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Public Defender History

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Young Journalists Launch Leftist Alternative Weekly

By C.D. Stelzer

            Antonio French, the 24-year-old editor of Public Defender, sees the role of his new weekly alternative newspaper more like a campaign rather than a business. The idea of founding a newspaper out of idealism nowadays may sound naïve, but French possesses a wealth of business acumen and political expertise for his age.

            At age 19, while still an undergraduate at Auburn University, he secured a bank loan and opened a café.

            “I owned a bar before I was 21,” he said, smiling. I couldn’t drink, but I was selling it.”

            In early 2000, he returned home, drawn back to St. Louis by his family’s roots. R.C. French, his late grandfather, served as the first black marshal in St. Louis. His grandmother remains 21st Ward committeewoman. After his return, it didn’t take long for him to become involved in civic affairs himself.

            “St. Louis has a lot of problems,” French said. “I decided if I’m going to be here, and make this my home, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it.” French initially took a job as field coordinator for the Missouri Voters for Free Elections, an ad hoc group that was backing a referendum on campaign finance reform.

            His experience in that unsuccessful ballot initiative, nevertheless, spurred him to pursue a political career. He formed a consulting firm, A.D. French and Associates. “My first gig I lucked out,” he said. “I managed Missouri State Sen. Wayne Goode’s campaign in the 13th District.”

            He followed that victory by handling Pat Dougherty’s successful bid for state senate in the 4th District. Unfortunately, French said he became disillusioned with the electoral process after running the 21st Ward aldermanic campaign of Melinda Long. “That’s when I really got fed up,” he said.

            Seeking reform through the backing of one candidate seemed futile and ineffective to French. He also began to question ceding power to candidates who, after being elected, demonstrated no accountability to constituents. “In my ward, and in a lot of other Northside wards, and, really, in a lot of St. Louis – there is no political culture for average citizens.”

            So by his early 20s, French had already learned the reality of political campaigns in St. Louis. Over the next year, he expanded his knowledge to the state level, working as a legislative aide for the Department of Corrections (DOC) in Jefferson City. That experience provided French with another unsettling insight: “I learned lawmakers don’t make laws – lobbyists make laws,” he said.

            During his stint at the DOC, French began working under Dora Schriro, a relatively progressive administrator in the field of prison management. After she left the post, he grew increasingly less satisfied with his position.

            Last year [2001], after Sept. 11, he volunteered to join military intelligence, but the Army denied him security clearance.

            That rejection led him to seek other ways of fulfilling civic obligations closer to home. Instead of just slapping an American flag decal on his car, French started examining political debates on the local level. The community problems that garnered his attention included legislative redistricting, public financing of the proposed downtown baseball stadium, state budget cuts and downtown architectural preservation.

            French noticed that the mainstream, black and alternative media had one thing I common: All of them seemed to ignore the most relevant public concerns. “They really weren’t asking the questions,” French said. “The really weren’t promoting the opinion that was predominant among poor people – average folks.” For instance, he asked, why not save tax revenue by refurbishing the existing baseball stadium instead of helping to finance a new one? In the same vein, why tear down the Century Building – a 100-year-old architecturally significant gem, for a parking garage?

            Originally, French considered putting together an investment group to buy the venerable Argus, St. Louis’ oldest black newspaper. But he decided a new name and identity would better serve the platform he wanted to create for his fledgling publication.

            Although it features urban stories on social and political injustice, Public Defender is not exclusively dedicated to black issues. Instead, the publication’s viewpoint, like its staff, represents the multi-ethnic and racial diversity of St. Louisans, a generation who are adamant about bringing about change. “The defining characteristic,” French said, “is we want St. Louis to be a great place. We know it can be. And we are completely frustrated that the folks in charge right now are not steering it in the direction to make it so. There has got to be a reason why so many talented people are working on a project basically for nothing. Nobody is getting paid what they are worth, and most people aren’t getting paid at all, including me. But we’ve all got talent, and we’ve all got heart, and I think that’s contagious.” The new weekly has added 20 additional volunteers since the publication of its first issue, he added.

            Staff writers include Elizabeth Vega, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and Stefene Russell, a former writer for Stl.com.

            There is nothing fluffy in the editorial style.

            Although French anticipates more arts and entertainment coverage in the future, for the time being, well-written, hard news stories on city and downtown subjects dominate.

            Subjects already covered include the dispute over home rule, the debate over the direction of public schools, neglect of Kiel Opera House and the killing of a youth by a police officer in North St. Louis. One exception to the strictly urban view was an analysis of a $378 million government contract awarded to Boeing to convert warheads into “smart bombs.” Regular features include an editorial by French; a column called By the Numbers, which emulates Harper’s Index; and a quick read called Simple Question. The Simple Question in the Sept. 19 issue, which occupied the centerfold, asked: “HOW MANY FUCKING PARKING GARAGES DO WE NEED???”

            Public Defender’s number one editorial rule is “writing from the bottom up,” French said. In other words, the newspaper’s primary goal is populism – to give a voice to the disenfranchised. Other tenets include honest editorial content, a healthy skepticism of politicians and a dedication to readers’ rights over advertisers’ priorities.

            To achieve these ends, French has adopted a Wal-Mart-style business plan. “Our expenses are super low,” he said. “I’ve been told we could not get this done without at least $50,000 to $100,000. Costs of production so far have amounted to only a small fraction of that estimate. He credits dedication and determination of the individuals involved in the endeavor for helping scale down the expense. “You can do this thing on a laptop,” French said. “All you have to do is pay for printing.” French is counting on the support of small businesses, which have been priced out of the market by other media, for advertising.

            Public Defender’s first issue had a press run of 10,000 copies. Its second edition ran 15,000. French anticipates a circulation of 30,000 in the near future, and he is hiring a company to distribute the paper mainly at city locations and on college campuses.

            “I don’t know if the keepers of the old guard understand the situation,” French said. “But there are folks out there who are willing to put their money and their energy into making this place a better place. We’re the manifestation of that – and we will be as long as we can. If this thing dies, it’s somebody else’s responsibility to do it again.”

            Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/2002).