June 2014

On June 10, 1984, Mary Alice Basconi, Johnson City Press-Chronicle business writer, composed an article titled, “Circulation Departments Have Their Own 'War Stories.'” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934. According to Jesse Curtis, former Press circulation manager, this department of workers produced their own brand of war stories.

The wife of a prominent local citizen called Curtis late one night during a thunderstorm demanding that he deliver her paper. Curtis obliged, honking his horn to alert her as he pulled up in front of her home. This further offended the lady who shouted: “Were you honking at me?”

Another tale occurred in 1943 on the newspaperman's first day on the job. A foot of snow had fallen resulting in three route carriers not showing up. Substitutes were promptly enlisted to deliver papers that day: the circulation manager, Curtis (who was hired then as a mailroom clerk) and publisher Carl Jones.

Jesse Curtis. Rural Route Motor Carriers Between E. Main and E. Market Streets in the Mid 1930s

In earlier times, a small newspaper could accommodate customers' late-night requests for papers that didn't arrive that afternoon. Curtis, as manager back then, knew all his carriers' routes. Drivers had to steer their way along mountain roads and foot carriers sometimes had to penetrate wooded areas to make their rounds.

In those days, first-rate carriers were rewarded with a trip on the “Tweetsie” Railroad and a steak dinner. The newspaper was much thinner then with inserts and could easily be folded into a neat square packet and hurled at a customer's porch. The paperboy quickly learned to heave the paper to a precise spot on the porch. That was important to the owner.

Shirley Hayes, who started her 22-year career at the Press-Chronicle in the circulation department, recalled Saturdays as being “money counting days.” Carriers brought in their collections and receipts. “We all had to pitch in and count all those nickels and dimes.” she said.

Curtis remembered when trains had mail cars and papers were distributed by postal service to parts of Western North Carolina. “The paper carrier would get the first papers that came off the press, he said, “and take them to small post offices along his route.” Subscribers would get their paper the same day it was printed, even readers as far away as Chattanooga and as close by as Newland. All of that effort occurred for just 10 subscribers and only one newsstand that sold the Press-Chronicle.

Folks in far-flung communities often asked their carrier to fill a drug prescription in town for them. That luxury evaporated as did same-day home delivery if the patron lived farther than Elk Park, NC.

Curtis blamed television for taking away another bit of newspaper history – the “Extra, Extra” edition hawked on street corners all over the city.

“We used to get these newspapers out,” Curtis said, “when some major event happened, such as President F.D. Roosevelt's passing.” Over time, friendly street-side salesmen were replaced by stoic coin-operated vending racks.

According to C.J. Cody, another circulation manager for the paper in 1984: “Here in the city, we've always had kids making deliveries. Youngsters still make up the bulk of the paper's carriers. Papers were counted in the mailroom, distributed to delivery drivers and taken to drop locations or homes of carriers. The first edition, published at 11:35 a.m., reached carriers by 2 p.m. and customers by 5 p.m. The second edition, published at 2:10 p.m. reached carriers at 4 p.m. and city customers by 5 or 5:30 p.m.”

Cody noted that it was the primary aim of the newspaper to keep pace with the growth of Johnson City and surrounding areas and be positioned to take advantage of what the market was going to do.

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On June 10, 1984, Scott Pratt, Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, composed an article titled, “The Process Has Changed.” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934.”

“If Walter Winchell, H.L. Mencken or William Randolph Hearst were to return from the grave today,” Paul said, “they would no doubt be astounded by the transformation of the journalistic world they once roamed.”

Many of the methods these great “purveyors of prose” applied remain basically unchanged, with editors still assigning reporters to cover events and then writing their impressions of them.

Pratt further noted: “Comparing the mechanics involved in the actual printing of news in 1934 and what took place in 1984 was much like comparing the first Gemini space capsule with the sleek ships of Star Wars fame.” If Scott was writing this article today (2014) instead of 1984, the comparison would be markedly more dramatic.

The Newsroom Where Editors Process News Copy Written By Reporters

At the Johnson City Press-Chronicle in 1934, a news story was ushered into the newsroom by a reporter and typed using a manual typewriter onto a sheet of paper. When he or she finished, the reporter hand carried the story to an editor, who glanced looked it in much the same fashion as an elementary school teacher grades an English paper.

The editor would then mark the type-written story with a pencil, correcting grammar and spelling errors and making sure the reporter had his facts straight. Once the editor had finished, he sent the final draft of the story to the composing room, located on the same floor as the newsroom.

