Editors’s Note: Check out Dawkins' book about The City Sun’s publisher Andrew W. Cooper
A decade ago in fall 1996, The City Sun set, yet a new era rises.
Last October, nine students opened the Andrew W. Cooper Young Journalists in Training Program at St. Francis College of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cooper’s [1927-2002] imprint on Brooklyn can be felt in other powerful ways. The 11th Congressional District — the former seat of history maker Shirley Chisholm that last fall was vacated by Major R. Owens — was won by Yvette Clarke.
In short, Chisholm made political history as the first black woman member of Congress because of Cooper, the political activist who later channeled his energy into journalism.
The National Association of Black Journalists recognized Cooper’s brand of take-no-prisoners journalism when the association honored the City Sun publisher as 1987 Journalist of the Year. Why did The City Sun matter?
It was created in 1984 because research suggested that metropolitan New York hungered for a strong black media voice. The nationally known Amsterdam News [1909-present] of Harlem had grown lethargic and pedestrian. Editorially, since the 1970s, the newspaper could not bring itself to critique black leadership. Cooper did when in 1976 he began writing a political column for that newspaper called “One Man’s Opinion.”
The column ended that year and in 1977 Cooper with Utrice C. Leid, a twenty-something Amsterdam News employee, launched Trans Urban News Service in Brooklyn.
Jocelyn A. Cooper, the 2nd daughter, and Andrew W. Cooper
[Photo circa mid-'90s. Ms. Cooper is a music executive and music publisher]
The Amsterdam News, New York Daily News, New York Times and CBS News Radio were clients of TNS, which was modeled after Community News Service, which was founded in order to train blacks to work in near all-white daily journalism.
In 1979, TNS won the top award from the Public Relations Society of America for its multipart series on black-Jewish racial tension in Crown Heights, nearly 15 years before the Brooklyn neighborhood became nationally known.
The Sun also rises
On June, 6 1984, the inaugural City Sun cover story was “Death of a Generation” written by Errol Louis, now an op-ed columnist at the New York Daily News. He reported that 54 percent of New York City’s black males age 16 to 19 were unemployed; 14 percent of black men ages 20-plus were jobless, and the city’s 42-percent high school dropout rate was extreme at four schools in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“They [Cooper and Leid] asked for it,” said Louis in a 2005 interview. “The story set the pace for what was at stake.“
The early City Sun formula was an oversize black masthead accessorized with a red streamer that mimicked the city’s bare-knuckled tabloids, the Daily News and New York Post, liberal use of wide-angle action photos, an eclectic mix of stories about black New York life, regular Caribbean and Africa news pages, a copious arts and culture section led by critic Armond White and arts writer Fern Gillespie, and an out-of-the box sports section edited by Anthony Carter “Tony” Paige.
Then there were Cooper and Leid’s often scorched-earth editorials inside the newspaper.
Favorite targets were the local media. “Imitation is one thing, piracy is another,” accused the rival Amsterdam News of lifting City Sun staff photographs without credit. The City Sun billed the Amsterdam News $250, the editorial told readers. “Radio cacophony” mocked the debate between Mayor Koch and Amsterdam News Publisher Wilbert Tatum.
Also, “Journalism’s curious disease” critiqued the three mainstream dailies' coverage of the annual West Indian Day Parade in Crown Heights. The New York Times noted the presence of 900,000 people on Eastern Parkway in paragraph 21 of a 1984 Labor Day roundup; the Daily News was slightly better and focused on one family’s initiation to curried goat, and the New York Post was predictable inane, reporting that “Cops shoot 4 at Jesse [Jackson] rally.”
Yet possibly the most unusual element of The City Sun was the weekly “This Week in History” almanac on page 3, normally the second “front page” in most newspapers.
Louis' devastating opening cover story on the wipeout of black men was bracing as a baptism in ice water, to paraphrase T. Thomas Fortune, the acerbic black press editor of the previous century.
Five weeks later on Independence Day, The City Sun used its front page and several inside pages to reprint Frederick Douglass' 1841 criticism of American enslavement of most blacks. By fall 1984, the paper relentlessly covered the cop killing of Eleanor Bumpers, an elderly and disabled black woman who was shot multiple times after a confrontation with authorities over an attempted eviction.
Politicians, take cover
The City Sun, true to Cooper’s roots as a community activist, broke a taboo of many black newspapers ’ it criticized black politicians whenever convinced their behavior was venal, lazy or self-serving.
“Cooper was a true journalist in the truest essence of reporting,“explained Milton Allimadi, a former City Sun reporter who now edits the Black Star News. “A story is a story, Cooper would say. If the guy is a brother or a sister, we're going to go after them. I'm not into coddling.“
Criticize and scold yes, however unlike too many black papers, the City Sun invested serious time and resources to cover black politicians.
For example the paper staffed correspondent Clinton Cox in Albany to cover the state legislature, and a correspondent Isaiah Poole in Washington to cover national politics, like the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that year when Jesse Jackson made his first of several runs for U.S. president.
So why did NABJ recognize Andrew Welles Cooper in 1987?
Most likely it was recognition of the paper’s coverage of the fatal Howard Beach, N.Y. racial attack in 1986, the anti-apartheid/divestment activism of students and workers, allegations of corruption in hospital workers union District Council 1199, consistent needling of three-term Mayor Ed Koch, who had a testy relationship with most of black New York, and cultural coverage that announced the arrival of brash filmmaker Spike Lee, a child of Fort Greene’s brownstone neighborhood.
