How Some Black Newspapers Cultivate Readers

TO grow, a newspaper needs readers, and when there aren't enough, new ones must be cultivated. That's what Dorris Ellis, a former kindergarten teacher, decided to do at the Houston Sun, the young, black-owned newspaper she and her husband launched six years ago. She started the Houston Sun Literacy Academy, a program of one-on-one tutoring that targets adults who can't read but could benefit from the information newspapers provide.

``Of course this is good for our business,'' she acknowledges. Exact readership gains, though, are hard to trace since the Sun is not a subscription-based paper. Each week an estimated 100,000 people pick up the paper free of charge at grocery stores, churches, barbershops, and other establishments.

The academy's ``textbook'' is not a book at all, but a publication called ``The Enhancer,'' a tabloid ``newspaper.'' It's designed to build self-esteem and uses a curriculum developed by Carrie Ayers Haynes, a black educator in Watts, Calif. The type is larger than the Sun's, but the stories are written for adults.

``Many adults would be embarrassed carrying around a reading primer, but this is something they can take on the bus with them to work and not feel awkward,'' Mrs. Ellis says.

The Sun recruits and arranges to train volunteer tutors, who serve five hours each week. About 100 students are enrolled in the program at any one time.

To build a solid readership base, another black-owned newspaper, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Chronicle, has adopted a different strategy. The approach attracts whites as well as blacks.

``Nobody covers junior-varsity [high school] athletics but us,'' says publisher Ernest Pitt. ``And we cover it like the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference].'' The paper picks all-county teams, players of the year, and holds an awards banquet for the area's outstanding young athletes.

``This gives the Chronicle utility,'' Mr. Pitt says. ``We are useful to people in the community, and for me that is the key. You have to provide some service. In order to survive, there has to be something that you're doing that nobody else is doing. If the parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and grandparents want to keep up with what these kids are doing, they've got to come to us.''

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