It was here that the news story followed a cumbersome process from paper to hot lead via a Linotype machine. This device, now a dinosaur of the printing business, fashioned a solid line of printing type (hence the name, “linotype”) on “slugs” of lead. It became standard operating equipment in the newspaper business for nearly a century, spitting out type at the “lightening-fast” rate of four lines per minute.

Once the story had been cast in lead, it was laid out on a rolling cart with a framed metal table top, appropriately dubbed a “turtle” because of its cumbersome size and awkwardness. The frame on top of the turtle was the size of a newspaper page and it was into this frame that the lead slugs were fitted to form the rough draft of the page.

By the time the pages were fitted, they weighed 30-40 pounds. The lead pages were then rolled via the turtle to a device called a mat press, where a thick fiber mat was laid over the page and compressed by a large roller. By this time, the story had gone from paper to lead to fiber mat, but the process was not yet finished.

The story had to return to hot lead. The mat, now transformed into a “dummy” or page model, was placed on a cylindrical mold called a plate marker. It was here that the molten lead was poured on the dummy.

When the metal hardened, a semi-circular lead plate was formed, which was locked onto a rotary press, inked and used to convert the page onto newspaper print. Those were the days of “hot” type. Computers and photography replaced molten metal and plastic sheets were used in place of the old lead plates.

A Simplified Sketch from 1984 of the Newspaper Process From Newsroom to Delivery

When a reporter brought a story into the newsroom in 1984, he or she typed directly into a video display terminal (VDT), consisting of a typewriter-like keyboard with an electronic screen attached. It was a link with the main computer. Typewriters began to gather dust and were only used to write letters, memos or in case of an emergency.

As the reporter typed the story, it appears on the screen. Corrections are made by using special keys that allowed the reporter to rearrange sentences and paragraphs.

The computer placed the story in a file until an editor was ready to review it. At the touch of a button, the editor could recall the story on a VDT and examine it while it was still in the computer.

When the editor was finished, he or she simply inputted a few commands and the story was zipped back into the composing room to be stored in yet another computer file. More VDTs in the composing room allowed the employees there to pull the story out of the computer file when they were ready and from there it was sent it through a computerized, digital Linotype.

The Star Wars version of the Linotype produced print on photographic paper, complete with spaces and hyphens. Rather than the four lines per minute of the hot lead Linotype, the new one was capable of 450 lines per minute, a dramatic improvement.

Once the story had been proofread, it was pasted on a paper sheet according to a layout showing where the stories and pictures should appear in the paper.

The layout, somewhat like a map of the page, was drawn by a news editor and sent back to the composing room via a vacuum tube in the ceiling.

The pasted-up page, when completed and approved by the editors, was photographed and a negative of the entire page was produced.

The negative was placed on a sheet of paper coated with liquid plastic and exposed to a bright light. The light passed through the transparent parts of the negative and hardened the liquid plastic. The other parts of the negative blocked the light and the coating under them remained soft.

The soft plastic was removed from the sheet, leaving the hardened images, which then went through an etching process to raise the hardened areas. The plates were then mounted on the press and the press went into action. O-tone rolls of paper were mounted on the press and drawn through, receiving the print of all the plates. The press also cut the sheets and folded them into pages.

The 3-story printing press at the Johnson City Press was capable of printing a 96-page paper. Larger editions were printed in separate press runs. The papers were then transported on conveyor belts into the mailroom where they were bundled for distribution or addressed for mailing. The bundles were placed on the loading dock where they were gathered, loaded on trucks or in cars and hauled away to newsstands or distribution centers and dispersed to contract carriers who delivered the paper to a box or a rosebush.

Pratt noted that the life of the news story changed dramatically during the past 50 years and many of the changes also affected the lives of people who devotedly read the news. Tremendous technological gains in the news media time and again proved that insurmountable challenges could be met through ingenuity and resourcefulness.

The old adage “They just don't make 'em like they used to” definitely applies to ongoing technology improvements in the newspaper business.     

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On June 10, 1984, Alice Torbett, Johnson City Press-Chronicle feature writer, composed an article titled, “Five Decades of Newspaper Carriers.” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934.

Independent businessmen at an early age  may or may not have saved all the money they earned as paperboys, but they stored up something more important – memories and attitudes that spanned a lifetime.

Bill Spain, a former city recorder, started out in the 1930s at about 10 years of age as one of a half-dozen street salesman. “I would check out a number of papers,” he said, “and sell them around town. Around 1:30 or 2 p.m., there was a train that came into the old Clinchfield Depot and I went through it selling newspapers. I also did this on the Southern Depot.

