Terri Sanders: Steward of The Omaha Star Legacy
by Leo Adam Biga
During The Omaha Star’s 85-year history, women have always been at the helm of Nebraska’s longest-lived Black media organization. Current publisher Terri Sanders, an Omaha native who owns the weekly newspaper through her nonprofit Omaha Star Institute, needs no reminder of the legacy she carries.
It started with founder Mildred Brown and carried through to Marguerita Washington, Phyllis Hicks, Frankie Williams, and now herself. She served as interim publisher, then publisher, before purchasing the paper in June 2023 from the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center, which offers higher education scholarships to African American students wishing to study journalism.
Sanders terms that unbroken legacy of Black women in charge “phenomenal.”
“That’s a lot of shoes to have to stand in. And you must get it right,” she said. “Being from Omaha, I knew the kind of work The Omaha Star did. I saw the paper from my childhood on up and knew and know how important it is to our community.”
As a way of commemorating that heritage, Sanders plans to turn the front interior of the landmark Star building into a museum dedicated to Brown and the history of Black journalism. The paper’s news operations would move to the back, which housed Brown’s living quarters.
Sanders never met Brown but admired the regal yet accessible way she conducted herself, and the Good News credo and “No Good Cause Should Lack a Champion and that Evil Shall Not Go Unopposed” manifesto she built the paper on. Brown made the paper a success in the decidedly male-dominated world of journalism and advertising sales.
If Sanders could only bend her ear, she said, “I guess I’d ask her, how did you do it, because it was more than an undertaking.”
Sanders is justifiably proud and grateful that The Star has survived past and present challenges.
“The paper has never missed a publish date since its inception. Not even during the pandemic and during civil rights struggles and insurrections-riots. The paper was steadfast and steady.”
The Star’s still at it in an era when many newspapers, large and small, have either gone under or struggled to make ends meet. Downsizings have become the rule, not the exception, and The Star has made itself a much leaner operation than even a year ago, with Sanders now the only full-time staffer.
Besides being a one-woman operation, another way The Star conserves dollars is by not paying contributing writers and printing courtesy content, though it does pay for some syndicated material. But the most impactful move Sanders has made is transitioning the paper from a for-profit to a nonprofit.
“Half of journalism is now going the nonprofit route,” she noted.
National nonprofit models such as The 19th and local ones such as Flatwater Free Press, Nebraska Examiner, and NOISE are largely grant-funded ventures. Sanders made her paper a nonprofit, she said, “so that we are not dependent on advertising dollars and cannot be swayed by advertisers as to what we do and don’t report.” Added Sanders, “It was important to me to establish that with The Star so that if x company says we’re never going to advertise with you again because you’re a Black paper or we don’t agree with your positions, that’s not going to be a problem. That would be a problem if we were a traditional advertiser-supported publication.”
She didn’t add that granters may reward or withhold funding if they don’t approve of the paper’s coverage or methods, which still leaves it vulnerable to the discretion of funders.
Publishing good news doesn’t mean The Star turns a blind eye to societal issues and their repercussions.
“The paper gets in behind anything that means justice and equality,” said Sanders, noting that it has used its platform to call out racism in the civic rights era and in this current Black Lives Matter and woke era. “We participate, we show up, we are there.”
The Star also commemorates notable Black milestones, such as Juneteenth, Malcolm X’s induction in the Nebraska Hall of Fame, the recent dedication of a monument in honor of Vivian Strong, the parade honoring Omaha native world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the biennial Native Omaha Days.
Though some might prefer The Star’s coverage to be more extensive or well-rounded, Sanders is committed to the good news mandate that’s been the paper’s stock in trade since the start.
“It’s not hard to find (good news) but you do have to look,” said Sanders. “There is so much negative news and unfavorable things out there you could report on.”
She keeps the good news tradition alive in part because it’s so embedded in the paper’s identity and because it fills a gap for that coverage. It’s also what her old-line loyal subscribers expect.
“What makes us different from every other newspaper is spreading the good news and shining a positive light on the community, not just the Black community but the community as a whole. I also think reporting the good news gives hope to people in what sometimes seems to be a hopeless environment.”
Early in life, the Omaha Central High School and Creighton University graduate fixed on a career in media and communications. Her ambition was realized as an on-air talent at Black-owned KOWH Radio while she was still in high school. “I obtained my radio broadcast license with endorsement at 16 years old,” said Sanders, whose daughter Symone Sanders, an MSNBC and Peacock talk show host, guest anchor, and pundit, expressed a similar fascination as a child.
While attending college, Terri worked as a floor director and camera operator at KMTV. She helped lens the popular local show, Creature Feature, hosted by Dr. San Guinary (KMTV director John Jones), and participated in its on-set antics.
Meanwhile, Sanders developed social conscience and civics bent from the activism she was exposed to at Zion Baptist Church, where her family attended services and events.
