Founder of The Chronicle and others look back at the ups and downs of his long career

Ernie Pitt, left, founder of The Chronicle, talks with present Publisher James Taylor Jr. in Pitt’s former office, which is now Taylor’s office.

Founder of The Chronicle and others look back at the ups and downs of his long career
May 04
05:45 2017

Photo by Todd Luck



This week, for the first time since he founded The Chronicle on May 4, 1974, Ernie Pitt is no longer its publisher.

Last week, Pitt officially retired after selling the paper to The Chronicle Media Group LLC, whose principal directors are Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor Jr., two Winston-Salem city council members.

Taylor is now the publisher.

“Mr. Pitt is a true titan for this community, having started this great newspaper,” Taylor told The Chronicle Tuesday.

“It’s truly an honor to now take the baton.”

In an exclusive interview immediately after the acquisition became official, Pitt said he was pleased with the sale because he knew that The Chronicle’s tradition and mission of serving the community would be continued.

“I have confidence in these guys,” Pitt said. “I feel good about the fact that they’re young, they’re smart, they’re committed, and they’ve shown their commitment to this community.”

Still, as he sat in what had been his office on North Liberty Street for many years (Mr. Taylor’s name was already emblazoned on the door), taking note of the barren walls that used to display his personal and professional accomplishments, Pitt recalled his early years as a budding student journalist at the UNC – Chapel Hill School of Journalism, and how that experience led him to founding Winston-Salem’s “Oldest and most respected community newspaper.”

The assignment was to research an investigative story, write it, and get it published, Pitt recalls. The story – why black graduates at North Carolina Central University’s (NCCU) School of Law were consistently failing the state bar exam more than their white counter-parts. Pitt determined that while NCCU’s white students studied with their friends at the law libraries of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, where the resources were expansive, black NCCU law students were grossly undermined by only using the law library there, which was meager in comparison.

Racism at the board of examiners only made the situation worse.

Pitt ‘s story got an A in class, but when he took it to Durham’s black newspaper for publication, it wouldn’t do it.

The secretary at the paper was the wife of the dean at the NCCU law school. She made sure Pitt’s story went nowhere.

Pitt also ran into a brick wall when he went to the Durham Morning Herald, this time as an intern. Not only did the Herald reject his work, but did its own five-part series allegedly using some of Pitt’s research, without proper attribution to him.

“They stole it,” he now says matter-of-factly. The story he wrote was never published.

That’s when Ernie Pitt decided the only way to get his stories about the black community published was to publish them himself. That meant taking the risk of starting his own black newspaper, knowing absolutely nothing about the Black Press at the time.

Upon careful study about the proud tradition and history of the Black Press, Pitt became convinced that that was where he belonged.

After graduation from UNC in 1974, and with the help and inspiration of an African journalist who taught him business, and his soon-to-be wife, Elaine, who was living in Chapel Hill, Pitt chose the fourth largest city in North Carolina – Winston-Salem – to start the Winston-Salem Chronicle.

Winston-Salem hadn’t been home to a black newspaper since The People’s Spokesman folded in 1948.

Pitt, who had taken a reporting job at the Greensboro News & Record, had determined after careful study that Winston-Salem’s black community was “active and aggressive.” There were plenty of community issues to cover, and the Black Panther Party there was a key voice for change and justice.

With no competition to worry about. Pitt became convinced, though reluctantly at first, that this would be the market to serve. So on his days off, the Greensboro native was there, scouting for prospects, and looking for investors.

There was only one. Brick mason/funeral home owner Frank Murell gave Pitt a small building for just $75-a-month. With little to no money, Pitt began producing the community newspaper on Sept. 5, 1974. Elaine would come to town on weekends, eventually marry Pitt, and the two of them would hit the streets, selling copies of The Chronicle wherever they could.

“There was nothing else on my mind but to do this,” Pitt says. “I was willing to make whatever sacrifice I had to make. Thank God my wife was behind me, willing to do whatever she could to support me. For that, I’m truly grateful.”

“If it were not for her, “ Pitt adds, “I don’t know where I would be.”

It wasn’t easy, though, Pitt recalls, and the pair were met with a fair amount of skepticism at first because they weren’t really known in the community, but they pushed even harder. The Panthers, led by Larry Little at the time, saw Pitt as an extension of their work in the community, and embraced his enterprise.

“I was trying to make a living, not friends,” Pitt recalls now, seeing that The Chronicle was “a destiny.”

Community leader Bishop Todd L. Fulton, senior pastor and founder of Mt. Moriah Outreach Center, once sold copies of The Chronicle part time when he was 18 or 19 during the mid-1980s. He recalls how hard Pitt and his wife worked in the community.