“Workers at the old Appalachian Hospital let some of us go room-to-room selling papers. A couple of years later, I acquired a morning route, first in the Keystone section and then in the Southwest area. My newsboy career ultimately covered 10-12 years.”

Dr. Bob Bagby, a local dentist, started carrying papers in the Gump Addition in 1938. The paper cost 18 cents a week then and he said he could still accurately multiply by 18. He remembers getting tips and gifts at Christmas, as well as an annual handkerchief from the Millers on Holston Avenue.

Bob's twin brother, Bill, also had a route. It included many stores where he accepted food, namely Hershey candy bars and bananas in exchange for paper money. Bob remembers that their father teased Bill about literally “eating all the profits.”


Former Newsboys Remember Their Paper-Folding Techniques

From left are J.T. McPherson, Bill McPherson, Dr. Bob Bagby, Lee Talbert and Don Trevathan. George Langford is shown in the upper left corner insert. 

J.T. McPherson collected money from his customers on Pine Street from the time he took the route in 1948. When he and Lucy Repass married, he started accepting Betty Crocker coupons that the couple saved to acquire silverware. The paper route was a staple in their courtship. If they needed money for a movie date, J.T. usually found a customer who was in arrears and collected enough cash to pay for the tickets.

Carrying papers also became a family tradition for the four McPherson offspring. Once they received a $100 bill, a sizable amount of money in those days. Not having enough change, three of them “ran around like lightening” to round up enough money from customers so they could keep the bill, at least for a few hours.

In 1953, George Langford took “Route #1,” which was the downtown beat that included several apartments as well as many stores. It began at the newspaper building on W. Main and ended at the Dixie Restaurant on E. Main. He used his profits to buy a collie puppy that lived with the family for 17 years.

Don Trevathan loaded up the basket of his bike with so many papers that he could barely steer it. His route starting point was Bailey & Son Grocery on Earnest Street where he began his route. He earned enough money to buy a 35mm camera, and, at the same time, gained some first-rate business experience.

Lee Talbert, current Press Photo Editor, was a skinny 13- year-old when he got his first route. It was a challenging one, mainly because his delivery area was around Knob Creek Road, where subdivisions were just beginning to develop with many vacant lots. “I didn't mind getting up in the morning,” he said, “and I didn't mind bad weather. Delivering papers on Christmas night offered an exciting change of routine. However, the two things I didn't like were dogs and collecting.”

Traffic was not a problem for Paige and David Preston, who shared a northern Johnson City route. Their papers were delivered right to their home on Quail Drive, thus keeping them off traffic-congested Mountcastle Drive.

Newspaper delivery boys represented the kind of energetic, ambitious youngsters that made the daily paper one of the few remaining home-delivered products and a proud American institution. 

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On June 10, 1984, Elaine Cloud Goller, Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, composed an article titled, “Photographs and Memories.” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934.

Herchel Ornduff, a 31 year veteran of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, related to Elaine that it took perseverance to be a good photographer.

Ornduff Looks Over Kennedy Assassination Edition. An Array of Photographic Equipment. 

Ornduff, who retired in January 1983, began working for the paper in 1952, following a stint as a photographer in the Army and some freelance work. For years, there were only two day photographers  and one at night. A quiet man, Ornduff shared some of the more memorable events of his newspaper days.

In 1955, he stood vigil as prisoners dug in search of the remains of a woman, Josie Fair, who had been murdered and buried under the floor of the Interstate Foundry by Orville “Rooster” Warren many years prior.

Another extensive assignment was covering the Southeast Airlines wreck of January 1957. Tom Hodge, then covering the political beat for the paper, had been booked to return from Nashville on the ill-fated flight, but fortunately canceled at the last minute because it was the first week the state Legislature was in session.

“(The accident) happened on a late Thursday night,” said Ornduff. “We drove out to the airport because there was a  report that a plane was down. The temperature was zero degrees as we drove up the Sullivan County side of Holston Mountain, where the crash occurred. We drove  Jeeps as far as we could, but had to hike the rest of the way on foot.”

The veteran photographer recalled the coldest day he could remember was when the mercury dropped to 17 degrees below zero, freezing the Doe River in Elizabethton solid. Even with snapped trees and power lines down, it was as pretty as a picture, something foremost on any good photographer's mind.

Ornduff recalled being chased away from the scene while covering the 1960 Tennessee Eastman Co. explosion that killed 12 people. Undaunted by this hindrance, he found other angles from which to shoot and be of service.