“My father was active with the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapter. His best friend was the president, Lawrence McVoy. I went to those meetings with my father at Zion. My father and mother were involved in the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Because they had their own business, they may not have marched, but they certainly supported and attended meetings.
“Whenever Black speakers came to town like Tony Brown (journalist) or Stokely Carmichael (activist) my mother believed I should go and hear what they had to say. It didn’t matter that I was 6 or 7 years old. What did that have to do with anything? So, I’ve always had that kind of interest and upbringing. I always attended talks and meetings. I was just always around everything. That was important. I guess that’s where I get my community spirit from.”
In addition to Brown, Sanders looked up to another Omaha Black woman in media, Bertha Calloway, who worked at then-WOW TV before co-founding the Great Plains Black History Museum with her husband James in 1976. Sanders, who assisted with cataloging artifacts in the museum’s earliest years, admired Calloway’s “ballsy and determined” drive to make the museum a reality against all odds.
Strong, accomplished Black women like Calloway and Brown surrounded Sanders and became her role models by osmosis. “These were women in your everyday life. They were not cover stories in a magazine. They were people living their lives and doing what they did in their community.”
Sanders has made her own path and brought The Star into the digital age as a way to more seamlessly connect with today’s audiences.
“We keep up with the times social media-wise,” she said. “We do video, we podcast, we are on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok. We are out there, so you can’t miss us, and I think that is important in this day and age. You must meet people where they’re at. We do all the things that not only appeal to the people who have always supported the paper but that also interest young people, who traditionally were not subscribers. Today’s young people may not read but they’ll sure look at a video or listen to a podcast. So, it’s not just about publishing a weekly newspaper anymore. It’s also taking the paper into the future.
“I believe in technology, I’m not afraid of it, I don’t run from it. I embrace it and I try to bring it into everything we do at The Omaha Star.”
Toward that end, Sanders is part of a Google News Initiative technology transformation cohort, learning how “to position the paper ever more into the future.”
Having Black-centric media, she said, is perhaps more needed and relevant now given certain trends.
“With people trying to erase certain chapters of American history and change the narrative, the key thing to know is that the Black newspaper came about to tell our story, and that’s still its role today. Who’s going to tell our story if The Omaha Star and its sister Black newspapers aren’t there? We have a 206-year history of telling our story since the nation’s first Black-owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, debuted in 1827, and here at The Star, we have an 85-year history of telling the story.
“When the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ended affirmative action in college admissions, I was at the NNPA (National Newspaper Publishers Association (a trade association of African American-owned community newspapers) conference in Nashville. It is one thing to hear that kind of news in middle America. It is something totally different to hear it in that environment of Black publishers and to discuss it with your comrades. It just strengthened the theme we had for the conference of amplifying the news.”
She serves on the NNPA board.
The state of the Black newspaper, she said, is a topic of conversation among her and her fellow publishers.
“The Black newspaper is unique. We have a targeted audience, and we have targeted news. Our telling of the story is unique. Everybody is not telling that story.”
At various times The Star has featured the strong voices of local Black community activists, elected officials, and journalists such as Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks.
Sanders feels a publisher also has to have an entrepreneurial mindset, something she grew up with between the beauty supply business her parents owned, and the florist shop her aunt owned.
Sanders has been self-employed as a seamstress, wedding and special event planner, caterer, and balloon artist.
“I just kept morphing myself.”
In whatever new endeavor she fixes on, she said, she makes a close study of it “and then I take it to the nth degree, and if there’s certification to go with it, I get it – that is how I approach things.”
Said Sanders, “I think it is helpful that I am a serial entrepreneur. That gave me the confidence to put in a print shop – we do copy and printing for people. It gave me the idea to do swag. As recently as Native Omaha Days in July we did mouse pads, key chains, coasters, and mugs with the Native Omaha Days logo. We manufactured all that right here.”
She recognizes in herself key qualities she believes any successful entrepreneur must have, most notably, she said, “the ability to focus on what you’re doing and to see it through.”
“You get up in the morning and you go to bed at night thinking about your business. How to tweak it, how to make it better, what you might want to drop.”
She knows an entrepreneur when she sees one, including undisputed welterweight champion Bud Crawford, who wears trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” and is all business in the ring.
“When I watch Bud Crawford fight the one thing I can identify with is how focused he is,” she said. “He is focused on all times and I believe that is part of his success. That is entrepreneurship and business as far as he’s concerned.
“If you are not focused, if you take your eye off the prize, or you get diverted, then you lose ground.”
When things get challenging personally or professionally. Sanders turns to her faith for guidance.
“I pray, and the answer will come to you, but you have to be still long enough to hear the answer. It’s tough. And I read. I’m not the only one that’s had a tough time, I like to read books about what or how others got through tough times. I call them ‘do’ books because they show you how to do something. So, I read, and I pray – that is what I lean into,”
Prayer helped pull her through losing her husband and the father of her children, Daniel E. Sanders when he died after suffering a massive stroke in 2017.
