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A journalism anniversary missed…

So I missed my own anniversary.

No, not the all-important wedding anniversary. To forget that would be something akin to a China Syndrome Chernobyl meltdown.

What I missed was the 35th anniversary of my “Reflections” column that’s been running in the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers (and now the KendallCountyNOW division of Shaw Media) since July 31, 1980.

I started in the column game back in August 1977 when Dave Dreier gave me a chance to start writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel. It was interesting part-time work that came in handy since I’d retired on disability from my previous job.

I began writing every other week, with the intervening weeks taken up by Mike Muzzy’s column on the local arts and music scene. But gradually, Dave moved “Epochs” up to running weekly, at least when there was room.

The Fox Valley Sentinel flag from the summer of 1978. A great weekly paper, it lasted just less than a decade covering Oswego, Montgomery, and Aurora news.

The Fox Valley Sentinel flag from the summer of 1978. A great weekly paper, it lasted just less than a decade covering Oswego, Montgomery, and Aurora news. Couldn’t beat the price, though.

The Sentinel was always short of money, so getting paid was often an adventure in itself. When the checks were handed out on Friday afternoon, there was a general stampede to the bank to cash them before the money in the account ran out. While Dave was creative, business sense wasn’t really his forte. Later, it was found that the woman Dave hired as the paper’s business manager was stealing him blind.

Working at the Sentinel, even part-time, was what I imagine working at one of those underground ‘60s papers must have been like. Dave managed to assemble a great group of writers that committed actual journalism in Oswego, really for the first time ever.

Gradually, though, that talented bunch went on to other things as they saw the business problems at the Sentinel increasing.

So Dave wondered whether I wanted to cover some actual news for the paper since I had free time and needed the extra cash. I reminded him that I had no journalism training or experience, but he waved that away, noting that writing news stories is pretty easy.

“Here,” he said, “Let me show you.”

And he proceeded to sketch an upside-down pyramid on the back of an envelope.

“This,” he said, “Is an inverted pyramid. You write your stories like this: The most important stuff at the top, and the least important at the bottom. That way, if it has to be cut due to space problems, the less important stuff is always handy to clip off.”

And with my journalism training complete and I was sent off to cover the Kane County Board, where I learned the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure from Phil Elfstrom, who used it masterfully to maintain an iron-handed control, and the West Aurora School Board, where I got my introduction to the education beat.

But while the Sentinel was fun in a guerrilla journalism sort of way, it really wasn’t sustainable because it was in direct competition with the Oswego Ledger. The Ledger had been started in 1949 by Ford Lippold as a free-distribution paper he and his family mimeographed and assembled in his basement. It was purchased in 1965 by Ann and Don Krahn, who turned it into a subscription-based tabloid weekly. Don and Ann sold it to their son, Dave, who subsequently sold it to Jeff and Kathy Farren, publishers of the venerable Kendall County Record in Yorkville. The Record was begun in 1864 by John Redmond Marshall as the county seat paper. The Marshall family kept control until selling to Howard Pince in the 1960. Jeff and Kathy, newly-minted graduates of the Northern Illinois University School of Journalism, bought it after they got married and then also started the Plano Record. One evening Jeff Farren and Dave Dreier got together down at the Oswego American Legion (a popular local watering hole) and, concluding the community couldn’t support two papers, came to the agreement that Dave would sell to Jeff and Kathy. Which he did, and the first issue of the Ledger-Sentinel was published July 31, 1980.

Our new design of the Ledger-Sentinel flag that I drew up in the summer of 2000. It's still pretty much the same, although with some changes put in place by Shaw Media since they acquired the Kendall County Record, Inc. papers this past summer.

Our new design of the Ledger-Sentinel flag that I drew up in the summer of 2000. It’s still pretty much the same, although with some changes put in place by Shaw Media since they acquired the Kendall County Record, Inc. papers this past summer.

