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Upbeat Limelight Out to Cover “Good” News

By Robert Lowes

            Photographs of physicians, businessmen, politicians, attorneys and athletes – virtually all black – abound in Limelight Magazine, a new monthly publication aimed at the St. Louis black community.

            Billing itself as “a Society Publication for St. Louis,” Limelight exists to inform St. Louis that there is more to the black community here than the stereotypical “Northside rapist,” according to Limelight founder and majority owner Eugene Liss. Liss, a longtime advertising salesman in the local black press, also hopes the stories of successful, affluent blacks featured in his publication will inspire those whose incomes are substandard.

            First appearing in vending boxes and newsstands in August, Limelight raises the question of how far a publication can pursue “good news” journalism before it crosses over into public relations.

            A story entitled “The Truth About Where Blacks Live” in the premier issue, for instance, stated that, “even on the Hill, home of baseball immortals Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra, and once the bastion of Italian St. Louisans there is now a majority of blacks.” The story went on to claim that “with few exceptions the ENTIRE metro St. Louis area is integrated and getting along well, thank you.”

            When St. Louis Comptroller Paul Berra, a lifelong resident of the Hill neighborhood in South St. Louis, was told of Limelight’s claim, he expressed astonishment.

            “I would imagine 99 percent (of the residents) are white,” said the 62-year-old Berra, who added blacks have never constituted a majority of the Hill. His observation was supported by Father Sal Polizzi, parish priest at St. Ambrose Catholic Church on the Hill from 1956 to 1981.

            Liss defended his statement in the Limelight story, saying it was based on census figures and voter registration records.

            An editorial in the first issue helps explain the fairy-tale tone of the article on black residential patterns.

            “Limelight exists to report and picture GOOD news,” the editorial stated. And even though stories of crime, poverty and horror must be reported, the “large majority” of the area’s 500,000-plus blacks “are in the mainstream, as happy, successful and contented as is the total community,” according to the editorial.

            Good news about this happy, successful, contented majority will “change attitudes and inspire.” In short, “good news will produce more good news.”

            Not surprisingly, the 1980 U.S. census figures refute the claim that St. Louis area blacks are in the mainstream. In the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, the average household income for the general population of 2.4 million was $18,570. The average household income for blacks - numbering 407,000 – was $11,365. Clearly, blacks have yet to enter the mainstream in terms of income, which for many determines happiness, success and contentment.

            Liss defended the editorial’s assertion about blacks in the mainstream by saying, “It is a statement that is not only true, but which we hope and believe will be true.” He added blacks have a great deal of unreported income.

            While recent front pages of the St. Louis Metro Sentinel, St. Louis Argus, and St. Louis American – the three major black newspapers in St. Louis – are full of headlines about city politics, city schools, the slaying of five employees of a National supermarket and the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, the cover of Limelight has lived up to its motto as a society publication. The magazine has generally focused on glamor, merrymaking and celebrity-hood.

            Besides the story on black residential patterns, the cover of the 28-page premier issue featured stories on Denise Smith, wife of St. Louis Cardinals’ shortstop Ozzie Smith; a surprise party for cardiologist Dr. Wendell Williams; and a black-tie affair hosted by the “100 Blackmen,” a group of black businessmen and community leaders.

            Subjects of inside stories included black debutantes presented at the 1987 Cotillion de Leon and State Rep. Paula J. Carter.

            The cover of the second issue had articles on social activist Percy Green, the mansion of politician Michael Roberts, and Lisa Gates, daughter of businessman Clifton Gates (“Single, Successful and Smashing,” a headline stated).

            In addition to the feature on Green, Limelight has made a few forays into social commentary. An editorial in the first issue sympathized with Mexican construction workers recently arrested in St. Louis County and deported to Mexico. The editorial denounced the term “illegal aliens” as dehumanizing and branded the employer of the Mexicans as a profiteer. Columns by Tyrell Madrid in the first and second issues on “buppies” – black urban professionals – challenged them to renounce self-centeredness and work for the good of the entire black community.

            In some ways, Limelight appears editorially confused. Its introductory editorial promised to report good news and yet to also address serious issues. One reason for the confusion is the lack of a publisher or editor, positions Liss says he would like to fill. So far, the editorial content has been a group effort by six or seven writers and columnists.

            Limelight touched upon the National supermarket slayings, for instance, but in a vague manner. In the second issue it printed a drawing which shows three men gunning down five unarmed people. A caption read “Horror!” and readers were invited to contribute to a fund for survivors.

