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Activists and Entrepreneurs: The California Advocate

NCM, Profile, Julie Johnson Posted: Aug 06, 2004

This summer Les Kimber, owner and co-founder of Fresno-based The California Advocate, called up West Hills College to see if his paper could run the colleges ad for its coursework. He had seen the ad in another paper. The school turned him down, though Kimber had offered to run the ad for free.

But Les wanted his readers to know about these classes. He wrote up a free ad for the college himself and ran it anyway.

This kind of situation wouldnt have been a big surprise in the late 1960s when Les and his wife Pauline founded The Advocate, Fresnos African American weekly newspaper. Les says that despite progress since the Civil Rights movement, the business world has a long way to go.

The Kimbers founded The Advocate in 1967 when there were no black papers in the area and there was a lot of community unrest. Pauline says their reason for starting the paper was simple. We wanted to read something positive about the African American community for a change.

From the start, The Advocate has offered just that. From supporting boycotts of stores that discriminate and showcasing local minority owned businesses to stories about national issues, the Kimbers have crafted a paper that appeals to African American people around the country.

At The California Advocates reception desk, the Kimbers 17-year-old granddaughter Brooklynn Edwards answers the phones. In the newsroom three other young family members type away and Mark Kimber who succeeded his father as editor and publisher buzzes through to his office. Behind Brooklynns desk is a window into Les office showing rows of plaques and awards from his time on the city council and many community projects.

Not Just Reporting

Gwen Young, founder and president of Young Communications Group in Los Angeles, knows the Kimbers because she works with the paper on many of Young Communications Groups social marketing campaigns like their Get Real for Teen Pregnancy ad campaign. Youngs uncle was also one of the papers first editors.

Youngs office gets The Advocate because they monitor African American publications across the country. But she also receives the paper at home. It isnt just about Fresno, says Young. What I appreciate about The Advocate is that they take wire service information and run community stories. They serve both local and national sectors.

Young also says the Kimbers are able to succeed because they understand the role of a paper as an ambassador for the community. Not everybody understands the role which journalism plays in communications and public relations, she says. The Kimbers knew from the start that they were the communicators of their community and that doesnt just mean reporting, Young says.

Boycott As a Strategy

Pauline and Les say their paper made its mark with its editorial support for boycotts of stores with discriminatory policies. At a time when it was a struggle for black papers to get advertising, they found these boycotts bringing in readers and support. Black publishers use boycotting as a marketing strategy, says Les. Its not our first choice, but it works.

Advertisers were overlooking a huge market black media. Even when they do have a clue, they dont [advertise in the black press], Pauline says.

The Kimbers started their own ad placement agency, Kimber Kimber & Associates in 1986. They leveraged the editorial strength of The Advocate to convince companies to advertise in the black press. Kimber Kimber & Associates now places ads for companies like AT&T, Washington Mutual, and Lowes in around 200 black papers across the country. Now Macys and Rite Aid know they gain from advertising [in African American media], says Les.

Keith Kelley, president and CEO of the Fresno West Coalition for Economic Development, says the Kimbers were ahead of their time. Kelley was just a kid when The Advocate began but he knew it was the paper everyone read. He says that as Fresnos black community changes, the paper remains the communitys main source of news. Racism is still around, and the editors are good at looking at stories and keeping them fresh, says Kelley.

The Communitys First Choice

West Fresno was 60-70% African American around the '60s. Now at about 30%, the African American community has spread to other areas of town and throughout Californias Central Valley as its middle class base has grown. The papers readership remains strong. According to readership polls, fewer than 15% of Advocate readers subscribe to any other paper, and in West Fresno its not more than 8 percent.

Reverend Chester Riggins of Saint Rest Baptist Church has lived in Fresno since 1938. He says The Advocate means a lot to the black community. It was founded, ran and continues to be run by black people, he says. They have done a great service to the black community. We view The Advocate as the number one newspaper.

The Kimbers involvement in their community underlies the newspapers activist spirit. The Advocate is the first choice for most African Americans in the Fresno area to find a church event, learn which stores are treating employees unfairly, and hear whats going on in the black community around the country. Pauline says that according to research, The Advocate now with a circulation of about 31,000 reaches 87% more of the black community than other local papers.

The Advocate also emphasizes the greater Fresno community. At one point The Advocate included a Spanish supplement. One of the first major projects of Kimber Kimber & Associates was a campaign against the governments attempt to take away Native American casino revenues.

The communitys respect for the Kimbers showed when Les ran against seven other candidates for a seat on the City Council in 1983 he won by 70 percent, and had the endorsement of Cesar Chavez.

So when Les calls up a college to run its ad and is turned down, he knows his paper will always be needed. Nothing will take the place of specialty papers, says Les. African American people will always need a place for their own voice.

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