Ray's Light 

Half a century later, the editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press still searches for justice.

Page 3 of 4

click to enlarge Boone, who lives in the Brookbury subdivision along Route 10 near the Chesterfield County line, visits with the protesters the Saturday before Thanksgiving. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Boone, who lives in the Brookbury subdivision along Route 10 near the Chesterfield County line, visits with the protesters the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

After a decade editing the Afro in Richmond, Boone was promoted to vice president and editor of all of the Afro-American newspapers, 13 editions, in 1976. He worked at the Afro for another five years, and eventually left after the newspaper company underwent "internal problems" with the Murphy family, Boone says. He taught journalism at Howard University for the next few years, and eventually decided to move back to Richmond and start a new paper, the Richmond Free Press, in 1991. The first issue was printed on Jan. 16, 1992, and extensively covered then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's exit from the presidential race.

The paper lost money for the first five years. Like many black newspapers, the Free Press struggles to lure lucrative retail advertisers, who often look at the paper's readership — especially its widespread distribution in the lower-income black communities — and go elsewhere. "It's been a major challenge since day one," Boone says. "Our readership is not valued to the level that they should be."

But the paper started making money in the sixth year, and began to flourish. Boone purchased the former Imperial Tobacco headquarters at 422 E. Franklin St. in 2000 and spent nearly $1 million renovating the building. Two years later, Boone and his wife, Jean — who works as the paper's advertising director — received the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods' Golden Hammer award for their work.

While the business enjoyed some success, the Boones reinvested the profits in the business and shared the rest with employees, Boone says: "We have a philosophy: If we have any profits, they are returned to the people who help us make them, and that would be our team members." The Boones invest in equipment — the editorial staff works on up-to-date Apple computers, a rarity in the newspaper business — and up until recently employees received 100-percent health insurance coverage.

Since 2007, at the outset of the recession, the paper has been bleeding, Boone says, but he's managed to make ends meet by cutting staff and reducing expenses. There are just 11 employees now, Boone says, and he often doesn't draw a salary to keep the paper afloat.

"In the context of all newspapers, we're gasping," Boone says, but there's a difference: Black newspapers such as the Free Press are battle-tested. And they have another advantage — they didn't rush to give away their content online, for free, as the rest of the newspaper industry did more than a decade ago. As a result, the paper doesn't bleed advertisers to the Web, and the paper's pickup rate is more than 94 percent. The weekly press run is 36,000, and their audited circulation is about 34,000. The paper has an average-issue readership of 80,780, according to Scarborough Research, a media auditing company.

Those who cut their teeth at the Free Press say they are eternally grateful.

"It was like a Marine boot camp of journalism," recalls Hazel Trice Edney, whom Boone hired as his first reporter in 1991. "He was an incredibly tough editor. He was demanding. It was a high-volume, high-performance atmosphere. He demanded excellence. He wanted reporters who knew the history of black people in America."

Edney, a syndicated columnist who left the Free Press in 1998 and runs her own wire service in Washington, says she regards Boone as her journalistic father. "He liked stories that really feel the evil," she says. "Mr. Boone is like the quintessential modern-day Frederick Douglass — agitate, agitate, agitate."

Boone never told her what she should think, but how to think, she says. Boone gave Edney the freedom to come to her own conclusions. In particular, she recalls differing with Boone about where the Arthur Ashe statue should be located. Boone thought it should be on Broad Street, where it could be an uplifting experience, not on Monument Avenue. "He did not think we belonged among losers," Edney says. "I just believed that the continuum of history on Monument was important, and that no white racist regime on earth should dominate a public thoroughfare."

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