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The death of a newspaper

By Jefferson Weaver

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. Sometimes mine have made it to print, sometimes they haven’t, but I kept my promise to my father. I also made a promise to myself that day, about another column. Lord willing, you’ll read that one in a few days. Sometimes, silence is a comfort. Changes in my trade have forced a lot of evolution in the way we work. Weekends were never completely free, even at the most laid-back newspaper, but as we have adapted to the 24-hour news cycle, Saturdays are sometimes the only semi-silent time in my office. Silence is good, since it gives me time to think (although many might question giving me the opportunity to think too much). I can breathe a little. I’m comfortable, since I’m rarely dressed in anything approximating civilized clothing. All the stuff put off during the week — stuff involving dirt and trees and animals and life – well, a tie and dress shirt don’t lend themselves well to Saturdays.

A newspaper office is a living, breathing thing for much of the time, as readers and customers move in and out during the week, and we all play our roles in putting on the next production. That process never really ends, but it actually starts on Sunday. For many of us, Saturday office time is a time for some silence. I always liked going to the office with my father on Saturdays, even if I had to miss some cartoons. As he went through the daily papers, read the mail, and read the long yellow strips of teletype paper to see which wire stories deserved space in Monday’s edition, I explored. I haunted the dark building like the ghost of the late editor who was rumored to still wander amongst the Linotypes and Ludlows, past piles of paper and dusty books of advertising art, stacks of Congressional Records and bound editions dating back to the First World War. The hot lead machines were still warm to the touch on Saturdays, and their modern replacements, the Compugraphic typesetters, still stank of chemicals.

The modern machines never seemed to work right. They lacked the commitment and soul of cut and cast metal words and pictures that were still used for so many things, even though the long, dripping pieces of photopaper that stained the floor were slowly taking the place of even the headlines. Our paper was an anomaly, in that we still used so much of the old equipment. Headlines and other “important” things were created on the Linotype or Ludlow, printed on a small letterpress in the print shop next door, then begrudgingly cut out, waxed and laid out on the page alongside the stuff that came from the yellow- stained blue machine that never worked right, even when it was brand new. I liked the Dunn Dispatch office on Saturday, because I dreamed of the day I would grow up and be like my dad. Since every dad should be some boy’s hero, it was only natural. I could imagine what it would be like when I was the one tasked with checking the first copy of the paper to roll off the Goss Community press, then giving the pressman a nod that all was well, so he could turn up the speed.

But on a lovely April day in 1978, the office was nearly silent, and it was terrifying. Our paper – as I have often noted, it wasn’t technically ours, since Mother and the Old Man just worked there – our paper was dying. Times were changing, and the competition was stronger. It was just a natural combination of capitalism and Darwinism, but there is no comfort in scientific terms when your family is the one watching their world crumble. Around the time of day everything should have been buzzing as papers headed out the door to vendors and carriers, and the impatient faithful handed over their silver dimes to Miss Louise or whoever was at the front deck — there was silence. Not the true silence of a Saturday, of course – traffic still moved down Cumberland Avenue. The train would still run, as it always did. When the press was quiet, you could sometimes hear the tunes rented for a quarter from the Wurlitzer juke box in the tavern next door, if there was an early drinker with a desire for loud country-western music. The phones still rang, but instead of people buying subscriptions or advertising, calling to complain about their son’s name being in the crime stories, or gushing that a daughter was engaged, and they wanted to announce it in the paper–on this day, the calls were from folks expressing their condolences.

This silence wasn’t complete, but it was different. The Associated Press machine that had told of the end of Vietnam and the resignation of Nixon and the death of Elvis was still. The big machines that melted and formed the lead whose dust would eventually kill my father, as it did so many newspapermen – the machines were completely cool. That in itself was utterly alien, since the heating elements were turned on every Saturday night by the friendly old town drunk who was also our custodian, and stayed on until Friday afternoon. There were no shouts over loud machines, no interesting but forbidden words directed at we boys who always got too close to the whirling press. There were empty desks and dark light bulbs over places where my adult friends always stood to their posts. Mr. Johnny the sports editor was gone. Mr. Billy had finished his responsibilities for the final edition, and headed for his beach house with his sweet wife. The pressman, who also shot many of the photos, had taken off to go fishing without even cleaning the press. A few years later I was told he actually went on a legendary drunk, but the source was less than reliable, and it didn’t really matter anyway.

Our newspaper, where I had dreamt of one day following in father’s long-striding footsteps, was silent. There was a sense of anticipation, since we might have to move to a new town, but more than anything else, there was a sense of fear I had never known. It was an entirely different fear than that delicious fright I felt when I thought I heard the late publisher haunting the Linotypes one Saturday morning. It was a fear, mixed with a sadness deeper than I had ever known. And in that silence, as I looked for my friends among the cooling, quiet machines standing witness to the end of an era, I heard a sound I didn’t recognize. The strange sound was coming from the little corner office where my father worked and edited and wrote and interviewed, where stacks of old papers and notes and books created a chaotic history of the word as we knew it, a history only my father could decipher. When I realized what the sound was, I stopped dead still as the dust motes drifted from the dark recessed of the tall ceilings, briefly illuminated by the glare of a few hanging bulbs and the long buzzing tubes. The sound was that of my father crying, and for the first time in my life, I was truly afraid.

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