“Ernie, as a young man working for him, he was an icon, he and his wife, as black entrepreneurs in our community,” Bishop Fulton recalls. “They inspired me to push harder, and do more in life, and know that I can have the dreams and visions of becoming an entrepreneur.”

Bishop Fulton remembers Pitt as being “a fair boss, but a tough boss. One minute he’d cuss you out,[the next] he’d bring you in, sit down with you, and laugh and joke with you.”

It took a while, but it wasn’t long before Winston-Salem’s black community embraced Ernie Pitt and The

Chronicle  for “telling our side of the story.’

Unlike the whiteowned general market paper in town, which historically reported negative stories about African-Americans, The Chronicle could be counted on to report the positive news about their community, in addition to being a voice for those whose struggles were ordinarily ignored.

“Ernie would be the first to get a story out, and it would be transparent, and he was not afraid to [take on] the powers that be,” Bishop Fulton recalled. “That’s what I respected about him.”

One of the stories Pitt and The Chronicle are most noted for in both their coverage and advocacy is the case of Darryl Hunt, a 19-year-old black man falsely convicted of the rape and murder of a white female newspaper copy editor. Hunt spent over 19 years in prison until he was finally exonerated.

He died in March 2016. Early on, The Chronicle, under Pitt’s leadership, demanded fairness for Hunt when it was clear that he was being railroaded by the criminal justice system because he was black.

But even as the community was coming around to appreciating what The Chronicle offered back in those early days, there was also a practical side – sales. The paper needed revenue in order to continue to serve and grow.

Pitt said he eventually had to stop reporting, and learn how to sell in order to keep The Chronicle going. It was hard, and he admits he “almost quit,” but the Lord told him not to give up. Pitt had to learn that the art and science of selling was about building relationships, and showing perspective clients what you could do for them and their business.

It was a skill that Ernie Pitt, with a little training and lots of natural talent, learned to master and build a formidable business, and circulation, with.

Soon he was able to hire a strong staff, which went on to win numerous state and national journalism awards from various major press organizations. By 1984, the National Newspaper Publishers Association had honored The Chronicle as the best black newspaper in the nation.

In February 2016, The Chronicle won First Place from the N.C. Press Association for News Coverage in the smaller newspapers division, in addition to other awards.

“Everybody who has come through here working has possessed a journalism degree or journalism background. It just happened that way, and I’ve had some great people come through here,” Pitt says.

“Allen Johnson, he’s now editor of the editorial page [at the Greensboro News & Record]; I’ve got people at The Washington Post; The Los Angeles Times; I’ve even got a photographer at The [Cleveland]Plain Dealer, and I’m so proud of them because they took this experience, and they learned.”

Pitt added, “I’m most proud of our consistency…and commitment to the values of our people, our community, and establishing a level of trust between this newspaper and the community to do the best that we can.”

Among the many things Pitt is proud of is the clear editorial policy of The Chronicle, and how he kept it purely independent from any political or commercial influences.

“We’ve lost business, but I’ve been able to sleep at night,” he says.

Yes, there have been significant bumps in the road for Pitt, both personally and with The Chronicle. And yet both have survived, and have every intention of thriving in the future, though separately.

Now that it’s the end of an era for The Chronicle’s founder, leaders across the spectrum in Winston-Salem look back with appreciation and pride at what Ernie Pitt has done with his small, but powerful community newspaper.

“Ernie has influenced positively Winston Salem and this area for the past 40 years,” Mayor Allen Joines told The Chronicle. “He’s been a voice of conscious for our community, speaking out against injustices when necessary, and gene-ally promoting the positives of our [city] when appropriate.”

Mayor Joines added that Pitt’s newspaper kept city government accountable, “chiding us occasionally when it felt we were not treating aspects of the community appropriately. It clearly was a good conscious for us.”

“For the last 40 years, Ernie Pitt has given voice to the black community in Winston- Salem,” says Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of the Winston-Salem branch of the NAACP. “The Chronicle has been a source of information for and about African-Americans. Ernie has never shied away from telling hard truths.”

Rev. Carlisle, who is also pastor of Exodus United Baptist Church, continued, “As the president of the Winston Salem NAACP, I am proud to be honoring his commitment to serve our community at [the upcoming] Freedom Fund gala. I wish him well as he moves to this next phase of his life.”

And now, ironies of ironies, a young man named James Taylor Jr., who once graced the pages of The Chronicle’s sports pages when he starred in high school football, is now its new, visionary publisher.

So now the circle is complete. The award-winning community newspaper started 43 years ago is, and will remain, a valued, respected institution in Winston-Salem, and across the state.

Just like its founder, Ernie Pitt.

“The fight goes on,” he says.

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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