Houston Defender publisher Sonceria â€śSonnyâ€ť Messiah-Jiles never dreamed of owning a newspaper. In fact, she was focused on a radio station. But when she set out to accomplish that feat, reality set in.
â€śI wasnâ€™t at a point and stage at 25 years old to be able to buy a radio station. The reality was that I needed to generate some capital,â€ť Messiah-Jiles said.
While working on the financial foundation she needed to accomplish her goal, Messiah-Jiles started helping C.F. Richardson Jr., owner of the Houston Defender.
â€śMr. Richardson taught me the newspaper business. He was a mentor to me. He taught me layout, design, distribution and circulation. The journey was very educational,â€ť stated Messiah-Jiles.
In fact, she admits the learning experience raised her awareness of the impact and historical value of the newspaper. Now she wanted to buy a newspaper.
â€śI offered to buy the paper and Mr. Richardson told me that he wanted his only daughter to have it. I asked for first shot if he decided to eventually sell.â€ť
A year and a half later when Mr. Richardsonâ€™s daughter married and moved away, he offered to sell the newspaper to Messiah-Jiles, who had worked at the Houston Chronicle.Â But, there was just one problem â€“ Messiah-Jiles still didnâ€™t have much money.
â€śI tried to get a loan and was told I had three strikes. I was Black, single, and a female,â€ť she said.
Messiah-Jiles explained how she searched for ways to generate the money and finally resorted to what she called â€ścreative financing.â€ť
â€śI asked if I could pay in installments, he said no. So then I offered to pay the cash part of the calling price and assume his indebtedness in a legal document. He agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.â€ť
Since taking ownership in 1981, Messiah-Jiles has worked diligently to take the Houston Defender to another level. Besides providing quality stories of relevance and interest to the African-American community, the publisher points to the paperâ€™s commitment to covering Black issues. Throughout the years, that commitment has paid off. The Houston Defender is the recipient of two prestigious A. Philip Randolph Messenger awards in education and lives by the motto: Houstonâ€™s leading Black information source.
â€śWe are leading in several categories: the quality of our staff, content, circulation, and readers. Those factors distinguish us,â€ť she said.
The Defender is one of the most widely distributed African-American newspapers, one of the things Messiah-Jiles says contributes to the readership of the newspaper.
â€śWe are the only newspaper distributed in major grocery stores. We cover larger chains like Walmart, Fiesta, HEB, Kroger, Randalls, Gerlands. Weâ€™re also in all the standard distribution points and locations like Black restaurants, bookstores, churches, and schools,â€ť she said.
But Defender achievements aside, supporters say it is Messiah-Jilesâ€™ involvement in the community that makes the paper what it is.
A former president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (The Black Press of America), a federation of African-American newspapers across the country, Messiah-Jiles has also served as the National Alumni Chair for the Houston Alumni Organization (University of Houston).Â Her professional activities include being the first African-American female board member of the Greater Houston Partnership, and she currently serves on the Advisory Board of JPMorgan Chase-Houston, United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast, Center for Houstonâ€™s Future and M.D. Anderson Board of Visitors. She has served on the boards of the NAACP-Houston, JobPlus, Hester House, March of Dimes Texas Gulf Coast Chapter, American Diabetes Association, and American Leadership Forum.
Her efforts do not go unnoticed. Sheâ€™s received many awards including the Phenomenal Woman Award, NNPA Publisher of the Year, American Civil Liberties Freedom of Speech Award, YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year, Jaycees â€śOutstanding Texan,â€ť â€śWomen on the Move,â€ť and the National Dental Association Civil Rights Award. She has been named by EBONY Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Black Americans.
Weathering the storms
Running a paper like the Houston Defender hasnâ€™t been easy. Like many businesses, there have been challenges. Issues like declining capital, workforce, and keeping up with changes in the marketplace and technology have made progress a struggle.
â€śBy the grace of God, we survived the first five years. I think itâ€™s because God was present.â€ť
Messiah-Jiles thinks the Defender has continued to operate for a number of reasons. But she gives most of the credit to her staff.
â€śOur staff is what makes the difference.Â They care about the community and the product we produce. Too often people try to pigeonhole the paper into being all about the publisher. Itâ€™s so much more than that,â€ť said Messiah-Jiles.
Advertisers are another important part of the newspaperâ€™s equation.
â€śFrom an advertising standpoint, the Defender has a totally different caliber of ads than our competitors because the quality of our content determines the quality of our reader.Â Our readers determine who our advertisers are,â€ť she stated.
Talking about the introduction of the new website, Messiah-Jiles wants to attract new readers thanks to the help of several advertisers.
â€śWeâ€™re particularly excited about our premiere sponsors of the (upcoming) website. These corporations understand the importance of the African-American market.Â They recognize the buying power of our readers and are willing to step up and share in the technology to provide access to resources that are important to the community.
Being in business for 75 years, Messiah-Jiles credits the newspaperâ€™s success with serving the needs of the community through partnerships.
The Defender has established alliances with various organizations in the community. The relationships with M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Childrenâ€™s Hospital and St. Lukeâ€™s Hospital and Charities help provide important health information for readers; the Newspapers in Education program works to improve reading skills in elementary and middle schools; the Campus Defender newspaper helped train students to be journalists.
â€śWeâ€™re about producing a win-win and that contributes to our success,â€ť she said.
Family and faith
Messiah-Jiles is married to investment banker Jodie Jiles. The couple has two children, Jodie and Clyde, and through the years, Messiah-Jiles says they have been the one constant that has kept her grounded.
So between her family and her strong belief in God, Messiah-Jiles knows the sky is the limit. No matter how hectic her day gets, how many meetings she has to attend, Messiah-Jiles makes sure to make time for God.
â€śI have to give Him credit,â€ť she said.
After all, Messiah-Jiles acknowledges that God has been taking care of her from the start and she knows her journey is far from over.
â€śIn my second or third month in the business, I didnâ€™t know how I was going to pay the bills. Coca Cola paid an ad and they paid three times the amount they were supposed to pay. I started to take the money because I was so broke. But I called them and told them.Â They said just credit our account. When those kinds of things happened I know it was the grace of God. Heâ€™s the one thatâ€™s made everything possible for me. To God be the glory.â€ť
By Raquel Rogers