The Dear Departed


October 06, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Washington -- Newspaper people imagine there is something special about how they make their living.

Lots of people spend their lives on newspapers instead of leaving for more money because what they are doing matters more than getting rich. They pose as cynics, but love newspapers, get sentimental about them. They can't understand how the world keeps turning at the same speed when a paper dies.

Perhaps I overstate all this; we Furgursons may be more mushy than the rest. My father and his five brothers were newspaper printers. Four cousins are in the business. I have been since the week before I finished high school -- since I was in short pants, if you count carrying papers morning and evening.

I have worked for four newspapers, a radio station and a press association. Of those four papers, three are either dead or their funerals are scheduled. So is the afternoon paper that I delivered, for which my father worked for 54 years.

When I went to college in New York, there were eight daily papers: Times, Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Mirror, Post, World-Telegram, Journal-American and Compass. Now there are four.

Over the years, more than 100 papers have subscribed to my column. Off the top of my head, I can name a dozen that are gone: Washington Star, Washington Daily News, Philadelphia Bulletin, Newark News, Hartford Times, Raleigh Times, Danville Bee, Durham Sun, Winston-Salem Sentinel, Roanoke World-News, Fort Worth Press, St. Paul Dispatch. . . .

Most of the dear departed were p.m. papers, caught in the modern crunch of rush-hour traffic and evening television. In fact, there are still more afternoon papers than mornings, but less evening circulation. According to Editor & Publisher, only one of today's 20 biggest U.S. papers (the Detroit News) is a p.m.

The layman's conclusion from all this may be that newspapers in general are mortally ill, that circulation is dropping like a rock. Not so. While p.m. circulation has dropped 42 percent since 1970, a.m. sales have climbed by 59 percent.

Of the three papers I come to mourn today, one was a semi-weekly and two were afternoon papers. The littlest was the most fun, because I was youngest then and we whipped the pants off the daily competition.

For $26 a week, I was privileged to cover City Hall, police, courts and sports, write features and a sports column, rewrite county correspondence, read proofs and do makeup. I waited to hear the old Hoe press start shaking the building and pick up the first copy off, to run through it again for typos. Sometimes of a warm southern 2 a.m. I rode the circulation truck out into the countryside and thought it was glamorous.

That was the Danville (Va.) Commercial Appeal, run by Watt Miles, a two-finger typist who loved it just as much as I did. My next stop, after running copy for the Associated Press in New York during college, was a summer at the Roanoke World-News, where I made $50 a week as chief of the one-man county seat bureau. I wrote about drunk drivers, dairy queens and zoning fights, and I dispatched my copy to the home office by bus.

A couple of diplomas later, I hit the Richmond News Leader, LTC where for $81.50 a week I edited copy, did the military column and features. That was the local heyday of James J. Kilpatrick, leading Virginia's fight against desegregation. I left for Baltimore the week after a well-meaning officer of the United Daughters of the Confederacy said, "Oh Mr. Furgurson, I want to thank you for all you and Mr. Kilpatrick are doing for us."

When I started on The Sun for $88.75 a week 35 years ago, the late News-Post had the biggest circulation in Baltimore. Since then The Sun and I have had a nice ride indeed. But that is not the story here -- this is the only one of my papers that will still be with us in a year.

The Commercial Appeal, which had fallen on dismal times, folded in the mid-'80s. The World-News has merged with the morning Roanoke Times. The News Leader will be folded into the morning Times-Dispatch next spring. Lots of laughs, sweat and anger go with them.

The hard-noggined citizen will shrug at my maundering on so personally. After all, he can go home and flip 50 cable channels at night. Who misses a dead newspaper?

Well, obviously I do. And he does, too, even if he doesn't realize it while he's watching the Birds. He may have 50 channels of amusement, but only one editorial view of what's happening at City Hall, of whether his state taxes should go up, of whether his sixth-grader is getting a decent education. Each time the stop-press bell rings, it tolls for him -- and for me and thee.

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