A much younger Denise Rolark Barnes with her father, Dr. Calvin Rolark Sr. (WI photo)
A much younger Denise Rolark Barnes with her father, Dr. Calvin Rolark Sr. (WI photo)

When The Washington Informer was founded 53 years ago by Dr. Calvin Rolark he wanted to provide a vehicle for sharing positive news about D.C.’s Black community.

And it’s no secret that his daughter, Denise Rolark Barnes, who took over the helm after her father’s death as the publisher, has remained adamant about honoring his legacy and continuing his directive. In fact, she’s added her own personal touches and goals, increasing her staff who beat the pavement to uncover and share positive stories that can often only be seen within the pages or website of The Informer.

“We have a real quality staff including good writers and photographers who understand the importance of the Black Press and who support that,” she said. “This is something that you cannot do alone.”

“I’ve been blessed by be surrounded by those who get it and want to keep our people informed and educated about issues of importance to our community,” said Rolark Barnes, a Howard University-educated attorney who will turn 63 in December.

Of course, like any business, Rolark Barnes realizes that she has to keep her eye on the bottom line so that the doors remain open and the historic newspaper can continue to roll out issues of substance week after week. For some Black-owned papers, changes in the industry and increased costs have been overwhelming, forcing some members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) to shut down their presses. But not this feisty publisher.

“Blacks across the nation find themselves in a state of complacency — in a sort of malaise because many of us have accomplished our initial goals and feel like we’re done,” she said. “But we’re not. The Black Press defined its mission early in the 1800s and it’s the same one that should, that must guide us today. What we do is far too important to shirk our responsibility.”

Rolark Barnes, the former chairwoman for the NNPA, maintains an engaging rapport with other publishers across the U.S. with just over 200 newspapers who are members of the Association. Many of those papers have children or even grandchildren of the founding publishers now at the helm.

But will the award-winning Washington Informer become a third-generation publication? Rolark Barnes, the mother of two sons, said she remains “optimistic.”

“Ideally, if one of my sons were to one day take over the paper, that would be a perfect scenario,” she said. “When it comes to building institutions, and building legacies, that’s what I call a ‘perfect storm.’ But the reality is it doesn’t always work out that way.”

“Even more, what really matters is the institution. It’s the institution itself that needs to survive. I can imagine when the Graham family decided to sell The Washington Post in 2013, it had to have been a very difficult decision. [The Graham family first began publishing the Post in 1877.] And while it would no longer be published by their family, I’m sure their goal was to make sure whoever purchased it recognized the value of their brand and would be willing and able to maintain that brand in the future so that it would continue to be a top-notch national newspaper.”

“As long as the publisher of The Washington Informer remembers the reason my father first founded this newspaper, we’ll be just fine,” she added.

But is it really worth the daily grind, the long hours and the juggling act she sometimes finds herself doing in order to convince potential advertisers that a partnership with a Black-owned publication serves as a win-win situation? Rolark Barnes responded without hesitation.

“Some want to ask if the Black Press still has a role — if we’re still necessary? she queried.

“Look, our offices are located in Ward 8 and my husband and I live in Ward 8,” she said. “Regardless of the men and women who have served as the leaders of this community in Southeast, the problems we’ve been facing haven’t changed much over the years.”

“Ward 8 has been a food, health and economic dessert for generations. That’s nothing new. We’ve existed under negative presidents in the White House. The changes that have occurred were only possible when the community became engaged and it’s been the Black Press who has given voice to those people.”

“As long as those in our community, especially Blacks, have stories to tell and causes to fight, there must be a presence, the Black Press, to communicate those issues. That’s what The Washington Informer has done for 53 years. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” she said.

The Washington Informer will hold an Open House from 3-7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19 in the newly renovated lower basement of the paper’s offices, 3117 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Come meet the publisher, the staff and share your views about our paper.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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