Visiting Fellow Ink-Stained Colleagues

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I spend a lot of time talking to newspaper people, which I relish. It is impossible to get ink out of my blood after more than 40 years in the business. While it is doubtful I will ever work at a paper again, I have enjoyed spending the past year working to put together deals to buy or sell newspapers.

In addition, in the course of researching a biography I am writing about a fascinating newspaperman and columnist, I have talked to members of his family who were also in the business. That is how I ended up in the charming town of Smithville a few days ago, talking to a retired lawyer who literally grew up in a country weekly newspaper office in Deep East Texas. He is a nephew of the subject of my biography.

J.D.’s father bought the Sabine County Reporter in Hemphill in the mid 1940s and began picking up slugs of lead from the floor when he was 3. He began building pages when he was 8. “The paper was in terrible shape,” J.D. said.

“I started getting paid 11-and-a-half cents an hour when I was 11,” J.D. said. In the mid-1940s, newspapers were still produced using hot metal to create lines of type, though many small shops still set type one character at a time. J.D.’s father resurrected an old Linotype machine out in the barn. That allowed him to set an entire line of type — hence the name — which was exponentially faster. The page was locked up in a chase and then printed on the press. When the issue was out, the type was melted and reused in the Linotype. Ads and other elements of the paper that would be repeated were saved.

I started working as a paperboy at the Longview News-Journal in 1968 at 13, so J.D. had a 10-year jump on me. The papers — the Journal was a morning paper, the Daily News published in the afternoon — were still hot-type operations. Offset printing, which used a photographic process to produce type, was still a few years away from arriving in East Texas. I loved wandering through the composition room, watching burly men produce the type and lock down the pages. But this was a union shop, and I once made the mistake of getting too close to a compositor’s page. He whirled around and announced he was going to kick my posterior if I did not leave immediately. (Those were not quite his words.) I took his advice.

J.D. later worked a summer in Athens for the Daily Review and throughout his academic career at the University of Texas at both the Daily Texas and the Statesman. He was wise enough to enter law school and only had a tangential connection with newspapers after that, as members of his family stayed in the business for many years.


A few days later, I visited with a longtime small-town newspaper publisher. He is the third generation of his family to publish the paper. We talked about the changes we have seen in the business, especially in the last decade. Those changes have made it considerably more challenging to run a profitable operation — especially if it is a stand-alone property and not part of a chain. A chain can consolidate a number of functions and save money – accounting, production, even page layout.

But I believe newspapers are still viable businesses — and vital to our democracy. In small towns such as where my colleague’s family has operated the paper for more than six decades, in larger towns like Longview — all across America, newspapers still serve as the watchdog over government. They remain the most creditable source of local news, even while the national mainstream media draws heavy criticism and disdain — some of which is deserved.


More than once as a publisher, somebody would start complaining about “the media.” I would point out that I was a member of that same media he or she was denigrating. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about you,” they would invariably demur. They were talking about those elites in New York City or on the Left Coast. I would politely remark that those are my colleagues, and the vast majority are professionals trying their best to produce accurate and meaningful stories. There are some ding-a-lings out there, as in any profession. But if you rely only on Facebook for your news, to put it bluntly, you will be largely ignorant of what is going on in your community, state and country.

At least that is how I see it.

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