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Member Spotlight: Washington Informer

Member Spotlight: Washington Informer

Location/Website: Washington, D.C.; WashingtonInformer.com

Twitter/Facebook: @WashInformer; Facebook/The-Washington-Informer

Publication Schedule: Weekly.

Focus & History: Founded Oct. 16, 1964 by Dr. Calvin Rolark at a small office on Seventh and G Street in Northwest D.C., the paper’s original mission was to highlight positive images of African-American citizens of Washington, D.C. and the Beltway region. The paper’s founding is partly owed to a $500 gift to Rolark by Wilhelmina Rolark, Dr. Rolark’s second wife. Wilhelmina Rolark served as a council member in the District from 1976 to 1984 and was a noted activist.

“It was right across the street from the National Portrait Gallery and perpendicular from Verizon Center,” said the paper’s current publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes, Calvin’s daughter. “The great thing about working with my Dad was he asked me to make the bank deposit. Going down Seventh Street was a lot of fun because I got to meet the store owners.”

The paper’s early days likely featured a pig-tailed girl skipping down the street as she carried out her father’s errands.

“In the summertime, Dad would send me to National Bank of Washington (which is now a PNC Bank branch) and each time, it would take a couple of hours because I stopped in almost every shop,” Rolark Barnes said. “Back then, China Town was a real neighborhood where everyone knew each other, as opposed to what it is today, an economic district. It was a place where people lived atop their stores. But it all changed when the Metro stations were built. I’m a fan of Metro, but it disturbed the neighborhood we knew.”

The paper later moved to southeast D.C. when Calvin Rolark founded the United Black Fund and felt it was important to separate the for-profit Informer physically from the Fund’s nonprofit endeavors.

“We moved to H Street in Northwest in 1977 and then to our present location in 1980,” Rolark Barnes said. “That’s when UBF moved to 16th and we came over here.”

The paper is now located in Congress Heights – south of the Anacostia River – on the 3000 block of Martin Luther King Avenue between Raleigh and Savannah streets.

The paper serves over 50,000 readers in the District and surrounding areas each week, according to the paper’s website. The Informer claims a monthly average of 30,000 unique visitors to the paper’s website and 7,500 weekly subscribers via a weekly email newsletter. The Informer also touts 300,000 potential viewers through the paper’s Washington Informer television program.

“I think we’ve evolved as a voice for Washington, D.C. – not just African-American voices,” Rolark Barnes said. “Issue reporting tends to divide communities, but we know that people cross those issues and boundaries all the time. Education is a global issue, not just an issue for black people, so we’re not isolated to the issues of black people, because Washington, D.C. is a global community.”

Rolark Barnes formally joined the Informer in 1980 as managing editor and assumed the publisher’s role in 1994. She’s learned the subtleties of transitioning her paper from what was once described as a black newspaper to a paper addressing issues affecting all races and nationalities.

“It takes seeing an issue or seeing yourself inside of an issue that usually takes us outside of that context,” Rolark Barnes said. “We’re all trying to reach outside our targeted market because it’s too hard to segregate yourself. We still focus on the black community, but we’re not exclusive to that community.”

Rolark Barnes Featured by WP Magazine: The Washington Post’s Sunday magazine recently featured Rolark Barnes in a first-person interview.

Among some of the interesting facts was Rolark Barnes’ admission that she originally had no desire to follow her father into the publication industry.

“I was not interested in the newspaper … My dad struggled for many years,” Rolark Barnes was quoted by the Post’s Robin Rose Parker. While her father had his newspaper, her stepmother was a lawyer, and Rolark Barnes was determined to follow her footsteps, not her father’s. However, during her time at Howard University saw her take a more familiar path.

“I figured I’d thank him for all the years of summer jobs and the days that I helped him with the newspaper, but I would bid him farewell and go on to pursue some other career in law,” Rolark Barnes said. “Once I got into college I decided that communications was something I enjoyed. I think it was the opportunity to see what I had learned without him looking over my shoulder.”

Rolark Barnes graduated from Howard in 1976 before earning her J.D. degree from the university’s law school in 1979. During her enrollment to the law school, she was editor of The Barrister, the schools’ student-run newspaper.

What’s New: “We’re planning for our 50th anniversary, which takes place in 2014, and we continue to sponsor the spelling bee,” Rolark Barnes said. “We’re constantly tweaking our website – to make some additional profit – and our social media presence is stronger, because we’ve hired our first social media manager. We’re not on Pinterest or Instragram yet, but we’ve been on Facebook for three years and Twitter for the past year.”

Informer Tours: The Informer has incorporated its African-American Heritage tour, Rolark Barnes said. “It’s not exclusive to African-Americans, but on this last tour, we did focus on the historic black townships in Prince George’s County.”
The tour is a one-day extravaganza, including a served breakfast, two to three hours of touring via motor coaches and a lunch on a Saturday during African-American history month.
In 2014, the Informer has been invited by the city of Alexandria, Va., to do the same thing. Previous years have focused on Frederick Douglass in the city and African-Americans in the Civil War, where the destination was the memorial and museum in northeast D.C.

~ compiled by T.C. Cameron

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