I’d met Jeff and Kathy during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration when Kathy served on Kendall County Bicentennial Commission with my wife, Sue, and me as we worked on creating an updated county history. We’d all worked well together and after the Ledger-Sentinel deal was going down with Dave they asked whether I’d be willing to be the new paper’s editor. I reminded them that a) I still didn’t have any formal journalism training, b) I knew nothing about editing, and c) due to health problems I could only work part-time. They told me not to worry, that editing isn’t as hard as it might seem to some and that my familiarity with Oswego would be invaluable. Further, they’d been reading my “Epochs” column and liked it and wanted me to continue it—only they hated the name of it, to which I suggested changing it to “Reflections,” which was satisfactory to all concerned. The part-time part also wasn’t a problem, they said. They didn’t want to cover Kane County or the West Aurora Schools any more. And the village boards in Oswego and Montgomery met on different weeks, as did the Oswego School District Board, so it was possible for me to cover all of them by dedicating my Monday evenings to meeting coverage.

After a few months of that schedule, it was pretty clear I needed some help covering local government, so they authorized hiring John Etheredge. John was newly graduated from NIU’s journalism program and had actually been promised a job by Dave Dreier one evening months before when they enjoyed drinks at a popular bar called “The Office.” John was fresh off helping his dad win election to the Illinois State Senate, and was a good writer. So we hired him part-time at first, and then full-time so I could concentrate on editing, writing “Reflections,” and covering the Oswego school beat along with writing occasional features, doing annual in-depth coverage of property taxation, and the rest of the things weekly newspapers cover, although in my case on a somewhat limited part-time basis.

We must have been doing something right, despite my lack of training, though. From 1980 through my retirement as editor in 2008, the Ledger-Sentinel earned 216 awards from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association and 99 from the Illinois Press Association. Dave Dreier’s back-of-the-envelope journalism instruction back in 1978 turned out to be pretty effective. That, along with covering local government and learning the ins and outs of how it worked led to several first place awards for school board coverage from the Illinois Association of School Boards and coverage of property taxation from the Tax Federation of Illinois.

Although I retired as the Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor—I’d given up the school board beat a couple years before—in 2008, Jeff and Kathy wanted me to keep writing “Reflections,” which they had started running in all four Kendall County Record, Inc. papers a few years before. And I agreed to do that, since it’s fun and because I think it’s good for folks new to our community to find out a little about what came before.

And there are a lot of new folks living here. In 1990, Kendall County’s total population was just above 39,000. In 2010, the census bureau counted nearly 115,000 county residents. Oswego’s population, during that same period, literally exploded from 3,900 to 30,000 residents.

Since that first column back in the summer of 1980, I churned out roughly 1,820 of them up through July 30 of this year, and since then I’ve added another 15 or so. That adds up to around 1.6 million words in about a half-mile of columns set at its normal 3.25” width.

Every once in a while as I was working as the Ledger-Sentinel’s editor, someone or other would pitch an idea for a column to me. When they did, I’d use Dave Dreier’s method to separate the wheat from the chaff. Write a half dozen columns for me, I’d reply, and we’ll see what they look like. The thing is, as Dave once noted, just about everyone has an idea for one good column. A few people might even have ideas for two or three. But coming up with good ideas for six columns is pretty difficult. In fact, I never had anyone get back to me with their packet of six columns.

So far, it’s been 35 years and counting for me at the “Reflections” column game, not to mention writing something now and then for this blog—something that didn’t even exist when I blundered into journalism back in 1977—plus the columns I did for the Sentinel. The thing about history, even local history, is that new stuff keeps popping up which leads to new takes on old stories and ideas. I plan to keep on chronicling as much as I can as long as I can so that the things, good and bad, people have been doing around these parts for the last few thousand years aren’t forgotten.



Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, People in History

Grouchy old retired editor yells at punctuation clouds…

I consider myself a reasonable person. At least in most things. I don’t consider myself a grammar Nazi, either. But I have to admit there are some things, grammar-wise, that people do that drive me absolutely crazy.

Chief among these things is the misuse of the friendly, useful apostrophe and his little buddy, the comma.

Apostrophes are handy things. They give readers all sorts of useful clues, mostly concerning who owns what. There are, for instance, lots of moms, but my mom’s recipe for pie crust is superior. See what happened there? More than one mom turned into a single, possessive mom, and all it took was an apostrophe.

