The Sacramento Observer: “America’s Number One”
NCM, Teresa Moore and Catherine Black Posted: Aug 20, 2003
It took someone like Dr. William Lee to see the potential in a struggling church journal when he bought it with two friends back in 1962 to create the Sacramento Observer. “I think we put in about $1,500 apiece. It was the only thing around that looked like it might be a black newspaper.”
In the early days, Lee and his partners and their wives laid out the paper on the dining room table. But the Observer quickly expanded, enabling Lee to eventually buy out his partners.
With a circulation of 50,000, the Observer is now an institution for Sacramento’s African American community, which is reportedly growing by an average of seven black families per day. Its website (www.sacobserver.com) was launched in 2001 and now serves over 100,000 unique visitors per month with news updated daily.
The newspaper is often several hundred pages thick, attracting large advertisers like Sears and Ford.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the Observer won the John B. Russwurm Trophy for Journalism Excellence (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in black newspaper publishing) five times before it retired from competition. In 1996 it reentered for the first time in ten years and took the prize again.
With its influence in the state’s capitol, the Observer has a long history of political involvement in issues affecting the African American community. “We’ve met with every governor since we’ve been publishing,” notes Larry Lee, president and general manager of the Observer’s website division and son of founder Dr. Lee. “Things don’t happen at the capitol without us being aware of what’s going on.” The Observer was instrumental in getting media coverage rules rewritten to allow weekly papers (rather than just dailies) to cover affairs at the state capitol.
The Observer’s connections to the black community shine at events like the Black Expo, which it began co-hosting in 2002. Attended by 16,000 people that year, the number swelled to 35,000 by 2003.
Yet the Observer remains a family affair. For many years Dr. Lee’s wife Kathy was an editor, and her mother Irene Charles was the “voice of the Observer.” “My mother-in-law gave us the name ‘America’s Number One’—she was our receptionist and that’s how she’d answer the phone.”
As a “catalyst for change in this community,” the Observer also started the Sacramento Urban League and the Sacramento Area Black Law Caucus.
“We’re in a fortunate situation,” reflects Larry. “My father has pushed us for these 40 years to be an excellent publication. I’m hoping to follow in those footsteps.”
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