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All that's African-American is fit to print

The headlines are simple. The photos are sometimes fuzzy, but the mission is clear for St. Petersburg's newest newspaper, the Suncoast Journal. If editor J. C. Pritchett II has his way, every member of the city's African-American community, from the guy in the barbershop to the local lawyer, will at some point have his face or views featured in the weekly paper.

That's a lot of faces and positions; 46,726 African-Americans live in St. Petersburg, or just less than 20 percent of the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"I hope to be able to cover the African-American community better than anyone," said 21-year-old Pritchett, editor and founder of the free 12-page tabloid.

"We're closer to the heartbeat of this community than anyone else in town," he said of the Journal's staff. "We attend church together, we live together, and we shop together."

Pritchett began distributing the paper on May 31 in churches, apartment complexes and anywhere else readers might be. He said he distributed 3,000 copies of the first issue.

The first issue featured a front-page editorial on the state of black America and an editorial by Virginia Gov. Douglas L. Wilder, the country's first black governor, about the black family. (Wilder's piece originally appeared in a national newspaper.) A series of interviews with local officials such as City Council member Charles D. Shorter also was included.

"There were a lot of errors," Pritchett said of the Journal's first issue. "Some headlines were missing, and we had a lot of white space, but we plan to be better next week." The newspaper, which relies on advertising revenue for financing, operates with a staff of five out of an office at 2910 18th Ave. S.

The Gibbs High School graduate started two other businesses at age 17, Tampa Bay Promotions and Pritchett's Young Adult Club. He said he used both companies, which now are defunct, to provide non-alcoholic entertainment for teen-agers.

"There was no place for teen-agers to go. I wanted to do something to help keep kids off the street. Adults had given up on us," Pritchett said.

"So, I decided to rent ballrooms at hotels and recreation centers to hold concerts and dances."

Court records show Pritchett was charged with signing several thousand dollars in worthless checks to four Pinellas County businesses while Pritchett's companies were in business.

On Feb. 27, 1989, Pritchett was ordered to pay $2,618.89 in restitution to the four businesses after pleading no contest to four counts of writing worthless checks. He also was ordered to serve two years' probation but never was formally convicted.

"I made a mistake," Pritchett said. "I tried to start businesses without adequate funds. It would be ludicrous for me to try and run and hide from the truth.

"I committed those sins when I was in the world," he continued. "I'm a born-again Christian. I know the responsible thing to do is to make restitution." He said that's exactly what he has been trying to do for the last year and a half.

A former copy clerk at the St. Petersburg Times, Pritchett also is an associate minister at St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He said his duties as a minister will shape his judgment as an editor.

"There will be no lottery ads, no dog track ads, no liquor ads and no pictures of women in bathing suits in the Suncoast Journal." He said his paper will try to "emphasize religion."

Pritchett credits his early exposure to newspapers, as a clerk and a news carrier, with "helping me to realize at a young age that you can make changes through reporting."

Pritchett writes stories, goes door to door distributing the newspaper and even "sweeps up around the office."

Two other newspapers serve the city's African-American community, the Weekly Challenger, circulation 36,000, and the Tampa Bay Pioneer News, which began publication in November with a circulation of 2,000. The National Newspaper Publishers Association in Washington, D.C., estimates that 350 black-owned newspapers operate in the United States with 20 in Florida.

"There is no competition. They do a job, and we do a job; together as team we progress forward," Pritchett said.

He has no idea when he and his staff will be able to say mission accomplished, but he said one thing is certain:

"This city is on the verge of great things economically, culturally and socially. The African-American community is going to play a role in the growth, and we want to be there to tell their side of the story."

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