Sunday, May 23, 2010

Old Department Store Building of the (Week), New Series Vol. 2

New Castle, Pa., is one of those places that clearly was once a Big Deal and has become less of one as industry has moved elsewhere. The main floor of the New Castle News building, for example, reflects not only the onetime grandeur of the newspaper business but the economic prowess of New Castle. If you're ever there, walk in and check it out.

Before the depression, New Castle had many department stores -- Brown & Hamilton, Clendenin's, Stritmater Bros., and the entertainingly named J.N. Euwer's Sons' Sons. None of these made it out of the Depression. John Stillman, creator of the Interstate Department Stores chain of lower-end department stores from central Pennsylvania into Indiana and Michigan, had his first department store in New Castle before relocating to Fort Wayne. After the Depression, the Strouss-Hirshberg Co. of Youngstown, Ohio, moved into an old furniture store for a department-store branch, and New Castle also was home to the Fisher Bros. Dry Goods chain, a low-end operation that had many stores in western Pennsylvania from the 1940s through the 1970s.

But the longest-lived department store in downtown New Castle was the New Castle Dry Goods Co., at 253 E. Washington St., which was operated by the Boston Store in Erie. What made the survival of what was known as the New Castle Store even more interesting was that it was by itself across a river from the main part of downtown. The store grew out of R.S. McCulloch & Co. and took its place in the mid-1910s. When the Boston Store became part of the Allied Stores operations, the New Castle store eventually was made part of Allied's Troutman division based in Greensburg.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Robert Knilands Is Partly Right

Robert Knilands -- variously known as Rknil, Wenalway, and as a bete-noire and pain in the ass to the point where he has been banned from a number of discussion boards -- is too quick with ad hominem condemnations.

He hijacks various topics and keeps beating them against the wall with what clearly are posted rants.

He gets unduly personal and bitter. He not only holds people's work in contempt, which is churlish but fair, he holds them personally in contempt because of their work when he does not know them at all.

He continually presents the American Copy Editors Society for attack because it is not what he thinks it should be -- a phalanx to somehow force news organizations to change their ways -- instead of what it is -- a training and support organization that was not created to hold a cudgel to bosses' heads.

He comes across as an angry man whose idea of debate is, "Let me tell you how stupid you are, except you're too stupid to even realize it."

And yet.

Knilands' main point -- that when copy editors also became page designers, the craft of copy editing was pushed to the side -- is partly hyperbole, because at most papers copy editors were always page designers of a sort. Most small papers had people who edited copy and drew page dummies for the composing room. Occasionally you laid out a photo package or the like. It was part of the job. Only at the larger papers -- which from my knowledge Knilands never worked at -- were there ranks of copy editors who just edited copy. And only as graphics capabilities improved in the 1980s did some of these desk jockeys become designers instead of simply news editors or copy editors.

And yet.

My esteemed former colleague Charles Knittle, now in charge of copy editing for national and foreign copy at the New York Times, addressed the salient point at the ACES conference in Philadelphia, as noted on Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism":

"•Knittle: Copy editors were unnecessarily smug when pagination rolled into newsrooms in the 1990s. Hundreds of printers and backshop makeup people were laid off. A few copy editors were hired. But what the editors actually were learning was a "machine skill," the same kind of skill those printers and makeup people had, the same kind of skill that is easily displaced."

And copy editors now indeed are being laid off (or, in foreign countries, their jobs are being outsourced) as publishers -- and yes, editors -- increasingly decide that they are "production" workers, the same as linotypists, stereotypers and the like used to be. They are no longer seen as actual editors, but as people who move something into the realm of publication the way the person running the Ludlow set the End of the World giant headlines. They are viewed -- wrongly, of course -- as mechanics who do not produce anything. Knilands might say, and such is justice, and he would have a point.

Yes, we did believe that by taking design and production into our own hands, we were becoming essential. And yes, we have found that when the monetary chips are down -- as they have now been for years -- some publishers and editors will say that a poorly edited story with a mediocre headline and an incomprehensible caption and a graphic that does not match the story is clearly sub-par but at least is something, whereas copy editors do not create and designers draw pretty pages that are irrelevant on the Internet.

So the main point of Knilands' criticism -- that copy editors ceased to be editors and became illustrators, doing work that can be outsourced or junked, while not concentrating on their real task, which is editing -- is one deserving fair consideration.

