Journalism pioneer Bill Tatum dies

February 26, 2009 4:04:20 PM PST
Wilbert A. Tatum, retired publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, the Harlem-based newspaper that has covered the city's black community for a century, has died during a trip to Croatia, the newspaper said Thursday. He was 76. Nayaba Arinde, an editor at the weekly paper, confirmed Tatum's death. She said he had been ill recently but did not know the cause of his death in a hospital in Dubrovnik, where he was traveling with his wife, Susan.

Gov. David Paterson called Tatum "not just a great newspaperman; he was a kind and decent person who stood out amongst the giants of New York City for his commitment to justice and social equality."

Tatum, born in New York City on Jan. 23, 1933, held degrees from Lincoln and Occidental universities, served in the U.S. Marines and was a longtime community activist, businessman and journalist.

A member of a group that purchased the Amsterdam News in 1971, he rose to become board chairman and editor-in-chief, took majority control of the paper in 1982, and bought out the last investor in July 1996. In December 1997 he retired as publisher and editor-in-chief, replaced by his daughter, Elinor Ruth Tatum. He remained board chairman and publisher emeritus.

The Amsterdam News, one of 50 black newspapers in the United States when it was founded in December 1909, marks its centennial this year.

A prominent and sometimes controversial voice on racial, political and other issues, Tatum also served as deputy borough president of Manhattan in the early 1970s. In 1993, he was briefly named publisher and editor of the New York Post during a chaotic staff revolt against a new owner, Abe Hirschfeld, and a threat of bankruptcy. In 1996, a Manhattan jury ruled that Tatum had diverted more than $1 million from the newspaper for his personal use.

In a statement on his death, the Amsterdam News noted that in the 1960s it had been the "premier newspaper for the civil rights and Black Nationalist movements." Under Tatum, it shifted to a "more liberal appeal" and as black newspapers diminished in numbers, it returned to a "more militant and progressive position."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tatum's death was "a big loss for a paper that has been influencing and reflecting city politics for over 100 years."

Bloomberg said Tatum had made the paper a major employer in Harlem, whose voice "really was heard across the city - and, on many occasions, around the world."

"He covered issues of concern to African-Americans in ways that other media outlets did not, and he gave many young writers opportunities they might not otherwise have had," Bloomberg said.

"Bill Tatum was a respected journalist and businessman who never feared to speak truth to power, and expressed himself forcefully, with honesty and irreverence," said former Mayor David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor.

"As a journalist, Bill advocated for `transparency' long before it became a buzzword, and made its pursuit his personal and professional campaign," said Dinkins. "He never shied away from the controversial, and was ever mindful of incidents and individuals that might threaten or compromise the integrity, the image or the well-being of the African American community."

"His courage, his tenacity, his sagacity and his advocacy is unparalleled in African-American journalism," said civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, who said he had known Tatum for 30 years.

Arinde said funeral arrangements were pending.