How a Small Black-Owned Newspaper Fought a Racist Establishment and Won
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because despite boycotts and racism, Black journalists built a community that’s still going strong.
By Jewel Fraser
If you think the news is a battleground now, you should have been in Trinidad in August 1969. That’s when the Trinidad Express refused to stop covering the story of Dr. Leonard Hanna, a Black American dentist, and his wife, who’d been turned away from the Trinidad Country Club tennis courts despite their staying at a nearby Hilton whose guests were routinely allowed use of the club’s facilities. The Hannas’ taxi driver, irate, took them to share their story with the Express.
Then came the backlash: As the newspaper continued to churn out stories about the country club incident, the majority of White-owned businesses that had been supporting the paper by running ads pulled their business, leaving the paper struggling to run the presses and pay staff. Managing director Ken Gordon, co-founder Vernon Charles and other senior management figures at the newspaper sat for hours in a brainstorming session at the paper’s offices, determined to come up with a way to ride out the boycott. It helped that the stories had driven circulation up, even as ad revenue fell.
“At that time a newspaper might have been selling for 25 cents,” Gordon says. “To produce that paper may have cost you a dollar or $1.20.” The traditional newspaper model mostly runs on ads, with the cost of the paper itself covering just a small portion of how much it costs to print it. But that wasn’t working anymore. “We were right up against the wall,” Gordon says. They decided to cut the paper to just 16 pages, paring operating costs as much as possible to ride out the controversy.
It worked. The Express’ Gordon and his friend Harold Hoyte at the Nation newspaper in Barbados would eventually become household names throughout the Caribbean as well as among journalists in the wider British Commonwealth for going toe-to-toe with the White establishment in their countries to launch Black-owned-and-operated media houses. Their newspapers would rapidly supplant legacy newspapers that had long controlled the media narrative in their countries. Gordon, in particular, used his skills and experience to strengthen other media houses around the region and their ability to operate as independent media houses and guardians of democracy.
There was this view that locals could write in a paper but they could not manage it. … And I took exception to that.
Ken Gordon, Trinidad Express
Gordon joined the Express as managing director in 1969, two years after it was founded. It was the heady era of Black militancy, which spread from the United States and began to make its presence felt in the Caribbean. It was also a time when young, middle-class Black men like Gordon and Hoyte wanted to make their mark and prove their prowess as entrepreneurs.
“There was this view that locals could write in a paper but they could not manage it. That was a popular view at the time. And I took exception to that,” Gordon says. So did Hoyte, and their shared vision led to a lifelong partnership.
When Gordon applied to work as an announcer at Radio Trinidad in the late 1940s, no Black Trinidadian had as yet ever been employed in such a position. The same day, the managing director’s secretary, who lived a few houses down from Gordon, invited him over to show him an ad from 10 years ago for the job he’d just landed. It said: “Announcer needed. Only Whites need apply.”
It was the Express’ coverage of the Dr. Hanna story and the Black Power movement of the early ’70s that led to boycotts of the paper by the White establishment. But that same coverage brought the Express its unprecedented success.
The establishment in Trinidad and Tobago at the time favored the Trinidad Guardian, a decades-old British-owned newspaper. Meanwhile, the Express came to be viewed by many in Trinidadian society as reflecting their own interests and reality. When the Express’ burgeoning circulation made it the undisputed leader among Trinidad and Tobago’s papers in the 1970s, advertisers who had formerly boycotted the newspaper eventually returned.
Prominent Trinidadian journalist Wesley Gibbings, who was the founding president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, credits Gordon’s business acumen for the Express’ turnaround, noting that Gordon was a former Junior Chamber of Commerce president. “[It was a case of] the businessman becoming a defender of press freedom,” Gibbings says. “And as a media pioneer, his role is again virtually unparalleled in the region. His reach extended throughout the length and breadth of the Caribbean because he had this concern about building independent and democratic media.”
Today, the Express is part of a large media collective, One Caribbean Media, which resulted from a merger of newspapers and radio networks in Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. The business end has been successful, says Penn State University assistant professor Juliette Storr, a Bahamian and former journalist herself, but “especially since the merger in 2006 the focus has been more on the bottom line, [thus] forfeiting the public interest.”
Hoyte and Gordon became business colleagues in 1974, after Gordon learned about Hoyte’s efforts to replicate the Express’ success in Barbados with the Nation newspaper. Gordon helped the then-struggling Barbadian newspaper with his newspaper management expertise. The Nation went on to achieve such success that it was lauded by the prime minister as a beacon for Black businesses. Gordon also reached out to the Stabroek in Guyana and the Torchlight in Grenada when the papers came under government pressure, as well as publications in Jamaica, St. Lucia and Dominica, helping them achieve financial viability and success as media businesses.
“If we were going to be threatened by people who wanted to take charge of the press, we had to fight that not just in Trinidad but around the Caribbean,” says Gordon. “Otherwise, they would have picked us off one by one.”
- Jewel Fraser, OZY Author Contact Jewel Fraser