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The death of a newspaper, 1978

By: Jefferson Weaver

The headlines had to be perfect.

They had to fill the space, they couldn’t run into each other, and larger headlines went higher on the page. Italic and straight typefaces – what everyone calls “fonts” nowadays — had to be staggered, and an even mixture was preferred.

And there could never, ever be a typographical error, an ampersand, or an “at” symbol in a headline.

The old joke was that the largest that could ever be run was 72 points, or just over an inch tall, and that was only to announce the second coming of Christ. Anything else – President Nixon’s resignation, the evacuation of Saigon, a triple-fatality, consolidation and desegregation of schools – well, 48 points of Scotch Bodoni was sufficient. The death of Elvis Presley rated only a 36-point headline. Bylines were earned, and rare.

The headline that day was only 36 points tall, but it stretched across all eight columns, and was two lines (as opposed to the six most papers were using).

“Dispatch ceases publication…” was enough to let me know the world was changing.

I was a chubby kid,  tall for my age, which was 12 years, four months and 13 days when the newspaper I called “ours” shut down.

The Old Man and Miss Lois didn’t own the paper, of course. They just worked there. Papa was the editor, and Mother covered a little of everything, from courts to town boards to features to civic clubs.

Times were changing, and the owners of the other newspaper in town made the owners of “our” paper a good offer. It was just business; the town really couldn’t support two papers anymore, especially since the Fayetteville and Raleigh dailies also covered the big stuff, and provided the state, national and world news folks wanted to read.

Ours was a paper of big fish and huge watermelons, beauty queens and pet possums, heroic goats and family reunions. We were also a paper where a trio of “hippies” being arrested for two ounces of “dope” was top-of-the-fold news, and where legislators came to garner support for bills and bond referendums. It wasn’t unusual for papers like ours to have a photo of a smiling kid with a fish beside a multi-sourced piece documenting the misdeeds of a minor local functionary that became a major scandal that stretched much farther than the city limits of our town. Little papers had big power back then. It is not an exaggeration to use the term “reverberated in the halls of power” when describing some community newspaper reporting.

One particular story that sticks in my mind was when the Old Man and my hero, Mr. Wade, uncovered a scandal that was printed under one of the first double-bylines I can remember seeing. That story came out on Tuesday afternoon, yet resulted in two telephone calls at our home that night from Washington City.

Being a busybody little kid, I answered the phone both times; one caller was my dad’s friend, Sen. Jesse Helms, praising the Old Man. The senator called me by name when I answered, and congratulated me on a school award before asking to speak with the Old Man. The second call was from another elected official in the same city, but his words were not so complimentary.

In both cases, someone in our town had called and read the story over the telephone. I wish I could recall exactly what the topic of the story was, but that was about 40 years ago, and I was a little kid.

Headlines sold newspapers; they still do, although now we have color photos and graphics and other draws. Back then, everything was black and white, so the headlines had to be big, bold and informative. We counted on reader loyalty – again, that is still paramount – but we had to be loyal to our readers, too, and that meant letting them know what was happening, and why they should read our paper.

There were other headlines on that last front page, of course, stories that mattered: a forecast on the coming tobacco markets, a protest somewhere, a local court case, and a story about a Chamber of Commerce function. There were a lot of them, because we ran a lot of stories on the front page back then.

I try, every year, to study one of the last copies we have of that edition, but I can’t get past that double-line eight-column banner at the top.

“Dispatch ceases publication….”

Just the first three words said it all.

I could not understand; I was scared, angry, worried. Today I can compare the feeling that last day to being in the home of a loved one who has died, during that interminably long period between making funeral arrangements and waiting for the funeral. It’s kind of like when you lose a family member, but the full obituary hasn’t hit the paper, and you wander from room to room, looking and listening and missing – just missing something.

It took me a little while, that last afternoon, to realize what was wrong. It was the silence.

The Goss press that shook the building like the trains that passed the front door, the machine that I loved watching and hearing and smelling – it was silent. The Associated Press teletype was turned off, which was absolute heresy. Never again would we glance to check the jury-rigged “stop the presses” bulb on the grimy green wall above the ancient machine. The red light would shine brightly when you couldn’t hear the alarm over the press and the typewriters and jangling phones and all the other noises that meant our paper was alive and vibrant.

The building had to have some kind of noise, but I can’t remember it. I wandered around, looking for that lost something.

My father’s tiny office was always a safe haven, and I headed that way, wondering what would come next, unnerved by the silence.

Then I heard a sound. It was coming from his office, behind stacks of newspapers and documents from before even my father was born.

The Old Man was 63, with a wife and son to support, in a highly competitive industry with very few job openings – and after the last paper hit the street that day, he no longer had a job or a paycheck. The paper that he woke up every morning at 5:30, and put to bed every day when the work was done, a paper he loved and nurtured and fought for and took pride in – that paper was dead.

And the sound coming through the old plaster wall was the worst I had ever heard. My dad was mourning.

It was first time I ever heard the sound of a good man crying, and for the first time in my life, I was scared.

For 21 years, the Old Man wrote a column every year, saying goodbye to The Dunn Dispatch. Sometimes it made print, sometimes it didn’t. In 2001, he lay in his hospital bed, too weak to sit up. He asked me to carry on his tradition. I promised I would.

I also made a promise to myself that day, about another column. Lord willing, you’ll read that one in a few days.

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