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Last Defense?

The sale of the venerable Tri-State Defender is clearing the final hurdles.


Readers, employees, and others interested in the future of the Tri-State Defender were abuzz this week with the news that the paper had finally been sold. The paper s future has been a subject of speculation since the death of owner John Sengstacke five years ago. But the speculation has jumped the gun a bit, according to general manager Audrey McGhee. Declining a full interview, McGhee briefly explained that the presiding judge in the case had cleared the tables for a possible sale but that the decision of the Sengstacke board also awaits any potential buyers. Sengstacke scion and the Defender s chief editor Tom Picou and an unnamed silent partner are said to be the leading, and perhaps last remaining, bidders. African-American casino owner Don Barden was once among a string of suitors interested. Barden visited the office on Calhoun in 1999, but all offers except Picou s have now apparently fallen off the table. When reached at his home in Chicago, Picou indicated the deal was nearly done: The board had already approved the sale before the judge s decision, he said. Sengstacke Enterprises now has to get approval from the IRS to make it all final. Once the largest and most powerful black newspaper chain in America, Sengstacke controlled papers from Chicago to Florida. Bids for the remaining four The Chicago Defender (the nation s first and sole black daily), The Michigan Chronicle, The Pittsburgh Courier, and the Tri-State Defender reached a reported $14 million. Sengstacke tried to leave the business to a niece but tax law changes scuttled the plan. The company carries several million dollars in estate-tax liability, which has been blamed for the reported cash-flow problems. It is no secret that the company s fortunes are desperate. Tri-State Defender employees have been working under death-watch circumstances for well over a year. Payroll has been consistently late and often missed entirely. Employees say McGhee has often been heard to say don t be surprised to come to work and find the doors are locked. Fourteen-year employee Eileen Sullivan recently had to quit because of the paper s money problems. I got tired of going to work every day, then at the end of the week you didn t even know if you were going to get paid, she said. I just couldn t take it anymore. The paper s financial troubles come despite recent improvements in the product. Picou is credited with adding modern graphics techniques and a broader scope in the tone of departmental news. There is a regular column devoted to news from African nations, and writer Wiley Henry has been recognized for feature stories that have a pulse to them. But the company s corporate culture has also hurt its present commercial status. Former managing editor Virginia Porter said, They laid off three black women to keep on one white boy because he was practically Tommy Picou s nephew. Not to mention they were already paying him more than anyone else. And they continued to do so even after he moved out of town. The people in Memphis can t get a raise, can t even half get paid, and they could send him his money all the way to Pennsylvania. That s the mentality that is strangling the Tri-State Defender. Porter, like most of the paper s critics, feels its mission is still necessary. The paper s editorial closeness to the African-American community still gives it strong potential editorial reach. But the economic strain is becoming evident to the paper s readers. An on-air comment made a few months back by popular radio personality Mother Wit summed up the paper s present condition and image in the marketplace: The Tri-State Defender is the city s black weekly, she said. That s spelled w-e-a-k. But the Defender s roots are deep. Though the black community s assimilation into mainstream America here and elsewhere has cut the company s revenues and circulation drastically, many current and former employees feel that the company s management also bears responsibility for the Defender s present circumstances. The paper s 50th anniversary passed recently without making a blip in the marketplace. If any of this intimidates Picou, he doesn t let on. We re not going to change the content, he says. We think we have a pretty good paper. Picou, who started with the firm in his teens, has worked in every capacity, from editorial to a brief stint as president of the company. If the sale becomes final, Picou says he will bring in a marketing staff, but the main concentration will be on making the paper function in a digital age. The Defender has made a lot of progress in the last seven years, he says, in terms of direction and targeting it toward a more favorable readership meaning people between 25 and 55. Basically, I think the paper is a sleeper. Even though Memphis has the 52nd-worst reading market in the country, I think there is tremendous room for expansion. And not only in Memphis but in the entire state of Tennessee.

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