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New publisher of Philly‘s Scoop USA keeps a black-owned newspaper going with faith and own funds

Someone had warned Cornell Horsey: Stay away from the guys playing dice on the streets outside Johnson Homes on Saturday night. But Cornell was 17 and fearless. He went to the craps game anyway.

When a young man rode up on a bicycle and fired gunshots into the crowd about at 10:30 p.m., another teen, believed to be the intended target, pushed Cornell in front of him, people told the family. Cornell died eight minutes after midnight that Sunday morning, Oct. 23, 1983.

Sherri (pronounced Sha-REE) Horsey Darden was 14 when her older brother was killed. And a few years later, her younger brother started dealing drugs and spent time in and out of jail.

Now 48, she knows all too well the tragedies that can happen in North Philadelphia.

But Darden, the new owner and publisher of Scoop USA, the free, weekly community newspaper founded in 1960 by , doesn’t plan on dwelling on crime.

“You go to a newsstand, and every paper is riddled with the same dead body on the front page. Why do I have to play a part of that game?” she asked from her new office near the bustling corner of Broad and Girard, its walls covered in enlarged newspaper pages celebrating the renaming of West River Drive after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a campaign Driver led.

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“For every dead body, for every homicide, there’s somebody on the other side doing something that is positive, to enrich our young people,” Darden said. “It’s not all negative. We’re not all negative.”

When Darden and her two brothers were 7, 10, and 13, they moved into Johnson Homes, a public-housing project at 25th Street and Ridge Avenue, with their grandmother after their mother became too ill to care for them. But after her brother was murdered, the family, which by now included their mother again, was evicted, forcing the four of them into an abandoned three-story house for two weeks. Darden remembers it as an adventure she wished wouldn’t end. Eventually, they moved in with other relatives. Her grandmother didn’t show she was worried, so the kids didn’t worry either, she said. “I had everything I needed,” Darden said. “We were rich.”

Yet, she said she knew people looked down on those who grew up in housing projects.

“We’re ostracized, and we’re put in this big batch together,” she said. “Everyone assumes that everyone is selling drugs. They don’t look for a Sherri to be living among the drug dealers.”

When Darden was a 17-year-old senior at Dobbins High School, she became a typist for the now-defunct Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations (PCNO), incidentally in the same building where she now runs Scoop. Eventually, she left to work at the Defender Association of Philadelphia as a clerk-typist in 1989 — then as a single mother of a baby daughter.

She worked there 29 years, 22 of them while also working nights as the newspaper’s production manager. Over the years, she and Driver developed a father-daughter relationship: She called him “Dad” and he called her “Little One.” When he died in December, she felt it was her responsibility to take over, and for the first seven months, she stayed on as human resources manager at the defender association. On June 22, she decided to focus solely on the newspaper.

It hasn’t been easy. Since purchasing Scoop, she’s spent almost $12,000 a month of her own savings to keep it going, and says she’s running out. She does not draw a salary.

“I went in to this knowing it was a 50/50 shot, but I believe in what I’m doing in keeping a black-owned paper going,” Darden said. “I was taking that step out on faith and I’m giving it all to God to give me the support I need to do this.”

Now she does everything for the paper, from selling ads to attending City Hall briefings. (The only paid employee is her cousin, who answers the phones from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

“The point of going to those events is that I have to be visible,” she said, “so that people will know that the paper is still around.”

Last week, for example, she went to a news conference announcing Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity will have its grand meeting next summer in Philadelphia. Another briefing about expanded activities of Eakins Oval playground will expose low-income people to opportunities they may not know about, she said.

That lack of knowledge “keeps us from understanding diversity and interacting with other groups,” she said. “It keeps us in our own silos.”

Edith Dixon, the longtime managing editor of Scoop and one of Driver’s cousins, left after Darden couldn’t afford to pay her or Stephanie Turner, the former office manager. Both women worked without pay in the first couple of months when Darden took over.

“She’s got an uphill battle,” to sell advertising to keep the paper alive, Dixon said. “It means pounding the pavement and going to the mom and pop stores. You’d better hit the pavement, and you’d better hit it hard.”

Now, after laying out the paper on her computer on Wednesday nights, Darden drives to the Southwest Philadelphia printing company on Thursdays to pick up bundles and drops them off in Chester and Camden. Others bundles are distributed citywide.

Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief attorney at the Defender’s Association, commended Darden’s work ethic and called her “very brave” to leave a steady job to try to keep the newspaper going. “It’s really good that she is able to keep that community voice strong.”

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At a time when newspapers are losing circulation and , Scoop exists in a market with two other black-owned newspapers — the Philadelphia Tribune and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun. Still, Darden doesn’t see them as competition.

Her 16-page tabloid, once the source for where Lena Horne, Count Basie, and Ray Charles were performing, endorses no political candidates. On the front page these days, you might see a story about a peace march in Nicetown or the Sistas in Business Expo.

Both Thera Martin and the Rev. William Rocky Brown, 3rd, have written for the paper for 38 years. They are not paid, but have leeway to express strong opinions about community issues. And although Darden may not put crime news on the front page, on July 13, columnist Haru Sen Haru wrote a piece titled, “Stop the violence.”

Darden has new things planned as well: An updated website launches this week — currently, Scoop’s online presence is just digital archives of past papers. Next comes an app.

And a development corporation. She imagines it will be a separate entity from the newspaper and be funded through grants.

“There are several public interest groups throughout this city, but part of the reason why we can’t get to a point where we’re seeing progress is because everybody is working on their own,” she said, adding that Scoop Nonprofit Development Corp. will train people to be community developers.

Over the years, Darden earned a business degree from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in human capital development at La Salle University. Along the way, she met and married Lyle Darden, a retired SEPTA police officer, now a sheriff’s deputy. They have a 12-year-old daughter together, and Darden’s 29-year-old daughter will pursue a doctorate in psychotherapy.

“I’ve come full circle,” Darden said.

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