Yet -- how would he have had us act otherwise? Say "No, we're not going to do that?" The unemployment door awaited. It wasn't a vast conspiracy. Although the essential desire was to save money, most of the people proposing this also believed it would mean that the newsroom would now be in final control of all pages and that this was a Good Thing. Most of us wanted to be part of that. God knows I believe in copy editing, yet I also saw this as a Good Thing.

What's amazing is not that Robert Knilands has a valid point (although Charles Apple, Howard Owens, and others might think so). It's that whether the work is being outsourced to Corpus Christi or Lynchburg or wherever, editors who once proudly said "the newsroom will be in final control" now seem to just roll over and nod when that work passes from the control of their newsroom. (Yes, I know they can see the pages instantly on their computers. Yes, I know they can text or call. It's not the same as walking over to someone's desk in the newsroom.)

Is this simply a reflection of financial times? Or does it reflect that the editors of (now) 20 years ago, who welcomed pagination and design into their newsrooms, had come of age in the era of composing-room control, whereas fewer of today's editors experienced that and thus say, so what's the big deal? Or is it simply that the standards of the Web -- immediacy and convenience (combined with easy disposability) trump all, and the reader's expectation of quality is thus far lower -- are either inevitable, or are actually the same standards held by a number of publishers and editors?

Personally, I wish that Robert Knilands didn't act like such a jerk. Perhaps his points would have been taken more seriously. On the other hand, he might note, he got attention, and perhaps would not have had he been more civil. So, again perhaps, Knilands simply stands as a representative of the Internet media age, one that cannot fully meld its longings for the standards of old with its desire to be included in the new, and thus, as did Obi-wan, wishes this were a more civilized age as it tries to deal with the empire instead of the republic, and often ends up light-sabering its own foot as a result.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Return to: Old Department Store Building of the (Week)

When times got overwhelming last year I stopped doing looks at old department stores -- stopping, I believe, in Lancaster, Pa., with Watt & Shand. In recent weeks I've encountered people who were fans of that feature, so I'm going to bring it back. I wanted to do so with Lebanon, Pa., home of what I believe is the first Bon-Ton store in Pennsylvania -- and one that had nothing to do with the long-lived chain still operating out of York, Pa. -- but alas, both it and the competing Haak Bros. appear to have been torn down.

So here's a look at Fifth Avenue in McKeesport, Pa. To the immediate left of what clearly was a big store, occuping about five buildings, is a much littler red-brick store. (Yes, the really little one.) This store, at 519 Fifth, was Helmstadter Bros., the last surviving locally owned downtown department store in this city best known for steel tubing. Helmstadter's was in a larger store two blocks west of this until the late Depression years.

McKeesport had a very strung-out downtown. It was four blocks west from here to what was its largest store, the Famous Store, and the main hotel was even farther west of that. The Famous Store was owned by a group of Pittsburgh merchants named Weil, Goldsmith, and Katz. When they retired, they sold it to a local discount chain called Misco, under whose operation it quickly closed. The much smaller Helmstadter's kept going into a second generation of family ownership.

McKeesport is a very odd place in terms of its physical layout. The downtown was adjacent to the tube works, and then a good bit away, up a hill, was the library and some large churches -- it almost felt like a different city. Neighborhoods changed from blue-collar to managerial almost in mid-block. Also, it has a long street named Jenny Lind Avenue. It's hard to get a sense of McKeesport as a whole.

Notice now the larger store in the photo above. This was the main store of the G.C. Murphy Co., one of the largest dime-store chains. Murphy's, like Grant's, aimed to be one step above Woolworth's and Kresge's, but was probably still one step below Newberry's.

For me, growing up, going to the dime store meant Murphy's, as they had stores in downtown Indianapolis, in Broad Ripple and at Glendale Center. My grandmother would buy chicken parts for frying there. I remember the Double K nut stands as well, with their revolving trays and heat lights, and the birds and hamsters on sale. Other than chicken, AMF and Revell car model sets, and things like needles, I can't remember if we actually bought anything at Murphy's, but even though there were a Grant's, a Kresge's, and two Woolworth's downtown, along with a local chain called Danner's all around town, we only traded with Murphy's in the dime-store category. (We didn't have Kress, or Green's, but how much of the decline of downtowns was related to the vast amount of space vacated by dime stores as they moved to strip centers and then fell before discounters?)

Not that this matters to anyone else, but it was exciting for me to walk by this building and see that, even though vacant, it still bore signs saying it was the headquarters of the G.C. Murphy Co. I suddenly wanted fried chicken and cashews.