“With AWC, when he wrote for the Amsterdam News, there was always something about his articles that would grab me,” said Raymond Burrows of Memphis, Tenn. in an interview this year. “They were smarter than other knee-jerk articles. They made me think and look broader. When the City Sun emerged, that was the filter through which the editorial tone of the paper was about: Intelligent analysis of issues.”
Also Jacqueline McMickens, an attorney and former New York Department of Corrections administrator, said in a 2005 interview, “Andy was always on the pulse. Nothing escaped him. He wasn't scared to write about anything. I would tell people if you don't buy The City Sun, you don't know what’s going on. You became literally educated. It pains me to this day that we don't have a newspaper like that.“
After accepting his NABJ award, Cooper returned to Brooklyn in 1987 and with managing editor Utrice Leid continued The City Sun’s bold, tough, creative journalism.
Greeting them that November was the Tawana Brawley case, the story of the black 15-year-old who was found tied up in the woods of a New York suburb smeared with feces and body tagged with racial epithets. The paper covered the highs and lows of the racially explosive case that put Rev. Al Sharpton, one of Brawley’s advocates, on the national radar [in 1998, two years after The City Sun folded, Sharpton and two black lawyers were found at fault for defaming a white prosecutor.
In 1989, The City Sun covered the campaign and election of New York City’s first black mayor, David Dinkins.
Yet, despite its appearance as a stable media institution in journalism-rich New York, financial troubles lurked. The City Sun was a very tricky financial adventure from the beginning,” said Louis. “It was spit and bailing wire. I was clear on that. I don't know how they did it [last for 12 years].”
In December 1990, Cooper’s newspaper emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, reported Richard Prince in his January 1993 ‘Journal-isms’ media column.
The financial woes must have strained the working relationship of Cooper and Leid. There was 1992 showdown. Leid demanded control of the paper or she would leave and take the best staff members with her to start another news venture.
Cooper did not blink. Leid did leave in November 1992, Prince reported, to become a radio host and producer at WBAI-FM, and Cooper continued to run the paper.
Leid’s departure nevertheless was noticeable. The City Sun was still cleanly written and edited and bold in its presentation, yet a lot of the punch was missing from its lineup.
Some of the memorable stories of the post-Leid era included Armond White’s “40 acres and some bull,” a 1995 front-page trashing of Spike Lee’s “Clockers,” and the 1993 editorial which accused Dinkins, New York’s first and only black mayor, of “sounding like a wimp.” The one-term mayor lost to Rudy Giuliani that fall.
By 1996, IRS officials and city marshals took siege on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. The newsroom was evacuated then padlocked while the staff was working on the next edition.
“It was very disillusioning,” said Allimadi, who was there. “I could see the potential of this institution. But there was hope. A major problem was the paper was AWC’s baby. He would meet with investors, but when it was time to sign, he got cold feet. AWC didn't want to lose control.“
Allimadi said investors then included an early producer of rap group Public Enemy who proposed putting in a couple of undred thousand dollars, and add color pages and more entertainment coverage.
Cooper, 69 at the time, was in declining health. In 1997, an attempt by NABJ founder Les Payne, former CBS correspondent Randy Daniels, and Daily News 4 attorney Alterman to buy the paper and name Cooper publisher emeritus failed.
Resurrection through YJT Program?
The paper was gone, however City Sun alumni continued working as solid and outstanding members of the journalism establishment. For example:
| || Cecil Harris went on to become the NHL beat writer for The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., then write "Breaking the Ice,"; a book about black pro hockey players, and "Call the Yankees my Daddy"; about the baseball team. |
| || Errol Louis joined the Daily News opinion pages staff; |
| || Tony Paige is a sportscaster with WFAN-AM in New York |
| || Armond White took his arts criticism to the New York Press, an alternative newspaper; |
| || Van Dora Williams became an Emmy Award-winning TV journalist with WHRO-TV [PBS] in Norfolk, Va. and she now teaches at the Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. |
| || Jerry Craft's "Moma’s Boyz" comic strip began appearing in The City Sun in 1992 and ran through 1996. Craft published several illustrated books. |
Cooper died Jan. 28, 2002 at age 74, day after his wife’s 73rd birthday.
In 2005, St. Francis College, led by Frank Macchiarola, school chancellor during the Koch administration, agreed to house the Young Journalists in Training Program.
“Mrs. Cooper [Andrea Cooper Andrews, the oldest daughter] suggested it,” said the college president in a 2006 interview. Macchiarola accepted the daughter’s proposal: “Anyone interested in leadership should learn what living a good life is all about. Andy Cooper is a heroic figure.”
There were newsmaker forums in November 2005 and last April. A YJTP class began last fall. On May 1 at a 40th anniversary Cooper vs. Power ceremony, the nine students were introduced -- six women and three men -- before they were dispatched on summer internships. In order for the program to stay, friends of Cooper must raise $200,000 in order to train future generations of crusading journalists.
Will supporters of the bold weekly that promised to “Speak truth to power” step forward?
Wayne Dawkins is an assistant professor at the Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications in Virginia. In the late 1970s he worked for Cooper and Trans Urban News Service, which preceded The City Sun. This article is an updated version that initially appeared in the Winter 2006-07 NABJ Journal.