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The death of a newspaper, 1978

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Jefferson-WeaverThe times were changing, but the newspaper wasn’t, and in the end, that caused its death.

I suppose ‘death” is too strong a word for some folks when you refer to a business, but our newspaper – well, where my parents worked, and where I spent much of my childhood –ours was like a living, breathing being. Telephone calls and letters and photographs and typewritten stories came in the front, were processed through a dark, smoky, dusty building, and turned into newspapers, which then in turn went out the back into people’s hands.
It was a noisy, wonderful place for a child. There were machines, big, clanking, iron machines of the kind that made our country. Important things went on there, and important people came through the doors all the time – soldiers, politicians, a minor sports hero or two, the occasional real celebrity. A child who was short on friends and heavy on the waistline could stand in the shadows and be part of a much more important world than that of the playground, the ball field or the rollerskating rink.

I learned to walk and talk, and began reading in the office of the Sampson Independent, when the Old Man worked there, but it was at the Dunn Dispatch I learned so much more.

I learned history and government in my father’s stacks of Congressional Records, and the bound editions of the newspaper. I marveled at the original headlines “Germany capitulates! War is over in France!” or “Lindbergh makes first Atlantic flight” or “Black leader assassinated in Memphis”. These were things our teachers taught about in school, yet the papers I held were written, created and distributed by people who lived through them. In a small, small way, those fading pages helped me be a part of bigger things.

It was in that office that I also learned manners, diplomacy and politics, lessons learned while listening to conversations I likely shouldn’t have heard, perched in my corner by the old rolltop desk.

I learned geography from the big books the Associated Press sent out, as well as from the AP teletype in the back, where stories from across the nation and the world rattled in, sometimes accompanied by a flashing light and a ringing bell (like when Elvis died, and when Saigon fell).

I learned a little of mechanics and metallurgy in the backshop, where they still used hot lead type for many parts of the paper, and everything always seemed to break down. It was a thrill to touch the huge stamps that could chop a man’s finger off, machines that crashed and rattled and created individual letters and words, which were then spaced properly to become headlines and copy. The transition from Linotype and Ludlow to phototypesetter was taking place when we went to the Dispatch, so some of the parts of the newspaper production process were still done in hot type, rather than on the suspect, newfangled machines.

I learned to type, and then to write, on a manual typewriter. I had to sit on a stack of those aforementioned Congressional Records to reach the desk, but I learned. I learned more grammar in an afternoon than I often learned in an entire semester in school – and I went to darn good schools.

I learned all those things and more.

I also learned that those who cannot adapt, cannot survive. Our paper, if I may belabor a metaphor, was dying.

I have possibly used the description too many times, but our paper was like the sick, tired crippled lion Robert Ruark described finding in Africa. Once the king of all he surveyed, the lion had slowed with age, become toothless and hungry, and finally was mortally injured by another lion. He lay in the sun, awaiting death, but still holding off the scavengers who came closer every hour. The lion’s back was broken, and his front feet were torn raw from dragging himself along, lashing out at his tormentors. Even when Ruark put the cat out of its misery, the lion roared and tried defiantly to lunge one last time.

On a beautiful April afternoon in 1978, the lion that was our newspaper gave one last lunge and roar as the Goss Community press slowed, then stopped.

There was another headline that day, one which I never thought I’d see. It described how our paper – I still consider it such, even though my family’s investment was soul and sweat equity, not cash – was ceasing publication, having been bought out by the competition. Our paper was tired, and couldn’t adapt, and its days as king ended.

Folks have been predicting the death of community newspapers since I was a child and color (then cable) television burgeoned. Times have changed, and some papers have indeed gone the way of the one I consider my childhood home. In some cases the end was due to a failure to embrace change, in some cases it was a lousy economy. In many cases, it was both, and in a few, the paper was just too tired to hold on.

Yet the things I learned to hold sacred – graduations, births and deaths, weddings, crime reports, government and politics and proud grandmothers and church events and all the things that feed a community newspaper—those things go on. And so, a lot of newspapers go on, too. We learn to adapt, and change somewhat with the times, yet still provide what people want and need.

I am blessed that folks read my column each week, not just in this paper but in a few other outlets (some of which were not even imagined when the presses stopped on that April day in 1978). It never ceases to amaze me, quite frankly, and although I appreciate the loyalty, I always feel like I am getting away with something.

A couple years back, when I submitted a column on this anniversary, one of my editors said he wouldn’t run it; said it was the “same old story.” I understood, and agreed to an extent—there are a few columns I write every year on particular anniversaries, and this one, has often been the same. Many folks refer to it as a sad column, and in many ways, it is.

But there’s hope, too, since folks still read their community newspapers. They still look for the things we bring them every week, and we are never grateful enough.

I just want to say thanks, since this might possibly be the greatest job in the world. Working for a newspaper like my father and mother did is all I ever really wanted to do for a living.

There was a time 35 years ago, however, where I wasn’t so sure.

It was a time when a lion roared one last time, and a little boy was deeply, truly scared, since in the silence of what was once a noisy, wonderful, exciting place, that little boy heard another sound for the first time in his life. It was the sound of his father crying, and for the first time he could remember, that little boy was afraid.

Note: For 21 years, my father wrote a column about a newspaper that died. Sometimes the column was published, sometimes it wasn’t.
On an April afternoon in 2001, the Old Man asked me for a favor. He could no longer sit up long enough to write, so he asked me to carry on the tradition. I promised I would; he passed away a few days later. Every year since, I have kept that promise.

That day, I promised to write another column every year, too, but I made that promise to myself. You’ll see it in a few days.

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