Illustration by Daniel Bejar
“I think we did a huge service to the city when we had our Ferguson moment, our Baltimore moment, back in 2001,” says Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney.
The publisher of The Cincinnati Herald—the city’s black newspaper of record since 1955—is casually leaning back in her chair at the paper’s Avondale offices on a dreary Thursday morning in late May. The weekly publication goes to press on Wednesday evenings, giving the final two days of the workweek a more relaxed vibe. The late-arriving staff’s combination of tired eyes and warm smiles is a collective day-after-deadline exhale.
Between sips of coffee, Kearney is discussing the Herald’s impending 60th anniversary (officially recognized this month), which inevitably leads to recollections of major moments in the paper’s history. Chief among those are the city’s 2001 riots—or as Kearney prefers to call it, “civil unrest”—in the wake of the shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old African-American man, by a Cincinnati police officer. It’s a topic that’s been front-of-mind, locally and elsewhere, in light of a series of police shootings and racially charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Cleveland; Baltimore; and North Charleston, South Carolina in the past 12 months.
“We didn’t assume that just because we’re the black press, we understand what everyone was thinking,” says Kearney of the paper’s 2001 coverage. “So we walked from corner to corner, neighborhood to neighborhood—Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, Avondale, Evanston—just went around talking to people about how they felt. I think having a forum was really good. Without the information, you don’t really understand what’s going on. Decision makers wanted to make decisions without talking to the people they were making decisions for. Did you talk to the community? [Find out] what people are thinking and feeling? What do the people want? There’s that hierarchy, and sometimes there is a failure to connect.
“That’s our job,” she adds. “To make sure that all our voices are heard.”
Given all that African-Americans have suffered in our country’s history, it isn’t too surprising The Cincinnati Herald has endured its own fair share of struggles. Started by Gerald Porter, the Herald picked up where Wendell Dabney’s Union left off after Dabney’s death in 1952. Black newspapers were nothing new in Cincinnati in 1955—Dabney started his first in 1902—and even predate the Civil War as part of the American free press, tracing back to New York’s Freedom’s Journal in 1827. None of that made Porter’s undertaking any easier, but he was steadfast in his mission, overseeing the paper until his death in 1963, at which point his wife, Marjorie Parham, was suddenly tasked with taking over the entire enterprise. “I felt it was too good a business to let go,” says Parham. “I was frightened, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I had little experience. But too much work had gone into it.”
Living out the type of self-made storyline Hollywood salivates over, Parham (with the help of Bill Spillers, her son from a previous marriage) kept the Herald afloat in the face of blatant discrimination and a deck fully stacked against her. “In 1963, it wasn’t easy to be black, female, and broke,” she says. “I sold advertisements, did public relations, handled the writing. I swept up and took out the trash, too. It was all just day-to-day, slow progress. Nothing spectacular. But I kept it alive.”
At 97, the Herald’s Publisher Emerita is still razor sharp. She’s sitting in the sturdy chair—better for her back—of her Clifton apartment near the Cincinnati State campus, sporting Sophia Petrillo glasses, a dark-green sweater adorned with fall leaves, and comfy slippers, scanning through her 33 years in charge of the paper.
She persevered through the riots in 1967 and ’68—“And you can call those riots,” she says—at one point telling a police captain that if white officers from the west side were going to don a blue uniform and walk up Reading Road, being called a “pig” was just going to be an occupational hazard. She survived a firebombing at the paper’s offices in 1994 after publishing an article about the impact of Islam on Africa. And in the midst of building a respected weekly publication, she earned herself one of the more decorated careers among black women in Cincinnati history, becoming the second African-American woman on the University of Cincinnati’s board of trustees and serving as chairwoman of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.
“Mrs. Parham was known for pushing the envelope and making people sit up and be aware of what was going on,” says Andria Carter, a freelance journalist with two separate stints working for the Herald, the first under Parham from 1989 to 1991. “She was very tough. She expected a lot from people.”
Parham eventually sold the paper to the fledgling Sesh Communications in 1996, but it was under her leadership that the Herald established its authority: covering major events and advocating for African-American causes in the city, but also encouraging voting and civic participation among its black readership and promoting cultural activities like the opera and symphony. Beyond news, it was the paper’s distinct perspective that resonated—a positive voice for the black community, from the black community.
“The perspective is the black perspective,” says Carter, who later returned to the paper from 1997 to 2003. “It’s from the minority as opposed to to the majority. We have the ability to be in places where others aren’t wanted, or to hear conversations that no else gets to hear because of that.”
African-American newspapers have long been institutions of change and influence, the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes gracing the pages of the black press throughout American history. The formation of the National Negro Publishers Association in 1941 was a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement. And in times of great racial conflict—Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, Ferguson in 2014—these publications fill an important role, stepping up to be instructive but not biased, impassioned but not inflammatory, a voice for those who feel voiceless.
“A lot of times, mainstream publications speak for black people, and black newspapers allow us to speak for ourselves,” says Tiffany Luckey, an associate editor of custom media at Ohio Magazine and a former Herald editor from 2005 to 2007. “It’s important that we tell our stories instead of having someone think for us. We actually live it.”
More often, the impact extends to smaller, day-to-day issues, things like business and crime and lifestyle stories. People are constantly writing, calling, and visiting the paper’s offices with stories of discrimination and injustices faced in the workplace, unable to get attention or enforce action through other means. The Herald’s pages are prime real estate for politicians and public officials as well, a channel through which they can broadcast their own message and hook into the everyday issues impacting the paper’s readership.
