By Keith Chambers, Chicago Crusader
Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers, was elected chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in a major shakeup on June 23 during the organization’s annual convention at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD.
NNPA is the latest major Black organization to shake up its leadership to address difficult times and an uncertain future amid declining advertising revenues.
For the second time in the organization’s 77-year-old history, Leavell will lead a handful of new officers, assuming the leadership of over 200 Black newspapers published across America.
She succeeds Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, who served as chairman for the past two years. Barnes campaigned for re-election this year, but faced a difficult battle to win support at a time with declining advertising revenues, the election of President Donald Trump and the fading influence of the Black Press threatening the unity and future of the 77-year-old organization.
Leavell was announced as chairman during the NNPA’s Legacy Dinner, which honored civil rights leader Martin Luther King, III.
Known for her fiery leadership style and uncompromising commitment to the Black Press, Leavell pledged to re-energize an organization that many believe needs a strong leader to challenge high-profile corporations and the Trump administration’s conservative agenda. It’s a concern among historic Black organizations that are making bold moves to survive while at critical crossroads.
In May, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, stunned its leadership when it fired its president, Cornell William Brooks. The organization’s board of directors said change is part of “an organization-wide refresh.”
Publishers believe it is time for new leadership at NNPA, where many historic Black newspapers have closed over the years as advertising revenues continue to decline.
“We have some strange times. And, we’ve been dealing with some seemingly insurmountable problems and our publishers are hurting so bad,” said Leavell, who previously served two elected terms as president of NNPA from 1995 to 1999. “We are suffering, and with a new administration in the White House, it will take someone who isn’t afraid—someone who will raise a lot of hell.”
Leavell praised the outgoing chairman, Rolark Barnes, for her work over the past two years.
“I like Denise, and I think she’s done a heck of a job,” Leavell said. “But, I’m ready to get down in the mud for this organization.”
Leavell’s experience should bode well for the NNPA in the future, said Houston Forward Times publisher Karen Carter Richards.
“Dorothy has a lot of experience in the organization, and I think she will continue to move it forward,” said Richards, who was re-elected as first vice chair of the organization.
Bernal Smith, publisher of Memphis’ New Tri-State Defender, was elected second vice chair of NNPA. Shannon Williams, president of the Indianapolis Recorder, will continue in her role as secretary.
Leavell has not only been a great general for the NNPA, but she is also a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, remarked NNPA president and CEO, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
“I see her as someone to lead the fight fiercely for freedom, justice and equality,” he said.
During her previous two two-year stints as president of the organization, Leavell helped increase the visibility and international stature of the Black Press. She was elected chairman of the NNPA Foundation, and as a member of the NNPA for more than half a century, Leavell has served in a variety of roles and has often been recognized for her philanthropic and civic contributions.
At a time when there were few Black women in the publishing business, Leavell took over the Crusader newspapers after her husband, publisher Balm L. Leavell, died in 1968. Despite hardships and a declining print newspaper industry, she built two award-winning newspapers while raising a family of four.
In 1989, Leavell was honored as Publisher of the Year and was recipient of the Winnie Mandela Endurance with Dignity Award. Last year, the National Association of Black Journalists inducted Leavell into its prestigious Hall of Fame.
“My father used to bring me to NNPA. He passed and the person who invited me here after that was Dorothy Leavell,” said Rolark Barnes. “So, it’s up to all of us to make NNPA great, and we can’t sit back and watch her do the work, we have to help.”
Ever outspoken and never one to mince words, Leavell said she would immediately negotiate with companies, like General Motors and Ford to bring in advertising dollars to member newspapers.
At the 2017 NNPA Merit Awards ceremony, the St. Louis American won the top prize for the sixth consecutive year, beating the Philadelphia Tribune 59-51 for the Russwurm Sengstacke Trophy for General Excellence.
Other multiple winners were The Miami Times, The Washington Informer and Houston Forward Times. The Crusader won third place for Best Feature story for its Black History Month article on Black Olympians who competed amid the shadows of racism, segregation and Germany’s Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
NNPA writer Stacy Brown contributed to this report.