Tyree Johnson, Westside Weekly, Philadelphia, Pa

Article excerpt

Tyree Johnson Westside Weekly Philadelphia, Pa.

For many people, the decision to give up the security and comfort of a well-paying job while still supporting a family of two children and a wife might be a difficult one.

Tyree Johnson found it easy. He tossed away his steady salary and health benefits with two large and well-known companies to start his own community newspaper.

"I woke up one morning and the fire was gone - I just lost the drive," said Johnson, who had spent 18 years as an investigative reporter with KYW-TV and the Philadelphia Daily News.

To reignite the flame, Johnson invested $10,000 of his life savings to give birth to the Westside Weekly, a 10,000-circulation paper covering Johnson's West Philadelphia neighborhood. It was a risky move, especially since Johnson, 46, had no prior entrepreneurial experience. But, on February 16, 1989, the eight-page Westside Weekly made its debut with the headline "Hello Neighbors" and a full slate of ads from local stores, beauty parlors, naileries, a beer distributor and other merchants.

While some welcomed his efforts, others thought a paper for a community composed predominantly of working-class African-Americans would be unsuccessful. In addition, the paper would be competing against a 17-year-old established weekly paper, the West Philadelphia Scene.

Johnson said his weekly is meant to be a "down-home, folksy newspaper. When people read this paper, I want them to say, |Hey, I know that person - that's my neighbor. I didn't know that,'" Johnson remarked.

"There's a lot of money in this community and people still want to know who does the best home repairs, tax returns, or anything the cheapest," Johnson said, noting that 80% of the community are homeowners.

Most of his advertisers deliver what they promise but Johnson recalled an incident when a woman ran a "stuff envelopes at home" scheme. She bought a $5 ad space that promised everyone who sent a dollar would receive materials to begin their at-home business.

No one received a reply and she netted an undisclosed amount of money. It was a "very, very unfortunate thing because it undermined the community's trust," Johnson admitted.

Johnson will not celebrate the paper's upcoming second anniversary because he has opted to commemorate the 100th issue this month instead.

"From the past I will resurrect my favorite stories on black Jews, Patti LaBelle's first manager, and Sharazad Ali's Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. Neighborhood milestones and upcoming events will also be highlighted," Johnson said.

Johnson's work is not always a safe experience. On occasions, he has received threats and once he was attacked. While working on a story to salute "hard hats" (people who patrol the community to deter drug dealers and users), a man attempted to snatch his camera while he was photographing a drug house. Since the attempt was unsuccessful, he chased Johnson with a glass bottle. Johnson was forced to retreat to his car for safety and turn on his assailant, nearly running him over with his car.

Johnson's desire to tell it like it is may have also cost him some ad revenue. A neighborhood politician, state Senator Hardy Williams, is one of Johnson's latest targets. …