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The Rebirth of The Tri-State Defender

There are two fundamental truths you can count on in the news business. 

One is unpredictability – anything can happen, at any time. The other one is that no matter how much that unpredictable event stuns or shocks you, if you’re a true professional, you shake it off and soldier forward. 

The news must be published, the people must be informed.

I didn’t need to be reminded of those truths. But the reminder came anyway, when I got the call Tuesday morning that Jerome Wright, Deputy Editor of the Tri-State Defender, had died unexpectedly that morning. He was 74.

The news threw all of us at the TSD for a loop — no one more than Karanja A. Ajanaku, who retired as Executive Editor and Associate Publisher on Dec. 31. Even before a late-career reunion at the TSD, “Dr. K” and “J-Rome” had decades of history, dating back to their days at The Commercial Appeal in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The plan was to use this edition to “give Dr. K. his flowers” — special coverage, highlighting his iconic career and legacy. Jerome was excited about it – he and I talked the Monday before he died about what it would look like – a “farewell column” from Dr. K; a “new guy” column from me, talking about filling big shoes . . . blah, blah, blah. 

Jerome was planning to interview his longtime friend – two graybeards, talking about why quality journalism matters, especially to Memphis’ African American community. I was looking forward to reading that piece.

Then, on Tuesday, unpredictability. Followed by shaking it off and soldiering forward. Instead of Jerome’s interview, it was the TSD’s new “Editor Emeritus” who wrote a poignant and touching final farewell to a friend gone too soon — on deadline, no less. Isn’t retirement supposed to free you from deadlines?

But I expected no less from Dr. K. I have said on many occasions that if The Tri-State Defender has a soul, it’s name is Karanja Ajanaku. 

I’ve worked with him since 2015 — first, covering Grizzlies’ games, then features and general assignments. Eventually, I’d pick up page layout duties as well. There were plenty of Thursday mornings where Doc and I saw the sunrise at the TSD’s offices on Beale because we’d been up all night getting the paper out.

It was not always easy working with Doc. Words like “prickly” and “curmudgeon” come to mind, but that’s only before you get to know him. After a while, you see what’s really happening: Doc is serious – serious about his work, about how he conducts himself. And when he’s in his zone, he’s focused and intense.

What else would drive someone to pick up a red pen and meticulously proofread page layouts at 1 a.m. while others are sleeping? Or to patiently work with eager but untrained writers, to help mold them into the journalists and storytellers that Memphis needs? 

When your boss dies unexpectedly in 2018 (RIP Bernal E. Smith III), what drives someone to MAKE SURE that the publication not only publishes that week, but is filled with moving tributes? 

It’s the same thing that drove Jerome — a passion for newspapers. A commitment to not only getting the facts out, but more fundamentally, getting them right. A self-directed mandate to develop Memphis’ next generation of question-askers and critical thinkers. 

And a determination to face the unpredictable, shake it off and soldier forward.

The realities of the newspaper business have finally caught up with us at the TSD, and it seems everything is changing. We’ve suspended printing our weekly print edition, turning our focus to how you consume news everyday – online, on your computer or mobile device. For those who still love the feel of a newspaper in your hands, we offer this monthly edition.

But make no mistake: the TSD is evolving. Over the coming months, we will be actively reinventing what it means to be an African American-owned media outlet in the Mid-South. We want to incorporate more voices, more opinions, and more solutions. Memphis needs answers and while you may not find all of them in the TSD, we want to be the place where the conversation happens.

When the TSD launched in the 1950s, it was because there was no other news source that African Americans felt like they could trust. Thanks to trailblazers like Dr. K and Jerome, we started to see our faces, our communities, our stories in mainstream media. And that was before the internet, social media and Black Twitter. 

With such a diverse news menu, some might question the need for Black-owned media these days. I’m not one of those people. Neither was Jerome Wright. But nobody could explain WHY Memphis needs the Tri-State Defender like Karanja Ajanaku.

 “Memphis is a majority African-American city and we are sure that if we provide the community with what it needs today, they will respond relative to readership and support,” Ajanaku told Memphis Magazine in 2018. 

“If you’re going to live in a democratic republic, the individual has to be informed,” he continued. “And if he doesn’t have the tools to take in the information and make informed decisions, you’ve got a problem.

“So we’re focused on the local: reporters and photographers interviewing, taking photos, talking to local people, producing local stories about local people involved in the unfolding of life around them,” he added.  “That’s what it’s about — verified information.”

Accurate information to make informed decisions. That’s the legacy that Dr. Karanja Ajanaku and Jerome Wright leave us. And regardless of where you find our work — in print or online —  that’s our challenge, our commitment, our calling.

Let’s get to work.

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