A veteran Washington public relations man has launched an ambitious, long-shot venture to publish a black-oriented newspaper full of polish, professionalism and pizazz -- the kind of paper that many have long said Washington needs, but that no one has been able to bring off.
The new newspaper is called The Washington North Star and its creator is Ofield Dukes, 49, who heads his own public relations firm and is chairman of Mayor Marion Barry's media advisory group. A "preview edition" is now on the streets and on doorsteps of selected families by means of a quickly assembled distribution system that may be the most ambitious of all of Dukes' plans. Twice-weekly publication will begin in February, Dukes says.
Dukes says the idea for the North Star came before the demise of The Washington Star earlier this year, which left the nation's capital a one-newspaper town. He has sought to capitalize on The Star's folding, putting out the first edition by using former Star reporters and delivery personnel. Eventually, Dukes says, he hopes to hire some of the former Star people full-time.
Dukes says it is an attempt to take local black publishing to a new level. "We are not here to compete with other black publications," he says. "We are going to make black newspapers more respectable."
Dukes' hopes of 75,000 paid subscriptions when the North Star starts coming out regularly would represent a quantum step for the black press, not only locally but nationally. Steve Davis, executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black publishers, said that no black newspaper of which he is aware in the country claims a circulation of more than 60,000 and those figures often are inflated.
Some greet Dukes' project with a measure of skepticism. Says competitor Calvin W. Rolark, publisher of The Washington Informer, one of the five existing black newspapers in the District of Columbia: "He Dukes is the new boy on the street. Everybody will be watching him. It is very easy to talk."
The other black newspapers in Washington are The Capital Spotlight, The New Observer, The Washington Afro-American and The Washington Talk. James Tinney, a Howard University journalism professor who is familiar with the history of the American black press, said there are no reliable statistics on the five papers' circulations. He estimated that none of them exceeds 10,000.
Tinney said the kind of newspaper Dukes wants to produce would tend to have little appeal to poor or working-class blacks. Instead, Tinney believes, the targeted group would be middle-class black professionals. Dukes said he hopes his newspaper will appeal to a broad range of readers, but his plans call for primarily distributing the paper in middle-class neighborhoods.
"But that is the group that doesn't want to be seen walking down the street with a black newspaper under their arms," Tinney said. "They'd rather have The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal."
The name of the newspaper, while it echoes The Washington Star, is actually a reference to a short-lived newspaper, called the North Star, started by black intellectual and activist Frederick Douglass in 1847. "It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates," Douglass wrote in an editorial that Dukes has reprinted.
The tabloid-sized newspaper, with its crisp graphics, may remind some of the weekly Village Voice in New York. Dukes acknowledges the resemblance, saying he has used the Voice as a model for what he hopes to achieve.
The tone of the first edition is serious, with stories on the relationship between black unemployment and crime; the high rate of cancer deaths among black men in Washington; school Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie; Prince George's County as a mecca for the black middle class; Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker as a lonely liberal Republican; an economic forecast for the coming year by Andrew F. Brimmer, former Federal Reserve Board member, and other articles. There are few frills, a notable exception being a two-page spread on fashion and hair styles.
Dukes says his work with the mayor's media advisory committee will end on Jan. 1, thus ending a potential conflict of interest. The black press has, in the past, generally been reluctant to criticize black officials. Dukes says his newspaper's stance often will be critical, but also will seek to guide leaders to "constructive solutions."
The eventual editorial staff will total about nine, Dukes says. By comparison, the Washington Afro-American, commonly believed to be the widest-read existing black newspaper in the city, employs an editorial staff of eight.
The new paper is being printed in Bowling Green, Va., nearly 75 miles south of Washington. Dukes says the plan is to transfer the newspapers into a half-dozen rented vans and then deliver bundles to the doorsteps of nearly 500 area youths. The youths will be paid the minimum wage to deliver the paper to specific homes.
The plan is for The North Star to come out twice a week starting in February. The Wednesday edition, costing 35 cents, will be sold on the street and delivered to subscribers, Dukes says. On Sundays, he says, 200,000 papers will be delivered free to targeted homes, most in the District of Columbia, but some in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia as well.
Dukes, a former aide to the late Hubert H. Humphrey, says he has paid the $45,000 cost of producing the preview edition out of his own pocket. He said he already has lined up potential investors, primarily black professionals and small businessmen in the area, and hopes to raise $1.4 million by February. Although that is a considerable amount of money, in the volatile world of publishing it amounts to a shoestring.
The 48-page preview edition of the tabloid contains 14 pages of advertising, and includes a note apologizing for the inadvertent omission of three ads. Advertisers include such large firms as Woodward & Lothrop, McDonald's, Hecht's, C&P Telephone, General Motors, Potomac Electric Power Co., Trans World Airlines and Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., makers of Kool cigarettes.
Dukes acknowledges that the issue's advertising is not enough to sustain publication, but says he believes others will come aboard after he demonstrates that he can reach 200,000 homes with substantial buying power.