When I was five-years-old I spent the summer of ‘59 at my grandparents’ home on Selma Street in the West End of Norristown. My grandfather worked the 3AM graveyard shift at the old Alan Wood Steel Plant in Conshohocken when he woke up we had the big meal of the day. The preferred guest was the mailman, a Mr. Sullivan I seem to recall, and he’d take his lunch with us bringing with him the early afternoon edition of local newspaper. He and my grandfather would read through it and argue the issues of the day. That’s when I met my first love — The Times Herald.
While Grandpop was American born and educated, my grandmother had emigrated from Italy as a teenager and written English was hard for her to grasp. I learned to read as the two of us poured through each edition of the paper struggling to understand so that we could be a part of the daily debates. If I have a propensity for opinions it comes from my grandfather, he was never short on opinions. In 1959 he knew that none of us Catholics could ever be elected president. Even though the Russians had launched something called Sputnik into outer space he said it was crazy to think that men would ever walk on the moon. Just a few years later, The Times Herald’s Bridgeport editor, John Nicola, published my first by-line when I wrote a report about a Boy Scout Camping trip. The Times Herald and I have had a tempestuous love affair ever since.
A love affair that drops on your doorstep with a plastic wrapped pop at dawn isn’t always romantic. How many people get to see their screw-ups in print before the coffee is done brewing? My first column ran in The Times Herald in 1991. I blasted an adult bookstore that was trying to open in the heart of King Of Prussia’s business district. I beamed with pride from my heroic efforts until I got lampooned the next day by a Time Herald reporter in a half page editorial for trying to strangle freedom of speech. A year later I got the best career advice when former Times Herald editor Jim Stoner innocently asked if my writing was “plain lazy or just erratic?” In newspapers some days you are a sinner and some days a saint and if you aren’t prepared to be both you don’t belong writing a column between the headlines.
But like all of our institutions local newspapers will either change or die. Across the country daily newspaper readership has dropped by 7% in the last decade. Independent newspaper owners have seen either the decline of profits or the economies of scale and sold out to the national chains. The Times Herald’s former owner couldn’t have cared less if it lived or died. Caretaker management let it wither, major advertisers left and outdated equipment and union rules basically gave the store away. If Journal Register hadn’t stepped up to plate, prepared to go toe-toe with media giant Knight Ridder’s Philadelphia Inquirer The Times Herald would have adopted the Philadelphia Bulletin’s employees slogan noire: “nearly everybody used to read The Bulletin.”
Delivering The Times Herald in the morning Journal Register adapted to the advances in TV news. Live-At-Five is far more relevant that Published-At-Noon-From-The-Day-Before. Following that story line they explain rather than report, because a sound bite is only a manipulated fraction of a story. They chronicle us, our births, our passages and our deaths, because TV doesn’t have time for us. With aggressive acquisitions in suburban Philadelphia driven by Wall Street, they are poised to compete directly with The Inquirer and if you give a damn about your community, its politics, its economic strength and quality of life it’s obvious that two newspapers competing is vastly superior to one dictating.
In that way The Times Herald is the touchstone of our communities, reflecting what we are. We aren’t always perfect, we aren’t always correct and neither is it. The difference is that it prints our opinions, our responses and our concerns the way we write them, honoring the best tradition of newspapers by allowing its efforts to be criticized on its own pages. An access that no other media tolerates. An access to ourselves that we don’t often tolerate.
When the first criers walked Main Street in Norristown calling the headlines of The Times Herald our nation was barely 23-years-old. The states were just forming six decades before The Times Herald would report that they were ripped apart by a Civil War. Nearly a century and a half later Times Herald carriers would scream “EXTRA” on a quiet Sunday afternoon: December 7, 1941. Its last “EXTRA” would bring us the tears of November 1963 when that first Catholic President was gunned down in Dallas. My generation learned of the oil shortage crisis that wasn’t, an obscure apartment building in Washington called the Watergate, and about the time that The Times Herald started printing full color photos it showed a guy with a red splash on his head by the name of Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
While all that big history has dominated The Times Herald’s pages our personal history is in the ink. The local people whether they were around the corner or around the world serve as the annals of our age and this is what this newspaper is all about. By changing, by adapting to a new electronic world, The Times Herald moves on to continue those chronicles that feature our children and will feature our grandchildren. Undoubtedly The Times Herald will continue to change but is tradition will continue, we, the citizens of Central Montgomery County are that tradition, just as we have been for two centuries.
On this day that The Times Herald celebrates two hundred years of service, in the midst of the age of video violence, trash TV and the Weird World Web, that’s not a bad love for our children to have. Happy birthday first love, here’s to 200 more.