Commas, those little crescents that look like a ground-based apostrophes, are our friends, too. They tell us what sorts of things go together, what things need to be considered separately, and sometimes where we ought to take a breath when we’re reading out loud.

Misuse of these entirely practical little squiggles is a plague on our society. Not to mention the world and quite possibly the universe. I’ve been fighting against it, in a quiet sort of way, ever since I got into the editing game. My general rule in life is “Moderation in all things,” and when it comes to punctuation it’s even more true. Fewer apostrophes and commas would, I think, be a kindness to everyone. It would certainly make for kinder, gentler editors.

Lo, those many years ago when I was toiling in the editorial fields, I gradually became aware that overuse of commas was driving me crazy. It was a serious problem when we were still typing stories on our trusty upright Royals. I became adept at the squiggle that tells the typesetter to treat all those invasive commas as invisible. But then we started using those little TRS-80 laptops, and removing excess commas—which was most of them—became a laborious pain since it had to be done one at a time.

And then glorious technological progress! Macintosh computers, friendly little boxes that looked like Wall-E, sort of sidled into the newspaper office and became our boon companions, running early versions of Microsoft Word and spitting out copy on nearly silent LaserWriters. And with Word came the wonderful ability to seek and destroy! Errant commas could no longer hide from my blue pen or amongst the legitimate characters on a small LCD screen; squiggles were no longer necessary to excise the little buggers from copy.

And this was a Godsend, especially when it came to editing sports copy. I really liked all the sports writers. I went along with jargon and buzzwords and clichés. But all those extra, extraneous commas? No! Which is where the search and destroy function came in so handy. First thing I’d do is search for commas and replace them with nothing at all (whoever thought up that idea is a genius on a par with Einstein), because there were generally only a dozen or so needed in any given piece and I was sometimes getting a dozen a sentence. Not that I begrudge the serial comma, of course. That’s the one place I make an exception. Strangely enough though, those comma nuts seldom use the serial comma, which would mean I’d actually have to insert commas.

Unlike commas, apostrophes seemed to create confusion and hesitation. When it came to commas, writers throw hands-full, barrels full, boxcar loads of the things into perfectly innocent paragraphs and sentences. But with apostrophes, usage seems to be one of the universe’s particularly tangled mysteries to many writers. They appear to get nervous if they haven’t used one in a while, so they seem determined to stick them in randomly, just to keep their hands in and the copy interesting.

“The Smith’s liked that,” they’d write. “American’s are just fine,” they scribble. And what is the poor copy editor supposed to make of such writing? Smiths and Americans are just fine, all of them, without throwing apostrophes at them on the off chance they might make sense. Really they are.

I tell you, commas and apostrophes were banes of my existence, but they became less baneful after I hustled out of the office door following a particularly nice going away party—even if I was pressed back into emergency service for awhile afterwards and even if I didn’t get a second nice going away party. I was not bitter, however, because I knew I’d never have to edit another sports story written by someone with a comma fixation ever again.

However…however I still read. A lot. And those misplaced commas and apostrophes still grate on me when I see them. I’m not quite as militant as Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots & Leaves, who has been known to harangue theatre owners over errant apostrophes on marquees—and even steal them if she can reach high enough to snatch them away from places they should not be. Ever.

This book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

The title of this book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

I don’t do that. But I grouse. I complain. I bore my wife. I can’t help it. When I see a book jacket with a really nice type face spelling out the title, Unknown Wars of Asia, Africa, and The America’s That Changed History, I can’t help it. I ask myself, “America’s what?” No apostrophe is needed there; IT IS NOT A POSSESSIVE! It is meant to be a plural. Why is that apostrophe there? Did the book’s art director decide to stick it to grammarians because he had a bad experience trying to diagram sentences in seventh grade? Or perhaps he’s new to this country. Having come from Luxembourg only the week before, it’s possible he’s unfamiliar with proper apostrophe use. Or maybe she’s from south of the Ohio River. I understand they do terrible things to sentence structure down there because they’re still angry that Sherman invented urban renewal in Atlanta, only he started in the white parts of town.

So anyway, I think I’m feeling better now and besides, it’s time for supper. Writing is easier than a lot of us make it, and harder, too. Most of the time, less really is more. And a good supper cures many ills.


