreed with some of the American’s positions on issues. It escalated when I criticized Suggs’ role in the St. Louis Public School ‘reform effort’ in my column,” Brown says.

            “My critiques have always been about things written in the American, especially in the mysterious and snippy ‘Political Eye.’”

            Suggs says that Brown intimated that he used his paper to back candidates for the school board race and others because they bought ads Suggs calls those inferences “cheap shots,” and suggests that Brown is too caught up with some of the more strident voices in the African-American community.

            “I’m interested in what moves things forward,” says Suggs. “Just because someone is ranting and raving, telling me what the black issue is, if after I’ve thought about it and it doesn’t make sense, then I’m not there.

            “Sylvester is an important force in the community,” Suggs continues. “But when he strikes at me, he strikes out at the American, and these people don’t like it.”

            One of “these people” is Alvin Reid, the veteran city editor of the paper, who along with photographer Wiley Price, entertainment editor Bill Beene and sports editor Earl Austin, Jr., form the veteran core of the newspaper. Chris King is the newspaper’s editorial director.

            Reid has become a local media celeb and public face of the American, with his regular appearances on KETC’s (Channel 9) “Donnybrook” and frequent radio gigs.

            “Instead of saying ‘the Political Eye’ said this or that, people attack the American or attack Dr. Suggs,” Reid says. “This whole ‘The American sucks’ thing, well, why? Because of something in the ‘Political Eye?’ Well, that’s silly. When grown-ups, be they columnists or blog people, launch into ‘This is why the American is worthless,’ or ‘Dr. Suggs is this or that,’ I do have a problem with that, and there will be something written about that.”

            The “Political Eye” column is a stream of gossip, innuendo, insider information and opinion that is published without a byline or credit.

            In past years, former City of St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones was the main contributor, though his contributions have all but disappeared. An amalgam of King, Reid and others make up the current “Political Eye.”

            At least one political observer who wanted to be as anonymous as the column believes the “Political Eye” isn’t what it used to be when Virvus Jones was the main conspirator.

            “To write a political column, you have to hang out,” the observer says. “It’s clear whoever writer the ‘Political Eye’ now doesn’t hang out. It doesn’t have the feel of an insider.”

            State Rep. Tom Villa, former city aldermanic president, calls the column “grossly inaccurate on many items.”

            “Having said that, the fact that I read it  and I talk about it might be what they’re trying to do,” Villa says.

            Politicians and those concerned about the public image of groups and institutions keep a close watch on the American. Richard Callow, a publicist for some of St. Louis’ high-profile clients, including Mayor Francis Slay and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, says, “’What will the American write?’ is one of the most important questions a flack ought to ask.

            “The St. Louis American is what a real newspaper ought to be: an eye on its community and a voice for our concerns,” Callow says. “Its publisher is a pillar in the community; its city editor (Reid) is a moral force in the local media firmament; and its photographer (Price) is a fixture at press conferences. And the price is right too.”

            Mike Jones, a former city alderman and deputy mayor and now a special assistant to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, knew Suggs in his Volkswagen-driving days. The paper may have changed, but Jones thinks Suggs is still trying to fight the good fight.

            “Donald is about the American the way the Pulitzers were about the Post; it was more than a medium to raise money through advertising,” Jones says.

            Jones doesn’t see community newspapers published weekly in other cities that do their job as well as the American. “It serves us well as a weekly,” he says.

            Part of that service, to Suggs, is taking on difficult issues. None has been more difficult than his involvement in the city’s school system. Much of the heat he’s drawn has come from his own community.

            “We get into trouble. We wanted radical reform of the school system. We made a lot of enemies. That’s what happens when you tamper with the status quo, but we were looking at something that had to be changed.”

            Suggs said the issue affected the African-American community; yet it was a societal issue.

            “These children are going out into society totally ill-prepared. When children are not educated, you confine them to a second-class citizenship no matter what color they are.”

            Though Suggs’ early contact at his summer job in the steel mill with union organizers with Marxist views affected his view of the world, his 20-plus years of experience owning the American has educated him on how tricky and slow social change can be.

            “What we need here in the African-American community is not a ‘Donald Suggs’ who’s going to save everybody. We need a cohort of people who are committed to forward thinking about some of the issues we face,” Suggs says.

            “When you grow up as a radical like I did, you think you can do everything. Then you learn and have a little more respect for the incremental.”

            (Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 8/2007).

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