Thursday, August 21, 2008

The News in 1967 -- What It Was

The Burlington County Times in mid-October of 1967 ran its share of wire stories, but they were not many. They fell into three categories: Breaking news that had to get in; "evergreen" stories to fill up around the back-page ads; and short, non-essential stories to make up a page where something else ran short. Back in these days printers made up the page, using layouts for major stories and then filling the holes with whatever was available.

At my first job, we still made up pages this way; you would write "AE" for "all edition" on the dummy after you indicated what had to go on the page, and the printer would grab some filler copy to complete it. Dick Holden had been a copy editor at The Indianapolis Times and told about a new deskman there. The page next to the comics page had to be made up early, so the news editor told him to "fill it with type" and send the dummy down to the composing room. In a few minutes an angry foreman arrived in the newsroom. The dummy had come down with the entire page marked "Fill with type." What would you like, the foreman asked, an entire page full of one-paragraph fillers with heds such as "Rats in Sumatra"?

But the majority of the content of the BCT on this October Thursday was local. And here are the headlines:

  • State Denies Application for Mt. Laurel Track
  • Pair Nabbed in Larcenies
  • Crash Injures Woman Motorist
  • Accident Claims Second Victim
  • Rosh Hashanah Begins High Holy Days
  • Pemberton Library Group Meeting Set
  • 12 Motorists Grounded
  • Willingboro Population Zooms
  • Chief Retires in Burlington
  • Rockets Paint Night Sky
  • State Police Nab Bootleg Suspect
  • Mt. Holly to Keep Log Cabin
  • Medal Winner Group Speaker
  • Repeater, 15, Going to Juvenile Shelter
  • Lawyer Files Jail Charge
  • Riverside Post Sets Installation
  • Burlington County Joins Fight to "Let Freedom Ring"
  • Tri-Boro Area News (a newsletter)
  • Computer Education Future Reality? Moorestown Experimenting
  • Church Schedules Autumnal Service
  • McGuire Installs Employment Post
  • Dental Society Plans Seminar
  • Riverside Cubs Receive Badges
  • Local PTAs to Hear Reading Coordinator
  • Chiropractors Attend Seminar
  • Knights to Hold Ladies Night
  • Luncheonette Man's Lament: 'School Regulation Is Ruining Me'
  • Martin Donohue Attends College
  • Armed Forces Announce Duties of County Men
  • Friends School Hosts Communication Confab
  • Burlington Grad Seeks Election
  • Pupil Staff Confab
  • Council Sets 'Victim' Film
  • Republican Clubs Host Candidates
  • School Eyes Evaluation
  • French Club Plans Trip
  • County Welfare Council Selects Slate of Officers
  • Soltesz Says GOP 'Boss' 'Personally Selected' Mauk
  • Fire Chief Urges Chimney Work
  • 10 Countians in Practice
  • GOP Club Sets Candidates Night
  • 2 Countians at Arkansas
  • Kiwanis Seats Local Man as Deputy State Official
  • Mt. Holly Fills Municipal Posts
  • Man Completes Sales Seminar
  • McGuire UF Unit Aims at New High
  • Russian Trip Glassboro Topic
  • Jaycees Host Bike Road-E-O
  • Seamanship Course Set
  • County GOP Workshop Set
  • PTA Activities
  • Navy Offers Trade Skills
  • Democratic Club Hears Candidate
  • Dann Speech Set Tonight
This doesn't include the women's pages or sports. Now, you would have to know Burlington County, but remember that the paper was started to serve the new town of Willingboro. Yet the headlines mention Pemberton, the home of Fort Dix, and McGuire AFB, off 15 miles in one direction, and Riverside and Moorestown, off the other way. "Tri-Boro Area News" was for three towns at the western edge of the county, nearly in Philadelphia. Nine years into its career, the Times as a business was trying to appeal to anyone who lived in Burlington County, to serve its main advertiser base, Willingboro Plaza and the main streets of the nearby river towns. The huge Cherry Hill and Moorestown Malls, with branches of Philadelphia and Newark department stores, had been open for nearly five years, but their stores and nearby merchants did not advertise with the Burlington County Times.

Of course, the vast majority of these headlines are on news releases. The story on the Mount Laurel race track was a local breaking news story; the Burlington police chief's retirement was a local piece; the luncheonette story was an oddly-placed local feature on how a closed-campus policy at a middle school had ruined life for a small businessman; and there were the typical cops and courts stories.

There were no "blow the lid off" pieces, no "social trend" stories except for the possible luncheonette piece, no business stories as we know them, no health stories; none of the stories that so rile the conservatives when they complain about newspapers, about lesbians wanting to become Catholic priests or every inner-city shooting victim being an honor student, but no stories that would rile liberals either. And while the major local news stories -- the racetrack denial or the police chief -- were the usual 12-to-14 graf essays one sees today, the typical story, wire or local, was four to six paragraphs.

Using this collection of what today's journalists would see as unpalatably thin gruel and not what they wanted to get into the newspaper business to do, the Burlington County Times in nine years, in a market where it was competing with six larger dailies from Philadephia, Trenton and Camden, plus the occasional New York Times or Daily News sold on the newsstand, had managed to build its circulation from zero to 22,000. (And an amazing thing is that it is still competing with five of those six papers.) Willingboro was new, but Mount Holly, Pemberton, Burlington and Riverside were long-established towns without much growth. Moorestown was growing, but only Mount Laurel was a "new suburb."

Not that this is a playbook for 2008. But this content resembles much of what you would find on local-local Web sites or promoted as the sort of copy that now should go there. Local institutions. Local activities. Local names -- loads and loads of local names, even though many of them were simply of people saying, "Look at me!" All delivered in short nibbles -- you didn't have all day to read the paper, after all. And it resembles much of what many newspapers threw out of the paper in the 1980s, which was followed by circulation and advertising declines, perhaps related, perhaps not. Human nature does not change, but not running news releases didn't kill Pomeroy's.

But it wasn't just journalistic snobbery that led to this change. Technology played a major part. Providing our wash lady doesn't put my new straw hat in the soap suds and take all the color out of the ribbon, we'll move on to that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is often said that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." I also remember when newspapers included a listing of television programming for the week in their Sunday editions. Local newspapers were local with a community service orientation as well. I still believe that is the case if they would work the issues. As an old French proverb underscores,"What goes around, comes around." Newspapers would be surprised if they narrowly focused more on those type of stories.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana