In the mid-1960s, the Tonawanda News was a vibrant, well-staffed daily newspaper with a circulation in the neighborhood of 25,000. I know firsthand because for about 18 months during that time, I had the pleasure of working at the newspaper as the telegraph editor responsible for placing wire stories, writing headlines, and laying out the pages.
When the Tonawanda News closed its doors for good last Saturday, publishing its last edition in black and white, the circulation was reported to be about 3,500 and the editorial staff was down to a mere handful compared to the days when I was there under publisher Ruby Hewitt and Editor Harvey Hough.
Newspapers cutting staff is the trend these days as the industry has reportedly lost a fifth of its journalists since 2001. Newspapers have faced increased pressure from the internet media and many have been forced to close, like the Tonawanda News, in the face of declining revenues.
But I would like to use the occasion of the loss of the Tonawanda News to reminisce about my days at the newspaper so long ago and my feelings about the changing times that have slowly taken away one of the staples of many communities, the local newspaper with the comings and goings of everyday life and the obituaries of those who have come and gone which sometimes don't make the pages of the larger newspapers.
Let me indulge a bit in my newspaper history to help explain my feelings about the passing of this small daily and the decline of the newspaper industry everywhere.
I started my newspaper career professionally at the Lockport Union Sun and Journal in 1966 and joined the Tonawanda News in 1967, working under legendary City Editor Milt Carlin. I moved to the Buffalo Courier-Express in late 1968 where I spent 12 years before leaving to become a television reporter. Now, all these years later, both the Tonawanda News and the Courier are gone as are many of my friends and colleagues from those days.
The Tonawanda News which closed its doors for good last Saturday was nowhere near the paper it was when I was there, but it still served the public with as much local news as it could with its reduced staff. But now it is gone, an institution that had been a part of the community it served since it began in 1880. Unfortunately, many more newspapers will be forced out of business if the current trend continues, as expected, and the public, especially seniors, will continue to lose an important link to their communities, one they could actually touch. It is a feeling I crave to this day.
Eric DuVall, the last managing editor of the Tonawanda News, did not say much about the newspaper's closing beyond the statement from the publisher, Chris Voccio, last October who said the decision was made for business reasons. Voccio works for Community Newspaper Holdings of Alabama which also owns the Niagara Gazette.
Many of the two dozen editorial employees at the Tonawanda News will now be looking for jobs in a newspaper market where jobs are in short supply. Some have found work, many have not. DuVall, who is a serious journalist and well respected for his dedication and work ethic, will join WLVL -1340 radio in Lockport as news director. The fate of the others is unknown.
When I joined the Tonawanda News in early 1967, I arrived fresh from several months as sports editor of the Lockport Union Sun and Journal after four years as a navy journalist. I was pretty green, a young man with a wife and three small children, and desperately hoping to earn enough money to support my family.
The Tonawanda News was my training ground, as it was for many young journalists over the years, and veteran AP reporter and City Editor Milt Carlin—a character right out of the old movies-- took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. Milt always had a pencil in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and like many a journalist of his day like to wash down the sweat of putting out a daily newspaper with a stop at the local gin mill after the presses had rolled. He schooled me in that side of the business as well, but as a mentor he was wise in the ways of the newspaper business and groomed me about how to approach stories and the importance of getting the facts right. There was no tolerance for factual errors from Milt, and that's the way he ran the newsroom. The result was a very good daily newspaper, a nurturing and learning environment for many young journalists who passed through the River Road offices of the Tonawanda News and a good home for veterans on staff who stayed for years and served the community in such a valuable way with their experience and local knowledge.
I'm saddened by the passing of the Tonawanda News, another of my many old haunts as a chain-smoking young journalist looking to break big stories. Fortunately, I was able to do that both at the Courier and later on television but it all really started with Milt Carlin at the Tonawanda News.
Milt is long gone, and now so is the newspaper he cared about so much. I remember those days, and names like Shirley Connor, Lynn Hemmings, Jim Watson, Milt Simon, Mort Carpenter, and many others. It was a fun time with memorable parties—especially at Christmas--presided over by a fun-loving owner in Ruby Hewitt and a wonderful executive editor and true gentleman, Harvey Hough. It was a real newspaper and the newsroom was the smoke-filled center of it all with the wire machines pounding out the world news as the typewriters cranked out the local stories of the day. All those things are gone now and newsrooms are smoke free, the teletype machines don't exist, and typewriters are relics from the stone age of newspapers.
But I remember it all, and the names and faces from those days and my years at the late Buffalo Courier Express. The newspapers are gone and so are most of the journalists who worked there, but they still live in my memories and the closing of the Tonawanda News brings it all back for the moment. It was a great time and I miss those days and the people dearly.
Small daily newspapers will soon be a thing of the past and communities will lose the local flavor of small town America, from Little League game pictures to news about local politics. Newspapers have been a part of my life for many years, and when one passes it hits home.
I certainly still enjoy writing for newspapers and carrying on the tradition of the professionals who taught me, like Milt Carlin and Jim Schrader at the Courier-Express, city editors of a different era but a time I will always cherish. I wish good luck to all those at the Tonawanda News who are now looking for work in a business that sadly is fast disappearing.