This past week, we dove into The Times’ past as part of a series on old buildings in Gainesville.
Along the course of sharing the building’s story, there was much more to learn thanks to a July 4, 1970, building dedication edition, which former editor Johnny Vardeman dropped off for us. Vardeman worked for the paper beginning in the late 1950s and you can read his columns on local history each week in the same edition as this column.
For me, reading of those early days was fascinating. Much had changed by the time I started with The Times in 2006 — and much has changed since then — but some things never change.
The first press
In 1946, the pieces of a used press were brought to The Times’ first building on the corner of Washington and Maple streets in Gainesville. As The Times was moving in, Ward’s Funeral Home was moving out.
Founder Charles Smithgall and a press erector worked to put the press pieces together, unsure of exactly what they were doing. Meanwhile, the undertakers had not fully moved out of the building.
“In fact, the proposed press room was still being used by the undertakers to sew up accident and knifing victims. The undertaking activities proved to be quite a distraction and it seems that there were times when the grease-covered press erectors found themselves more involved with the cadavers than with the press erection.”
Other press distractions
Stories were told of the time the paper almost didn’t get out during a fire and later during an ice storm.
A fire in the composing room in 1952 left the “production heart of the newspaper” in shambles. But the paper was still published, with type set “in every print shop in town.”
During the later ice storm, most of the city had lost power and there was no way to operate the production equipment. The team printed a special edition by mimeograph before the power came back on later that afternoon and the paper could be printed normally.
Those ice storms can still wreak havoc. The Times has a generator, but the loss of our internet connection can cause a mad scramble. Gathering the components of the paper — from comics to ads to news stories — demands that connection and so does printing plates digitally. You won’t find today’s Times team printing anything by mimeograph.
There was one day very recently when parts of the press were being worked on and it looked like we might have to print somewhere else. Thankfully, much like that ice storm, things were operating normally again before deadline.
One more old story from the press goes like this: “Then there was the time the paper almost didn’t get out because the press crew was caught shooting dice.”
Lessie Smithgall, who founded the paper with her husband, Charles, recalls in the section the calls she made to solicit new subscribers.
“One lady said ‘I’ve seen that little paper and I’d like to take it and help you out, but I just need more newspaper than that. I use it on my shelves and I use it to wrap things in and for other things around the house and that little newspaper is just not enough.”
The Times was four pages then.
By 1970, the newspaper had more pages. It also had 13 newsroom employees, about the same as today.
Their names and home addresses were all printed in the special edition along with every other employee of the newspaper at that time.
The new building featured a conveyor system that carried materials from the news and advertising departments to the composing room.
In the original building, at one time the newsroom was on the second floor and copy was lowered in a basket and communication was by calling through a metal tube.
Today, we design news pages using software and then hit export on a desktop computer. A direct to plate machine then processes the entire thing onto a plate, which is then hung on the press.
Today’s new technology is centered more heavily on digital publication. The articles are distributed in print but also in email newsletter, on the website, on social media and sometimes in app notifications.
Systems analyze clicks on articles and how far readers on average scroll to read those articles. Other systems can tell us which stories are getting the most reads by those who eventually hit the subscribe button.
The traditional news gathering, though, has changed little.
A reporter “is given the bare information and it is his job to fill in the details and answer any questions the reader may have.”
The reporter talks to his sources, writes the story, goes over it looking for any mistakes and passes it to an editor who carefully edits it. That editor may hand it back to the reporter for improvement, and once it is perfected it goes to the copy desk for placement on the page and a headline.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.