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An uplifting newspaper

Cleveland Johnson Jr. says his newspaper, the Weekly Challenger, has not made him a rich man over the past 25 years.

But he says it has provided the African-American community with something it richly deserves: a paper filled with much-needed positive images and news.

"You'll never see anything bad about the black community in our newspaper," Johnson said. "We show positive role models instead. Our mission is to uplift the black community."

A look at the Sept. 19 edition of the weekly paper shows a front page dominated by three stories of successful black professional women. Inside is a story about Congressional Black Caucus Week, news about minority business seminars and announcements about federal grant money to assist minority and disadvantaged students.

There is plenty of social news, too. Dominating the same edition are photos, about 50 of them on two facing pages, taken during the paper's 25th anniversary celebration. Some 400 civic leaders and citizens reportedly attended the scholarship award dinner and dance held at the St. Petersburg Hilton and Towers on Sept. 12.

Johnson reports the Weekly Challenger has a circulation of 32,000. Besides St. Petersburg, the paper is circulated in Clearwater, Largo, Tampa, Palmetto, Tarpon Springs, Plant City, Lakeland, Winter Haven and Bartow.

Johnson, a St. Petersburg native and Gibbs High School graduate, admits he never had any formal journalism training. His first love was music and he attended The Juilliard School of music and the Boston Conservatory of Music.

His entry into the world of publishing was quite by accident.

As he tells it, he was living in Miami and operating a struggling jewelry and dress store in the mid-1960s.

"With the influx of Cubans," he said, "many blacks lost their jobs and businesses started to fail." When his store folded, he returned to St. Petersburg.

Johnson found employment as a pest control technician, but discovered he had a talent for selling advertising when he began working for a new black newspaper called the Weekly Challenge.

The paper's founder, M. C. Fountain, had dreamed of having a quality publication for his black community. But Fountain died just months after its inception.

Johnson, who said frankly that he "needed the money," wanted to continue the paper's operation. So with $40 in his pocket and an old printing press, he put out his first edition in 1967.

With the addition of an "R" in the name, the Weekly Challenger was born, and with it, a new career for Johnson.

Things were tough at first, Johnson said, but he managed to make ends meet. He sold $5, $10 and $15 ads for the four-page tabloid. He said the paper's turning point came when the J. M. Fields department store purchased a back-page ad for $125.

Johnson said the next decade "was a marvelous time" for his newspaper. "The community stuck by me. And I gave back to the community."

The walls of his office at 2500 Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) St. S are testimony to his community involvement. Plaques from the Pinellas County school system, the NAACP, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation and various senior and youth groups are everywhere. A Little League trophy sits on his desk.

As for recent times, Johnson said, "Every day is a struggle."

"Where did all the money go?" he asked.

One problem, he answered, is that he does not get his fair share of the advertising dollars.

"Blacks spend over two-and-a-half billion dollars in Pinellas County," he said. "It only seems fair that the black press should get 2 percent of the advertisers' budget. We don't get a half-percent. You have to beg on your knees to get that."

Johnson said improved advertising revenue would allow him to increase his staff size (which is now about 20 people), update his equipment, and sponsor more community events and scholarships, such as the journalism scholarship given at the anniversary dinner.

"Instead of giving $2,000, I'd like to give $20,000," he said.

Nevertheless, Johnson said he appreciates what he has.

"The turnout that we had at the event (anniversary celebration) just amazed me," he said. "It showed what a good job we're doing for the community and I appreciate their support. It's what keeps me going."