Effort seeks to preserve history of St. Petersburg’s Weekly Challenger newspaper

Cleveland Johnson

LaVendrick Smith, Tampa Bay Times

ST. PETERSBURG — Lyn Johnson faced a problem.

She wanted to relocate from the office space where her family had printed a community newspaper for decades. But she had to figure out what to do with all the old issues of the Weekly Challenger lying around the newsroom.

In a leaking, moldy back room of the paper’s office on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, stacks of the newspaper lay stuck together. Pictures depicting the lives of St. Petersburg’s black residents peeled from the pages when the old papers were opened.

“The whole office was moldy, but that back room actually leaked,” Johnson said. “So a lot of the stuff was ruined back there.”

Cleveland Johnson

Cleveland Johnson

With the help of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Johnson found a solution that not only took the salvageable extra papers off her hands, but will also help preserve part of the city’s history.

Work at the college is under way to create a digital archive of the Weekly Challenger, which has served the city’s black community for almost 50 years. The initiative aims to catalog issues of the paper in an online archive, while also helping Johnson and eventually other publishers of black newspapers in Florida operate in today’s digital media age.

“The Weekly Challenger is a really significant publication in our community and has been for many years,” said Catherine Cardwell, dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Petersburg. “It’s really significant for us to take part in preserving that heritage in our community and making it accessible to people in the community and beyond.”

Johnson’s father, Cleveland Johnson, bought the paper in 1967 as a way to bring positive news of St. Petersburg’s black community to its residents. In a time when many black people felt that the mainstream news media lacked positive coverage of their neighborhoods and achievements, the paper filled a void.

The publication covers everything from what’s going on nationally and how it affects black residents in the Tampa Bay area to local church happenings and students’ academic achievements.

“What the newspaper tried to do was really provide information to people about the events within the black community, while at the same time, provide a positive voice about what’s going on in the black community for the larger area,” said Jim Schnur, the special collections librarian at the Poynter library.

Schnur has led the project, which the university expects to open to the public in the spring. When finished, people will be able to access digital issues of the paper from anywhere in the world.

Schnur said the paper historically has allowed St. Petersburg’s black community to escape to a paper dedicated to covering its issues from a different perspective. The early days of the paper saw the end of the civil rights movement. Schnur said the Challenger dignified the lives of black people fighting for equality.

“In some ways, I think what the paper’s real legacy during the early years was being that friend, that close friend that you can share your concerns about what you see happening,” Schnur said. “What the Weekly Challenger does is it comes on the scene and it really offers a safe haven. It offers an opportunity where you can have conversations in a way that it was a little more closer to home.”

Today, Johnson faces the task of managing the paper while the industry is evolving quickly.

She took over as publisher in 2012 and said running it is different now from when her father was at the helm, before he died in 2001. The advent of new technology makes it easy to print a paper. However she’s not shielded from the challenges facing print journalism generally, such as loss of advertising revenue.

“Now since we’re in this digital age, and there’s Facebook and Twitter and everything, why would people spend money on print?” Johnson said. “So that’s the challenge right there, getting dollars, getting people to see the value in it. And that’s what we’re running into.”

In April, Johnson and publishers of other black newspapers throughout the state will gather for a conference to discuss how to maintain their papers as a business.

As for preserving the Challenger archives, Johnson and the college are seeking help looking for its oldest issues. They have most of the papers since 2000, but are asking anyone with older issues to send them to USF St. Petersburg.

Johnson said her father didn’t have a system for archiving the papers when he was alive. When the same moldy room from the old office would get crowded with issues, he’d throw them out to create space. As a result, the city’s black community has lost much of its documented history. But with this effort, she hopes to preserve as much of it as possible.

For Johnson and others, it’s important to have an up-to-the minute history of the community, written by black residents in a way that celebrates their accomplishments.

“I think it’s so important for us to have our own news, so we know our story,” she said. “We know who we are.”

Contact Times staff writer LaVendrick Smith at lsmith@tampabay.com. Follow @LaVendrickS.

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