As the Defender Turns 118, Publisher Dyanna Lewis Embraces the Future

Since Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1905, with a 25-cent initial investment and a press run of 300 copies, “The World’s Greatest Weekly” has and remains a paper for the people — from Chicago and beyond. 

The Defender earned this history as a chronicler and catalyst. Whether it reported the grievous details of the Emmett Till lynching or spurred the Black exodus known as the Great Migration, it has been steadfast in its mission to tell our most important stories.

And those stories included a range of experiences, from profiles of people from the neighborhood to historical moments that will be recalled decades later, like the first inauguration of Barack Obama.  

The Defender has even provided a showcase for accomplished individuals from our community through its Women of Excellence and Men of Excellence programs, which have honored 1600 people and counting. 

On the cusp of the Defender’s 118th birthday, publisher Dyanna Lewis spoke about her history at the paper, its milestone moments and the challenges ahead as it evolves into an intergenerational, multimedia news organization. 

Happy Birthday, Chicago Defender Banner

CD: Robert Sengstacke Abbott, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, yourself. Convey what it means to work at the Chicago Defender to anybody who may not know or understand.

DL: It is an honor. It is a privilege to be associated with the Chicago Defender brand. Who would have thought that the little girl from the Southside, whose grandparents had the paper in their home — and it sat on the radiator with some other newspapers — would be at the publication they pushed for our family, the grandchildren and children to read? And who would have thought that I would be featured in the pages and one day become the publisher?  Who would have thought in 2007 I would have the opportunity to interview for a sales position and then go on to be hired and still be here today? And moving right along to have the honor, privilege and pleasure to be the publisher. 

CD: As the Defender has shifted from being a print publication to digital only, how do you see its role evolving in covering black Chicago, especially now in this time that we’re in?

DL: We’re able to cover more based on where we are in today’s world. In social media, with things happening in real time, we’re able to capture things in real time. Where in the past, when we were a print publication, we would have to drive to conduct an interview or perhaps via phone if the interviewee was a national figure. Otherwise, they would have to come to our office. Now, we can do this all with the click of a few buttons on a computer or a mobile device.

“The biggest obstacle that might be on the horizon is really being able to continue to bring relevant news and information that’s important generationally across the board…It’s skewing a younger generation of readers and keeping their attention.”

CD: During your tenure at the Defender, is there a moment or two that stand out as milestone moments for the publication?

DL: Oh, absolutely. So, when I started with the Chicago Defender in 2007, the Defender was then twice a week. The print edition would come out on Wednesdays, and then there was a weekend edition. So, it was not quite daily and not quite a weekly.

So we transitioned into it being a weekly publication. And then one of the biggest milestones for me during my time was the transition to an all-digital publication, which was July 11, 2019. Our last print publication was Wednesday, July 10.

I was at Chicago offices, led the transition from print to digital, and a lot of media outlets were outside of our building to cover it. There were major influencers from Chicago who lent their support. Jesse Jackson came to be there as support. Timuel Black was there, just to name a few.

Some were excited by the change, some were apprehensive of the change and some were against the change. Many did not want to see the print paper die. But we made a decision to change our brand to reach more people in the way they consume news and information, which also increased circulation and awareness.

One other milestone was the coverage of the election of President Barack Obama. That was really huge for us. And before my time, it was the Emmett Till coverage.  

CD: Was it bittersweet?

DL: It was bittersweet. Print media was dying. Circulation had decreased. But it was a transition that still needed to be accomplished at the time. 

CD: What do you think are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for the Defender?

DL: The biggest obstacle that might be on the horizon is really being able to continue to bring relevant news and information that’s important generationally across the board. Not the traditional news information which captured the mature demographic we’ve always serviced. Instead, it’s skewing a younger generation of readers and keeping their attention. Also, I’m excited about artificial intelligence and how we might mesh that into the Defender platform in the days ahead. 

CD: What is the “North Star” for the Defender? What would you like to see the Defender accomplish in the future, in the next ten years?

DL: I want the Defender to be known for its historical archives and its rich legacy throughout the years. More attention should be paid to our legacy because we’re losing our Black history. It’s not being repeated. It’s not being taught. It’s not being learned. Additionally, I would really like to see the Chicago Defender known as being an agent of change, adapting to how best to provide news and information to people while chronicling and proliferating the Black experience. 

CD: And for those people in the younger demographic who may not really understand what this is all about, what would be your pitch to them about why they should invest their time, energy and attention to the Chicago Defender?

DL: Because it is a Black media company that is still here 118 years later — for us, by us and about us.

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