During another dark night's raid, Ornduff remembered being led by the local sheriff by flashlight and walking across a foot log. “When I saw it the next day in the light,” he said, “I wouldn't dare cross it. I looked down and it must have been a 100-foot drop.”

Herchel captured on film the area appearances of such notables as Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, John Kennedy, Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver.

Some of the stars to have graced Ornduff's lenses included Robert Mitchum, Patricia Neal, Carroll Baker, George C. Scott and John Saxon. He also recalled the current Miss America coming through Johnson City about every year.”

“I loved to work with Dorothy Hamill, the veteran feature writer for the Press. We went on hundreds of assignments together. I fondly recall the time when Dot was in a sled being pulled by a mule but couldn't get the animal  stopped. I've got a picture of her in 'jail,' a gag arranged with the cooperation of a local jailer. She was the best sport, doing anything you'd ask her to do.”

The photographer won second place in a national contest for a series of photographs about a child locked in a car. Several people tried to get the petite girl to pull the door lock knob up, but she would just laugh at them and wave. A man with a set of master keys from the local Chevrolet dealer tried every one to no avail. Finally, a guy came along and said, “Let me try my key.” It fit like he owned it.

During the interview, Ornduff was careful to make honorable mention of his old co-worker and good friend at the Press, Jimmy Ellis. They were like brothers. Herchel had lasting memories of his friend's inclination to pull practical jokes on his co-workers.  

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On June 10, 1984, Scott Pratt, Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, composed an article titled, “The First Issue – So Different and So Familiar.” It concerned the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, which began publication on June 12, 1934.”

Vol. 1, No. 1 consisted of 20 pages and cost two cents. The lead story on the front page, among 28 others, dealth with Congress passing the National Recovery Act (NRA) that authorized the president to regulate industry to stimulate the economy. A small emblem containing an eagle and the words “NRA Member – We Do Our Part” was positioned on each side of the newspaper title.

Another front page news item was titled, “Tennessee Hotels Ask State Commission For Lower Telephone Rate.” Only one news story was written by a local reporter, but that would soon change.

Other front page news accounts (and the reporting city) included: “Malaria Control Project Is Started in Memphis” (Nashville), “Cuban Store Robbed” (Havana), “12 American Women Bow Before Royalty” (London), “Car Drivers Ask For Police Protection” (Chattanooga), “(Dionne) Quintuplets Gain Slightly in Weight” (born two months prematurely, gained 2.5 ounces in one day, Ontario), “Tax Exempt (Old) Cotton Will Be Tagged” (to avoid payment, Washington) and “Congress Ready to End Session” (Washington).

Members of the Police Department Post in Front of the Central Fire Hall on E. Main Street

A perusal of Pratt's half-century edition offered a delightful look not only at an emergent stage of journalism, but also of an era of Americana that has long since vanished.

Studebaker stock sold at $5.50 per share with Packard Motors posting at $4.

The weather forecast was printed in the upper left corner of the front page. Only general forecasts for Tennessee and North Carolina were provided. The first one said, “Generally fair tonight and tomorrow.” The second was a bit more specific: Local thundershowers tonight; Wednesday generally fair.” That was it. No temperatures were listed and no forecasts were offered beyond that night.

Local businesses in 1934 advertised pretty much as they do today. Although the content of the ads has not changed much, the style certainly has.  For instance, Jigger Milligan announced in an ad his takeover of Checker Cab.

Hamilton Bank advertised three percent earnings on savings and certificates of deposit. Appalachian Funeral Home announced that they had inhalation and ambulance services available. All it took was a “Number please…Thank you” phone call to 342.

Beckner's Jewelers was around then, as was Sterchi Brothers and Sam Sells had opened his Kings Department Store just seven years prior. 

Ferdinand Powell, a general agent for Atlantic Life, placed an ad containing a clever advertising slogan: “Honesty, it's the best policy.” That was it.

A potion dubbed S.S.S. Tonic pointed out in an advertisement that the human body often operated with only 70-75 percent healthy blood volume. Another ad encouraged the reader to “pull the trigger on constipation.” Enough said.

Missing from the paper in 1934 were television listings. Instead, radio programs were provided. Unlike TV, radio challenged the listener's power of the imagination.

For all the enjoyment gained by reading the first Johnson City Press, one thing sticks out. At the left top side of the front page, the headline reads, “Coury-Wide Strike Threat Grows Serious.” It correct spelling should have been “Country, not “Counry”.

Pratt concluded that some things, including typographical errors, never seem to change. They can elusively slip past even the most observant writer and attentive proofreader.  

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