Walter “Ball” Smith, publisher and savvy business entrepreneur, died suddenly in Miami Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. He was 83.
As CEO of Smith Haj Group, Walter published New York’s premier weekly, The New York Beacon, and The Philadelphia Observer. Smith was CEO of The New York Beacon, a newspaper he operated for the past 26 years. The two papers focus on the African-American community.
Walter Smith Jr. was the seventh of what would be 10 children to Walter Smith Sr. and his wife, Belle. He was raised in Badin, N.C., where his father worked for the aluminum company, ALCOA. At 18, Smith was drafted into the United States Army where he served his country for 18 months in Korea. Upon his return, he secured a degree in Business from the University of North Carolina at Durham after which he landed in New York and began his career. Automatic Data Processing was in its embryonic stage, and Smith became one of its founding employees. After attending computer school, his input to the company was invaluable. When he began with ADP, the company had just two offices but now has $10 billion in revenues and approximately 570,000 clients.
In 1980, Smith met Bill Underwood, who was operating the Big Red, a numerology tip sheet selling approximately 100,000 sheets per day. He later re-named it Big Red News. Because of its unique style and content, Big Red became the largest circulated, ABC-audited African-American weekly in the nation. “I saw the opportunity to be a positive voice in the community and for a good, thriving business to develop as a result of this captive audience. I made some suggestions to him as to how to convert the production of a numerology sheet into a business of a newspaper,” Smith said.
In 1981, Smith took part of his new-found riches and made an investment in his future. He purchased full control of the newspaper. In 1983, the paper changed its name to The New York Beacon. “You have to say something to the readers,” he said. Adhering to the advice of this civil rights partisan, The New York Beacon reflects the voices of many editorialists as well as Smith’s weekly views. It concentrates on providing general news to the African-American community of New York City and its five boroughs —Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and Queens. In 2006 Smith acquired The Philadelphia Observer. Both newspapers are award-winning publications.
To have a stronger voice in the region, Smith founded the Northeast Publishers Association in 1991. The Association united New York’s African-American newspapers into a cohesive unit. Its aim was to better serve New York’s communities and to enhance the economics of its member papers.
He was also one of the regional directors for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the trade organization that represents more than 200 African-American newspapers nationally. Although press numbers have declined universally, Smith continued to believe in the power of the press and the dedication of its readers, especially as it pertains to the African-American community.
“One thing we can rest assured of is the news that we gather and the news that we present is just as relevant today as it was in the ’80s,” he said. “Black newspapers record Black history. That information is still in demand; we just have to deliver it to today’s social media society. We’re trying to keep abreast of the technology of delivering news.”
Outside of the news business, Smith was an avid golfer. He enjoyed swimming, fishing, yachting, traveling and spending time with his wife, Miatta, and their children and grandchildren. He has homes in Puerto Rico, Miami, North Carolina, Atlanta and New York. “You count your blessings as you go.”
Smith received many awards, citations and proclamations and died doing what he did best, being his own boss. Like many publishers, he has seen the business change through the years. He once said, “Once you own your own business, there’s no such thing as retirement. You work until you die.” Some might consider the life of Walter Smith a rags to riches story. In some ways it is. But it is also a story of adhering to some thoughtful advice, seizing opportunity and persevering through hardship. That’s a wrap.