The Dive: The Wilmington Journal's legacy, challenges, and future
WHQR's Ben Schachtman sat down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about the latest edition of The Dive, our joint newsletter. This week, they spoke about the Wilmington Journal, which for nearly a century has been Wilmington’s Black newspaper — but is now facing some serious challenges.
On a quiet, tree-lined block of South 7th Street in downtown Wilmington, a two-story house with white clapboard siding looks a little worse for wear. Though its facade is in good shape, the 123-year-old building’s roof has sagged and collapsed.
A note by the front door, alerting visitors to its mask policy, serves as a timestamp to its last days in operation.
The building remains a vital landmark of resiliency: the offices of The Wilmington Journal.
For nearly a century, the weekly newspaper served Wilmington’s Black community, but in recent years, it’s fallen on hard times.
A death in the family left a lien on The Journal’s building, and while a fundraiser in early 2021 helped prevent foreclosure, another death—this time, longtime editor Mary Alice Jervay Thatch—left a leadership vacuum. Thatch, the third generation to run the paper, was known for her dogged determination in covering the Wilmington 10 and helping to seek their exoneration. When she died in December 2021, the printing presses stopped.
And find more from The Dive here.
Benjamin Schachtman: All right, Johanna, on this week’s edition of The Dive, we got into a story that you and I have been talking about for quite a while, and that is the Wilmington Journal.
Johanna Still: Right, so The Wilmington Journal is one of the oldest black newspapers in North Carolina, founded in 1927. And they explicitly formed to replace The Daily Record. And so if you're familiar with the 1898 coup d'etat, The Daily Record is the newspaper burned down by white supremacists. And so we chose to focus on The Wilmington Journal on the 125th anniversary of the 1898 coup d'etat and wanted to speak with some of the people behind it, and what's been going on and really their struggles to try to survive – one from the recent death of the longtime editor and two, just this really tumultuous industry that we all have seen struggle as things have really shifted to digital and over the past decade.
BS: Yeah, that's right, the death of Mary Alice Jervay Thatch – who had been the editor since the 90s, and was a reporter and publisher before that she's just been an instrumental part of the paper for a long, long time — passed away in 2021. And she was really for a lot of people synonymous with the paper, along with journalist Cash Michaels, for their dogged pursuit of the Wilmington 10 story. We've got more details about that online – this was a group of nine black men and one white woman who were wrongfully convicted for arson during racial unrest in the early 70s. And so Mary Alice was on that story until 2012, I believe, when Governor Bev Perdue finally pardoned the surviving members of the Wilmington, 10 – and is sort of held in heroic status for that. So her passing obviously had a huge effect on the Journal, her three daughters and husband are left to sort of put the pieces back together.
That would be enough for anyone to deal with, but, yeah, as you point out, all newspapers all across the country, are dealing with a really serious problem of how to adjust to the digital age. And on top of that, there's the specific problems of being a Black paper, we talked to Paul Jervay, he’s Mary Alice's cousin. He's also a grandson of the founder of The Wilmington Journal. And he told us his father, who was in the Black paper business, needed seven or eight papers, all running sort of in unison and sharing content to make the profit margins work, because you have got a smaller demographic in every city that you're operating in. And so running The Wilmington Journal sort of on its own is kind of tough, but they do have hope for the future.
JS: Right. Paul told us, what he and others are hoping for, is to really feel the community support. I know they've got an event this week planned and they've been meeting in this group they call the Wilmington Journal Breakfast Club, some of the conversations – some revitalization on Seventh Street and Nun Street that the journal is located [near].
BS: Yeah, this is Paul Jervay’s, grand vision is a historic district that includes The Wilmington Journal offices, and Gregory Church, which was a really intimate part of the lives of a lot of the people who have been a part of the journal and people in that community. He's not mincing words. He's hoping for a major financial development plan for that region. He's talking about investment of millions of dollars into that region. But he hopes that the historic district can be a springboard for that, and some kind of economic justice for the generational wealth that people lost in 1898. And a benefit of that would also be a resurgence of The Wilmington Journal.
JS: He kind of ended the conversation — and we end the piece on a note that I think is interesting — he talks about being a tennis player and how he is better when there's a crowd.
BS: Yeah, and he'd be the first to admit that there's a long way to go here. But yeah, he really does hope that feeling the love from the community will help them get there — but for now, Johanna still thanks for being here.
JS: Thanks, Ben.