William H. Lee (Business Administration)

Lee builds a Sacramento institution

William Lee

A voice for the African American community.

It was the goal of the Sacramento Observer when it was founded and it still is, says founder and publisher William H. Lee. Though he had no training in the newspaper business, Lee used the business acumen he gained from classes at Sac State and UC Berkeley to establish the Observer in 1962. The award-winning paper has been a training and proving ground for countless journalists and photographers ever since.

But the path to community institution was far from a straight one. Post-graduation, Lee worked for Aerojet and later in real estate. Off the job, he was becoming increasingly involved in community work when he realized,

“There was very little being done to keep the African American community informed,” Lee says. “The local dailies were not talking about African Americans. It was tough to find evidence in the paper that we, in fact, lived, died or gave birth to our children—that African Americans were having fruitful lives in the region.”

One result was the formation of the Men’s Civic League, an organization of African American businessmen, doctors, attorneys, engineers and other professionals. Six members of the group, interested in providing a communication vehicle for the community, approached the publisher of Sacramento Outlook, an occasional church publication, with the idea of creating a community paper for African Americans. It didn’t go well.

“We bought the Outlook but we didn’t have any newspaper experience,” Lee says.

What’s more, when they sent the newly formatted Outlook to the church mailing list, readers reacted strongly, Lee says.

“They said, ‘What are you doing with our paper?’ Out of a sense of respect for them we decided we not continue to publish.”

But Lee felt the community still needed a voice. In 1962, Lee, along with radioman Geno Gladden and businessman John Cole, launched The Sacramento Observer, “The paper with the eye for the news.” This time they added professional support in the form of a manager and an editor, but, Lee says, “We were losing our shirts.”

In spite of the challenges, Lee assumed control of the paper in 1965.

“My Sac State training said I should be able to turn this around,” the determined Lee felt at the time.

Five years later the Observer, through Lee’s leadership and dedication, was named the number one black newspaper in America, a remarkable achievement considering that at the time there were about 300 black newspapers in the country.

The success attracted some top writers to the paper, many of whom have gone on to work in the State Capitol.

“We produced several outstanding writers,” Lee says. “We knew we were making an impact when area dailies began hiring our African American staff.”

To continue to build those ranks, The Observer Education Foundation has created its own public policy journalism school. The Observer also hosts the annual Black Expo, which draws more than 50,000 people.

Today The Observer is considered an essential stop on the campaign trail for most major candidates. The paper’s hallways are filled with photos of political leaders and other celebrities—ranging from governors to musicians to athletes—who have come through Sacramento over the years.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of Sac State Magazine.