Sandra Williams, the editor & publisher of Spokane’s African American newspaper The Black Lens, took up newspaper making like other people take up knitting: as a distraction, to keep herself busy and learn a new skill.
“My dad got sick and I spent a lot of time just hanging out with him,” Williams said. “I needed something to keep me busy and I decided I was going to learn how to do a newspaper layout.”
Anyone familiar with publishing software knows that this is not a simple task.
“I liked writing. I knew how to tell stories and so I decided I was going to tell stories about Black people in Spokane,” Willams said.
Around that same time, a report on police bias against minorities was released and Williams found its results did not reflect her experience.
“It basically said there was racial bias against minorities, and I didn’t agree with that finding,” Williams said. “So that became the first story on the cover of the Black Lens.”
Her background is in anti-discrimination work as the coordinator of the Pride Center at Eastern Washington University and the Executive Director of Odyssey Youth Center among many other things.
“That report was my moment, that’s when I decided I had to do this newspaper,” Williams said. “I felt like if I didn’t speak up, nobody else would.”
The first issue of The Black Lense left Garland Printing Company in January of 2015, and Williams never looked back.
“There had been talk about a Black paper for years and initially I wrote all the stories,” Williams said.
That’s changed a little now, where regular contributors and correspondents produce some of the content.
“I now also have wire service, so that’s made it a lot easier,” Williams said.
The paper is free, and distribution was at free pickup spots around the city – at churches, community centers and Black-owned businesses. But then COVID hit and many of the distribution points closed to the public.
“But the support for the paper has been phenomenal,” Williams said. Subscriptions delivered via mail quadrupled during COVID as the paper kept growing: the first issue was 12 pages, the last one was 40.
Williams has a partnership with The Spokesman-Review which now publishes two full pages of unedited Black Lens coverage, once a quarter. The big daily and the small monthly are now talking about sharing a reporter.
“We are not sure what that’s going to look like, but I am very excited,” Williams said.
The Black Lens is still very much a one-woman show with Williams doing most of the work, from editing to writing to layout.
“I will never go digital,” she said with a chuckle. “I am a print paper person, and I will always be like that.”
She is open to contributions from anyone as long as they stay true to the intent of the paper.
“This paper is an African-American voice, so any story has to be Black people speaking,” Williams said. “I am very grateful for all the support we have gotten. There is no way the paper could have survived without the great community support.”