            Below the drawing was an article reviewing the Kerner Commission of the late 1960s, which reported that racism and the hellish state of inner city ghettos had spawned racial unrest and violence. The writer, Gerald W. Patton, concluded that the intolerable conditions of the 1960s still exist because the United States had failed to take to heart the commission’s findings. The tenor of Patton’s comments contrasted sharply with the spirit of the article in the first issue which stated an integrated St. Louis is “getting along very well, thank you.”

Looking For Investors

            Liss said he founded Limelight at the prompting of black community leaders who believed news about blacks concentrated too heavily on crime. He said he owns more than 50 percent of the magazine but hopes eventually to become a minority owner. He is currently negotiating with prospective investors.

            As of press time, Limelight had five owners – two whites and three blacks, Liss said. One of the owners is himself, the other is black columnist Stanley Newsome, a city fireman. Liss said he could not disclose the names of the other owners.

            The masthead states the magazine is published by “Limelight Publication, a Missouri corporation.” That corporation is not on file, however, with the Missouri Secretary of State in Jefferson City. Liss said the corporation may be filed under a slightly different name. “I’d be astonished if it wasn’t incorporated,” he said.

            The masthead lists Rev. John A. Doggett, Jr., a well-known black Methodist minister and a board member of Central Medical Center Hospital, as chairman of the board of directors. Doggett told SJR he is not an investor in the publication. Another well-known name on the masthead is sports writer Michael Claiborne, a sports broadcaster for KMOX radio. Liss’ titles are listed as advertising director/general manager.

            The front page copies the look of the St. Louis Business Journal – a small section of boxed-off stories with inside stories previewed in other boxes. Except for some run-on sentences and glaring mistakes such as the substitution of “they’re” for “their” in a headline, the copy and layout generally look clean and competent.

            While he would not disclose how many copies of Limelight have been printed per issue, Liss did say he hopes to eventually sell 50,000 copies an issue at retail outlets and vending boxes. He said he has obtained legal ownership of 200-plus vending boxes once owned by the defunct Globe-Democrat and hopes eventually to field about 600 vending boxes in virtually all of St. Louis City and St. Louis County. The first two issues, he said, have been distributed primarily in North St. Louis, North St. Louis County, the Central West End and University City.

            The Sentinel has a weekly press run of some 25,000 copies, according to an editor. About 3,500 are subscription sales; the rest are given away.

            The press run of the Argus is between 25,000 and 30,000 per week. Circulation manager Claude Brown said there is no free circulation. “We don’t give ours away,” Brown said.

            American publisher Donald Suggs said the American’s weekly press run rose from about 20,000 in February to 31,000 in July. Of that number, 27,000 are free home deliveries, 1,600 are subscriptions and 2,400 are newsstand sales.

Advertising in the Black Press

            Limelight appears to have gotten off to a respectable start in terms of advertising. Ads (excluding house ads) filled about 30 percent of the first two issues. Advertisers included Sears, Webster University, The Pasta House Company and Johnny Londoff Chevrolet.

            Advertising in black newspapers falls into several categories. One category is “image” advertising. Major corporations such as Anheuser-Busch Cos. And Schnucks will take out ads, for instance, during Black History Month in February or Near Jan. 15, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. As one black publisher who declined to be identified put it, the ads basically say, “We think black folks are great.”

            These ads, bought with public relations funds, are often viewed as examples of tokenism or “conscience money,” especially because many “image” advertisers are reluctant to place ads promoting their actual products (or services) with black papers. In the most lucrative form of product advertising, a major retailer such as Famous-Barr or Sears signs up for scheduled ads over a year’s time.

            “The real money is in (product) advertising, but they keep you in their public relations budget,” said the black publisher.

            Black newspapers also receive equal opportunity advertising from companies required by law of conscience to seek minority employees or contractors, or in the case of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to offer certain goods or services.

            Amalgamated Publishers Inc., (API) is the national advertising representative for the Sentinel, Argus and American. With just equal opportunity ads and those funneled through the API (like the giant cigarette ads which often cover a page and a half), “a paper can stay on the street,” said Al “Big City” Wallace, city editor of the Sentinel.

            For this reason, some observers believe even the arrival of Limelight will not force any of the existing black newspapers out of business, although their share of the corporate funds for “image advertising” may seriously decrease. Wallace said Limelight will merely motivate their sales forces to work harder.