As a publisher, Sanders knows her paper competes with an ever-crowded, noisy media landscape. That’s why she’s not shy about promoting it.
“I believe it’s a poor dog that doesn’t wag its own tail and a bad band member that doesn’t blow his own horn. So, I am constantly putting out videos and taking advantage of news coverage. We believe in brand awareness. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. read a proclamation into the Congressional Record about The Omaha Star reaching 85 years and when he let me know that he and his staff would be coming by the office to give me that proclamation it created a photo op. WOWT’s John Chapman reported on it. Just like that it became a news story. I do not pass up opportunities. You can’t hide your light under a bushel and expect somebody to see it. It just doesn’t work.”
Having The Star in the Congressional Record, she said, is “important – it documents that we exist on a national level and that we are noticed and that our excellence matters.”
While sensitive to Black representation in what news is told and who tells it, she said, “I’m not blinded by it. I’m aware, but I’m not stuck or bound by it. I am not going to just do Black stories. I don’t let that limit me.”
She feels The Star has several roles to play as North Omaha redevelopment continues in fits and starts – as a living historical site and business, as an anchor, as a champion, and as a chronicler.
“All of the above and more,” she said. “The paper will never be located anywhere else unless something happens to this building, so we are definitely a historical site. We will always chronicle what happens in our community. We are an anchor. Certain nights we’re the only business open on North 24th Street.”
The paper’s also a repository of history with its digital archive of Star editions.
Participants in the recent Native Omaha Days got a chance to intersect with The Star, whose doors were open during much of the week-long festival. A display of story and photo collages outside the building attracted visitors and spurred conversations.
“It gave people something to look at and reminisce about. It evoked a lot of memories.”
Being a public figure suits Sanders well.
“As the face of The Omaha Star, I’m always on. I must have an approachable demeanor. There’s no such thing as a bad day and I don’t want to be bothered. That’s not acceptable. Because I am its steward I embrace engaging with people. I like people anyway, so it’s not hard. I also need to have information about our story and community and if I don’t have it, I must be willing to go find it. That just comes with the territory. You saw Mrs. Brown out and about in the community. She was always approachable and accessible. And I try to be the same way.”
More than anything, Sanders said, “I want people to know they should subscribe because for 85 years The Omaha Star has communicated the good news and we will continue, not only in the paper but on all platforms. We cannot continue unless people subscribe. Subscribing is a way of investing in the paper and in its future.
“I have a slogan on a T-shirt that reads, ‘The Omaha Star is an investment, not an expense.’ That’s as succinct as I can get it.”
As a publisher’s work is never done, especially one whose other hats include managing editor, reporter, photographer, and layout artist, Sanders is focused on what’s most pressing. Beyond breaking stories about North Omaha goings-on and features celebrating community members, organizations, and events, the planned Star Museum is her near-term project. Grooming her successor is her long-term goal.
“My whole thing is I don’t think you’re a success without a successor, and so I need somebody to shadow what’s going on here, so they understand the importance and what it means to have a community newspaper. I’m always looking for that person.
“As recently as in the last six months I had a young lady who was a Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center scholarship recipient graduate from a school on the East Coast. She wrote a couple of articles for us. Then she moved to South Carolina. I’ve spoken to her about doing some things for the paper remotely. We are in discussions about that.”
Sanders is seeking someone who will dip their toes in The Omaha Star pool and find enough fulfillment in the work that they’ll gladly go all in and take it over from her when the time’s right.
She agrees there’s no shortage of talented Black women media and communications professionals from Nebraska. Her own daughter Symone is a prime example. Cathy Hughes, Nichole Berlie, Monique Farmer, Makayla McMorris, Victoria Benning, LaShara Bunting, Sheritha Jones, Jasmyn Goodwin, Teia Goodwin, Beaufield Berry, JoAnna LeFlore-Ejike and Dara Hogan have all made their mark in the field. Amber Ruffin, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, and Chanelle Elaine have carved their own distinct paths in film and television entertainment.
Talent is one thing. Wanting to carry on a legacy is another. Thus far no one’s stepped forward expressing an interest in one day taking on that mantle. “You have to be interested in maintaining this legacy,” said Sanders, who agrees “it is not for everybody.”
Bottomline, she will do whatever’s necessary to ensure the paper’s Black woman legacy remains intact and that The Star’s voice lives on to reach its centennial and beyond.
She knows sustaining the enterprise in this unstable time for journalism is fraught with challenges but believes multiple revenue streams, combined with a robust social media presence and a historical brand, bode well for its future.
Sanders fully intends for The Star to not just survive but thrive. And if she has anything to do with it, expect that it will.