Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The News in 1967 -- Prelude

The Burlington County Times, one of our local newspapers, has an interesting story. Unlike most dailies, it did not grow out of a weekly or have its base in an established community. It owes its existence to William Levitt.

Having built Levittowns on Long Island and in Bucks County, Pa., Levitt looked to Burlington County for his third community (and final one on the U.S. mainland). He selected Willingboro Township, a rural area halfway between Philadelphia and Trenton and right across a bridge from Levittown, Pa. Levitt had learned from his mistake in Pennsylvania, where his community went across township lines and thus he needed approval from many levels of government. In Willingboro he would deal with one community.

His ambition had grown as well. Long Island was basically a huge subdivision, but starting with Pennsylvania he aimed to build not just subdivisions, but complete communities -- not just with schools and parks, but with shopping, movies, newspapers -- ready-made towns. In Levittown, Pa., he had convinced Pomeroy's, the Reading-based Allied Stores operator of department stores in eastern Pennsylvania, to be an anchor of the Shop-A-Rama. (Pomeroy's even developed a separate store logo for its new division.) Pomeroy's would also have a store in Willingboro.

In 1954, Stanley Calkins, publisher of newspapers in western Pennsylvania, had bought the Bristol Courier from Bucks County's political boss, Joseph Grundy. Calkins then purchased a weekly serving Levittown and created the Bucks County Courier Times. It was a natural for Calkins to be involved in creating a newspaper for the third Levittown as well. But while Levittown, Pa., was near Bristol and its established daily, the new Levittown, N.J., was in a county served only by weeklies. And the nearest towns, Burlington and Riverside, were hardly retail hubs.

The challenge was clear. The Willingboro Levittown -- it only briefly legally adopted the name of Levittown and was back to Willingboro by 1963 -- was to become the hub of Burlington County; the Fox Theater relocated there from Burlington (in a Levitt building) and the Plaza, with Pomeroy's and Sears as anchors, was to be the largest shopping area between the new South Jersey malls (Cherry Hill and Moorestown) and Trenton. That meant that once the early excitement of thousands of families establishing new homes in Willingboro was over, the mall had to draw from Mount Holly and Edgewater Park and Fort Dix. That meant the newspaper had to pull people from around the county to Willingboro as well as taking whatever ads came from stores in the established towns. In essence, the developer and the newspaper were creating a regional market where none had existed before.

The Burlington County Times is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, having been established in 1958 when the first families began moving into their Levitt houses in Willingboro.
On the one hand, the BCT had a blank slate -- it had no longtime readers to alienate with changes, as it had no readers at all. On the other hand, it was being made up and printed at the Bucks County plant until it was firmly enough established to have its own, so it had to conform to the basic makeup of that newspaper. And it had to conform to reader expectations of a newspaper so that people would not reject it in favor of the Philadelphia or Trenton papers, while recognizing that many people would take the larger papers anyway. Quite a challenge, and one that easily could have not been met. Yet the BCT sunk its roots and established itself as a paper for a county without a traditional center. It had to offer its readers what they wanted from the start. So what did it offer them?

By the fall of 1967, the nine-year-old BCT, which published Monday through Saturday afternoons, was running one or two pages of "women's news," two clear pages of editorials and news features -- the op-ed page was not filled with pundits but with in-depth wire stories as well as Dear Abby -- three or four pages (with ads) of sports, a couple of pages of comics and puzzles, and general news pages to fit the ads. A Monday might have eight to 10 news pages, a Wednesday or Thursday around 25. Page 3 was always open, but everything from there to the comics pages was clearly determined by how many ads there were. What was the news-to-ad ratio? No idea, but 60 percent news looked like a stretch. It was probably 50-50.

This was an afternoon paper, so the only way it got out the door in those days of Linotypes and stereotypers was for many of the pages to be made up the day before. Just a few pages would be reserved for breaking news, and the back pages had to consist of wire or local stories that would not change overnight. The front page would be made up late, so it would have to have a couple of "not really front page stories" available to fill it out when local copy ran short or didn't happen. But generally, as a local afternoon paper, only the most essential or interesting wire stories would get in. On one Thursday in mid-October, this meant there were nine stories on A1. Only two jumped.

This Thursday's paper -- in a typical week, no election ads, no pre-Christmas runup, just an ordinary paper -- had about 56 columns of general news (it was an eight-column page). Women's news added 10 columns and, perhaps most shocking by today's standards, Sports had 11 -- the equivalent of two pages today. This didn't take into account the comics and puzzles. There were four pages of classified, but again, the pages were wider.

Readers looking for advertising on this Thursday -- a Best Food Day, as we used to call it -- got ads for the major groceries. Sears took six pages, and Pomeroy's probably accounted for three although its ads were scattered. Other display advertisers included a carpet store, a paint store, an optometrist, a fabric store, discount stores, a beauty salon, a bank, a children's clothing shop and two tire stores -- the same odd collection of advertisers local newspapers have today. (If your memory goes back this far, the major movies playing were "Dr. Zhivago," "Up the Down Staircase," "The Sound of Music" and "A Man for All Seasons.")

But what news did the paper provide its readers as it continued to sink its roots into its county? Next post.

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