            Suggs of the American said he does not fear Limelight.

            “Competition is healthy,” Suggs said. “If nothing else, Mr. Liss keeps us on our toes.”

            Liss agrees that competition is good for the local black press. Any new ad in Limelight is an open invitation to rivals to “solicit the account.”

            “The notion that major companies have a tiny and set amount that they are willing to spend with the black press is incorrect. That’s a self-defeating attitude geared for failure,” Liss told SJR in a written statement.

            “For 19 years at The Argus we broke our sales record each year, often by a very substantial amount. We packed over a quarter of a million dollars of new advertising in The American our first year and obviously we have found advertisers for Limelight already,” he added.

The Liss Factor

            Liss, who lives in Olivette, is a 27-year veteran of the black press industry. From 1960 to about 1979, he managed the advertising sales department for the St. Louis Argus. In 1981, he bought the St. Louis American from long-time owners N.A. and Melba Sweets. Soon after that Liss became a minority owner when Donald Suggs, a dentist, and Clifton Gates, chairman of Gateway National Bank and owner of a Miller Beer distributorship, bought shares of the paper. Liss then focused on selling advertising.

            In 1984, Liss sold his shares in the American to Suggs. Gates still holds at 33.3 percent stake in the paper, although at one time he and Suggs were in open conflict about the paper’s reportedly shaky financial condition. Both Suggs and Gates told SJR they are now at peace and the paper is on solid financial ground.

            Liss’ reputation in the black community is mixed. “He’s liked,” said one black journalist, “but he’s seen as a little bit of a flake – a bouncy, sweet guy.”

            Another figure in the local black press not associated with the Argus, Sentinel, or American said many blacks consider Liss an exploitative outsider who has drained the black press of advertising dollars. Like others who spoke less than favorably of Liss, he did not wish to be identified.

            “People tend to hate him with a passion,” said the industry figure, adding that resentment and envy also contribute to the passion. “Gene has made money in the black press when others have not.”

            Liss said his predatory reputation is undeserved. He described himself as a benefactor of the black press.

            “When the Sweets family went to every family in St. Louis (looking for a buyer) I was the only one who came forward.”

            When he sold ads for the Argus, he said, the paper had as many as 132 pages per issue. While he admittedly made a lot of money during his Argus days, the ad-rich Argus meant fat commissions for advertising salespeople and fat checks for the editorial staff.

            Wallace, a former Argus city editor, confirms Liss’ claim.

            “Through his efforts,” said Wallace, “we were able to maintain a good cash flow. He was one of the best salesmen selling black newspaper ads I have come across. We didn’t have to worry about our checks bouncing.”

            Liss’ poor reputation among some blacks, Wallace said, “was put on him because he was white.”

            Liss argues that if he is indeed the pariah his critics say he is, he would not have been able to assemble the investors and staff he has now.

            “Do they think all of these people (in the masthead) are stupid?”

            Dana Grace Randolph, a feature writer and society columnist for Limelight, said Liss’ race does not pose a problem for the magazine.

            “First of all, the paper is for everybody,” said Randolph. “As far as Gene Liss publishing the paper, I don’t know of any problem with that because he has vast experience with the black press.”

            One observer of the black press said Liss may have tried to increase his popularity with a cover story in the second issue on Lisa Gates, the daughter of Clifton Gates. The writer was Randolph.

            “An interview with Lisa Gates is like sunshine on a perfect day,” the article began. Gates, who manages the office of her father’s beer distributorship, was accorded almost two full pages inside, complete with a photograph of her in a low-cut bathing suit (“Are we allowed to say ‘Wow?,’” the caption read.)

            The industry observer said the story may have represented Liss’ effort to keep Cliff Gates, an influential member of the black community, on his good side or even attract him as an investor. Liss called that theory “asinine.” He said the story was entirely Randolph’s making.

            More than one observer of the black press – and Liss himself – noted Liss’ strength is in ad sales, not editorial judgment. “He can’t say something is good or bad. He has to say everything in superlatives,” said one observer who declined to be identified.

            Another simply said, “He’s giving people a dream sheet.”

            In one way, his publication echoes the “I Have A Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. Without the pull of dreams, people become the prey of despair and entropy. But in the effort to create good news, the good news of Limelight often describes a make-believe where blacks have finally “arrived” in society and even constitute a majority of the Hill, long considered a white enclave highly resistant to integration.

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 10/1987).


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