“I remember helping on a story about the Walgreens closing in Avondale,” says Luckey. “Having it close was affecting a lot of people, especially lower-income black people who walk there to get prescriptions or small items. It’s small stories like that which have a huge impact on the community.”
That phrase, “the community,” is one you hear a lot when talking with people about the Herald. In a very real sense, Cincinnati’s African-American community directs what the paper covers, informing and influencing its perspective. There is more to write about than crime and arrests and murders. There are weddings, graduations, reunions, jobs, honors. The Herald contributes to the conversation through its BRIGHT and Nefertiti Awards, honoring, respectively, young and female African-Americans making a difference in the community, and the annual Daddy-Daughter Dinner and Dance. There are encouraging things happening all the time, things mainstream news outlets can’t or won’t cover. But the Herald makes them a priority.
“We tell good news, too, and I think that’s important,” says Kearney. “It can be very discouraging to always hear about the failures and the injustices, and that’s part of life. But there are also all of these great things happening and wonderful people out there. We need to lift them up.”
It’s an admirable irony in many ways. The black press—in a city not unfamiliar with racial disharmony, writing from a viewpoint that has withstood slavery and Jim Crow and systemic oppression—is the loudest bearer of its own good news, intent on shouting positivity into a generational abyss of pain and societal neglect.
There are no faultless publications of any kind, of course, and The Cincinnati Herald has committed its share of sins against journalism. The paper is known for publishing a healthy dose of grammatical errors, misspelled names, and press releases with little-to-no editing, in addition to nitpicky offenses like articles without bylines and a hodgepodge of fonts and formats. Many of these mistakes undoubtedly stem from a lack of manpower; even for a small weekly, a full-time staff of about seven is pretty bare bones, evidenced by assistant editor Courtney Myrick also serving as editor-in-chief of sister publications The Dayton Defender and SeshPrime Magazine (a monthly geared toward senior citizens). And while being short-staffed is a matter of course for almost all newspapers in today’s market, most outlets haven’t had their hardships scrutinized in the legal and political realms.
Sesh Communications was founded in 1995 by lawyers Eric Kearney, Jan-Michele Lemon, and Wilton Blake and journalist Ronda Gooden, and it purchased The Cincinnati Herald from Marjorie Parham a year later. The paper endured an unceremonious departure by Blake in 2001, who pled guilty to four felony counts of forgery and theft for stealing equipment and a company checkbook from the Herald offices after he had officially left the company; he was sentenced to five years probation and 500 hours of community service, ordered to make restitution in the amount of $25,297.54, and ultimately disbarred by the Supreme Court of Ohio. Gooden’s departure in 2006 was less dramatic—she took a new job in Mississippi to be closer to family. But that left the Kearneys, married in 1995, to run things, a task quickly shouldered solely by Jan-Michele, a Dartmouth and Harvard Law grad, when her husband was appointed to the state senate in 2005 to replace Mark Mallory.
By all accounts, it was a smooth transition at first. Then the economic recession kneecapped Sesh Communications. It was a fate suffered by many small businesses at the time, except their plight became statewide news following Kearney’s selection as the lieutenant governor candidate on the Democratic ticket with Ed FitzGerald. Soon after his candidacy was announced in late 2013, it was reported that the Kearneys owed upwards of $800,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties, which they attributed to their struggling publishing company. State Senator Kearney withdrew three weeks after the announcement.
“We went through several recessions,” says Jan-Michele matter-of-factly. “We couldn’t always make payroll and back taxes, apparently. So we came up with a plan and we’ve been paying on it.
“I really thought the FitzGerald campaign missed an opportunity to say that these are businesspeople, and they didn’t hide,” she adds. “We hit this problem like the rest of America. You struggle, you survive, and you keep working. Isn’t that who you want representing you? But the FitzGerald campaign, no offense to them, they wouldn’t listen to me.”
To the Herald’s credit, the paper laid off no staff during the recession or subsequent tax issues, though Kearney did cut her salary. Yet again, in spite of its flaws and struggles, and in a time when it would have been easy to fold and close up shop, the paper persisted. Much like Parham in 1963, there were too many reasons not to give up. “The day the Herald no longer serves a particular need, it will cease to exist,” says Carter. “But that need is still prevalent. The black perspective still needs to be explained over and over again. Right now, we still need it.”
Kearney agrees, and despite the recent racially charged incidents across the nation, she’s also not discouraged. Front-page stories about tense situations—like the police action against black youth at the Fairfield Aquatic Center earlier this summer—still occur. But there are uplifting stories to report, too, such as Freedom Center President Clarence Newsome giving the invocation for Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s formal investiture ceremony in Washington, D.C., this past June, and an op-ed from Mayor Cranley on the city budget, and a quick blurb about author Michelle Alexander being given the Mercantile Library’s inaugural Freedom Writer Award for her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The bad is not a result of an absence of good. The fight isn’t won, but it hasn’t been lost either.
“It really bothers me when people say that there has been no progress. There has been,” says Kearney. “Does that mean things are wonderful, that there aren’t any problems? No, it’s not utopia. There’s still unemployment, racism, sexism. That doesn’t mean you give up. Ferguson and Baltimore and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin—here in Cincinnati, too. There’s still work to be done.”