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Large turnout at The Weekly Challenger’s open house
Front row: Dr. Sophia Wisniewska, Catherine Cardwell, Helen Levine & Ethel Johnson Back row: James Schnur, Lyn Johnson, Rick Edmonds, Dr. Go Davis, Tim Franklin & Darryl Rouson
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
The Weekly Challenge, a new Negro-oriented newspaper, will be published in Pinellas County beginning Thursday.
ST. PETERSBURG – That blurb written in the Sept. 13, 1967, edition of the St. Petersburg Times announced the beginnings of recorded African-American history in Pinellas County.
Now, almost 50 years later, the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USFSP is currently in the process of building the digital archive for The Weekly Challenger where anyone worldwide can access it. Six months after each issue of the paper is published, it will be available in the digital archives.
At the digital archive open house event on Monday at the Poynter Memorial Library, USFSP honored Senator-elect Darryl Rouson for his part in securing funding for the project and the Johnson family for continuing the legacy of founder Cleveland Johnson, Jr.
“Individually in terms of our project, all three organizations—The Weekly Challenger, the Poynter Institute and USF St. Pete—serve a strong purpose,” said Catherine Cardwell, dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library. “But as partners we’re collaborating to preserve and strengthen an important part of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage.”
Through the efforts of then Rep. Rouson and other legislators during the 2016 legislative session, the Poynter Library received funding to develop and implement preservation and sustainability initiatives for The Weekly Challenger, which includes access to resources provided by the Poynter Institute, a global leader in journalism.
“The Weekly Challenger has served as a voice for Pinellas County’s African-American community for nearly 50 years,” said USFSP Regional Chancellor Dr. Sophia Wisniewska. “Thanks to legislative leadership of Senator-elect Darryl Rouson, we are enabled to take the first steps to preserve the history of this significant publication.”
Through the digital archive, donated artifacts and thousands of photos, USFSP is in the process of building a special collection for the Challenger. Readers will be able to access and browse issues from the last 25 years. This partnership provides a unique learning opportunity for journalism students, Wisniewska said, as they have a chance to become part of a working newsroom through the university’s Neighborhood News Bureau.
Before the Challenger, many African-American residents in the area read newspapers from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and other papers published by African Americans, while little to no local news could be found. Cleveland Johnson, Jr. answered the call for such a hometown paper here in St. Pete, and began publishing the paper in 1967. Today, Lyn Johnson, the youngest daughter of the paper’s founder, serves as publisher.
“In the four years that she has led the paper,” Wisniewska said, “Lyn has increased readership by focusing on community news and placing national news on their website.”
President of the Poynter Institute Tim Franklin, who has served as the editor of three metropolitan newspapers, said that the goal of any news organization is to be the essential source of news and information for its community of readers and viewers.
“For nearly 50 years, The Weekly Challenger newspaper has achieved that goal,” he said. “It’s been an absolutely vital source of news and information for the African-American communities of Pinellas County.”
The roots of the paper go back to The Weekly Advertiser, owned by M.C. Fountain, Franklin explained. Cleveland Johnson, Jr. a salesman at the paper back then, acquired the business in 1967 and changed its name and focus. It became the voice of the black community with coverage of school desegregation and corporate hiring practices, noting which businesses would hire black employees.
“When Cleveland Johnson passed away in 2001 at the age of 73,” Franklin said, “he was such a legend that obituaries appeared about him in newspapers as far away as Honolulu.”
His widow Ethel Johnson then served as publisher, and in Feb. 2012, Lyn Johnson became the paper’s publisher. This is a time of seismic change in the media industry, he pointed out, brought on by the digital revolution.
“We intend to work with USFSP to help Lyn and The Weekly Challenger as it adapts to this new media order.”
Rouson, who sold copies of the paper as a young boy, acknowledged the “tireless dedication and commitment” of the paper’s editor and publisher, Lyn Johnson.
“We see her at all of these events across this city,” Rouson said, “quietly going about her job of telling the story of black history and community history in this city. And I look for ways to help preserve that and sustain it.”
Lyn Johnson acknowledged Rouson for securing the funding to help keep The Weekly Challenger still thriving a half century after it was launched.
“Without his help,” she said, “I don’t know if we would’ve made it to our 50th anniversary next year.”
She also thanked USF Librarian James Schnur, who also holds adjunct teaching appointments at Eckerd College and the USF School of Information, for his efforts with the archiving and bringing the project to life.
“I’d like to thank the community,” she added, “because without the community there would be no Weekly Challenger.
Ethel Johnson told the crowd on hand that she hopes the paper can continue to be a “vehicle for the community.”
“I tell my daughter Lyn,” she said, “that as long as you’re doing good work and work that benefits others, you’ll prosper.”
Officials attending the event included Dr. Goliath Davis, Congressman David Jolly, Commissioner Charlie Justice, Council members Ed Montanari, Karl Nurse, Darden Rice and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
If you have older issues of The Weekly Challenger, especially from the 1990s or earlier, please contact Special Collections at the USFSP Poynter Library. They will be digitized, added to the paper’s archive and given back to the owner. Please call 727-873-4094 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.