There was a day a generation ago when folks subscribed to small daily and weekly newspapers to keep up on community news – what their relatives and friends were doing.
When the newspaper kid came riding up on his bicycle and tossed the newspaper onto the front porch, you brought it into the living room, sat in the recliner with an iced tea on the side table, and opened it to the society/life section. Within those pages you’d keep up with the engagements, weddings, debutante balls, high school and college graduations and reunions, baby notices, birthday celebrations, family reunion picnics, vacation write-ups, miscellaneous doings, and death notices. Often, you’d help your grandmother or mother cut out clippings and place them in the family photo albums.
I’m a retired journalist, a BSJ graduate of Ohio University, Class of 1974. At my first newspaper job at a small daily in Central Ohio in the 1970s, I had what some might call ho-hum responsibilities. I helped out with obituaries, wrote the 10/20/30/40 Years Ago column (used a microfilm reader), and edited the copy of the 10 or so village correspondents who mailed in their weekly happenings columns for Fairfield County towns like Sugar Grove, Amanda, Carroll, Millersport, Rushville, Bremen and Baltimore.
By the time, I took a newspaper job at a daily in Central Florida in the 1980s, editors were culling down community news. In the newsroom, we’d get the write-ups on family and school reunions, vacations, birthday parties and the other sundry news items, condense them to a paragraph and include them in a once-a-week feature in the Life section. Now and then I’d pick up a phone call and listen to a disgruntled reader complain about the lack of community news in the paper.
By the 1990s and the rise of the Internet and Social Media complete with political blogs, daily newspapers were ripe for a fall. And they have, especially the major dailies. They’ve shrunk, circulation, advertising revenue, page size and even their dimensions. They’re desperately trying to stay afloat as many readers have flown to other news sources, mostly the blogs.
The only newsroom oasis left are the weekly newspapers in small towns all over the U.S., towns like Kenansville, North Carolina, the home of the Duplin Times. I worked as a reporter there for several years before I retired in January 2014. There, you’d find those old staples of community news – as well as hard-hitting editorials and hard news stories about 21st century challenges impacting small towns. In its circulation classification, the Duplin Times has won Associated Press laurels for its outstanding coverage and page layout.
My cousin John Snyder got me thinking about the health of American newspapers. On Facebook, he recently posted an interesting folder in his photo album… it’s called Family History in Newspaper Clippings. I spent a good couple of hours perusing the clippings looking at the newspaper stories about the relatives I knew from my youth as well as the ancestors I only know through visits to cemeteries in Wayne County, Ohio. The clippings were cut out and saved by his Grandma Ethel Snyder. You may remember her. I wrote a love story about her and John’s grandpa, Raymond Snyder. I posted the short story – A Winter’s Walk Beneath A Starry Sky – on Writing Wranglers & Warriors in 2015. Stories I heard from my mother and grandmother came back to me as I looked at those clippings – the deaths of my great-grandparents within a week or so of each other in the summer of 1920, the tragic death of another great-grandmother (burned badly in a stove explosion), a birthday celebration for a great-great grandmother, my great uncle’s carnival going on the road in the early 1930s for the summer festival season.
Two of the clipping I’m including as illustration with this article are about the carnival owner, Jesse Edwards, and his brother, James Edward. Just like Jessie, James was a showman. Over nearly three decades, the Wooster, Ohio, newspaper followed the career Jessie as he took his carnival company to festivals, fairs and parades across Northern Ohio. Aunt Ethel faithfully saved those clippings highlighting the life of her Uncle Jessie, a brother of my Great-Grandma Ice Belle Edwards Kurtz.
According to newspaper accounts, Jessie’s brother James once walked across a whirlpool rapids on a cable. The clipping about James is the odd story of his on-stage death. A heart attack claimed the vaudevillian as he performed his dog act at a Kansas City theatre before a packed house of children and their parents. The Wooster newspaper used accounts from the Kansas City Star to detail the last minutes of James’ life, even described how a small black Spitz jumped down from its pedestal and licked his face just before his wife ran to his side and the curtain dropped.
Newspaper editors once knew their jobs, and one was capturing memories for their readers. Some still do it. Thank God weekly newspapers still know their mission.
I’m the author of a fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. The three novels – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair – are available for purchase on the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’m currently writing a Civil War novel, Blessed Shadows Dark And Deep.