Filed under Frustration, Newspapers, Uncategorized

Our government: Know it, live it, love it

Saw a piece over on Jonathan Turley’s blog reporting that 64 percent of Americans can’t identify the three branches of government.

Does that seem as odd to you as it does to me? Ever since the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were approved by the people of the several states, state and federal governments have been working hard to educate the citizens about their own government. Granted, those efforts have flagged recently—and if you believe that survey Jon Turley quoted, they’ve flagged considerably—but early in the country’s history, educating folks about their government was a priority.

That’s why local newspapers could be mailed free early in the country’s history, with the goal being to make sure the voters were actually informed about the issues of the day. Which is also why all those post offices popped up all over the country, closely following the frontier as it moved west, and also why those stagecoach lines got government subsidies to carry mail and passengers.

The idea led to establishing public education. The goal was partly to improve the people’s education, but it was more to create an informed electorate. Around my area of northern Illinois, the earliest schools established by pioneer families were subscription schools, funded by the private subscriptions of the parents of school-age children. Public funding of schools didn’t really start until state law allowed levying property taxes to finance public schools in 1850.

Way back when I was in high school a century after that, the idea behind teaching public school students still included creating an informed electorate. Which is why the U.S. History course our junior year of high school hit the constitutions of both the U.S. and Illinois so hard.

Our teacher that year drummed a major idea into our heads. To understand the U.S. Government (and to get through college social studies when the time came), we needed to know three fundamental U.S. Supreme Court cases: Marbury vs. Madison, Munn vs. Illinois, and McCullough vs. Maryland. The ideas those three cases introduced into our government were so fundamental that he insisted on quizzing us on them the rest of the year.

And he was right. Those three cases really formed the basis for much of how our system of government has evolved. Because despite what people like Antonin Scalia seem to believe, the U.S. Constitution really is an ever-evolving document, not something monolithic or static. After all, after the Constitution was adopted by the states, what’s the first thing the framers did? They amended it. Ten times. And thank goodness for their foresight.

So what, exactly, do those three Supreme Court decisions say, and why are they so important? Thought you’d never ask. Here’s a brief rundown for those of you who did not take U.S. History from Gerner Anderson back in 1963.

President John Adams

President John Adams

1. Marbury vs. Madison: John Adams was in a snit. He’d just been beaten in the race for President in 1800, so he wouldn’t be serving a second term. Not only that, but he was beaten by Thomas Jefferson, whose Democrat-Republican political philosophy was 180 degrees removed from Adams’ Federalism. In order to preserve Federalist power, Adams appointed, on his last day in office, 82 federal judges, all of whom were Federalists. This gang of “Midnight Judges,” as the pro-Jefferson press dubbed them, were rightly seen by Jefferson as a backdoor way of imposing Federalist policies on his administration for decades to come. As a result, Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to hold the official commissions of some of the judges in question, one of which was William Marbury. Marbury proceeded directly to the U.S. Supreme Court and applied for an order directing Madison to deliver his judicial commission.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall knew a political hot potato when he saw one, and he realized he had to act with care in order to both do the right thing and maintain the integrity and the authority of the Supreme Court. There was a danger that Madison and Jefferson would simply refuse to comply if Marshall ordered them to comply with the Judiciary Act of 1789 and deliver Marbury’s commission. So instead, Marshall looked at the act itself, and determined it was in violation of the Constitution because it forced the intrusion of the judicial branch into the prerogatives of the executive branch. The result of Marshall’s decision was to establish the principle of judicial review, which to this day confers on the Supreme Court the responsibility of determining which legislative acts are constitutional. And, it involved all three of those branches of government that most Americans are apparently ignorant of.

2. McCullough vs. Maryland: The State of Maryland was not at all pleased by the formation of the new Second Bank of the United States. As a result, Maryland decided to levy taxes against all banks not chartered by the state—which, as a Federal bank, the Second Bank of the United States was not. Since the Bank of the United States also happened to be the only non-chartered bank operating in Maryland, it was clear the new tax was specifically aimed at the federal bank.

James W. McCullough was in charge of the newly opened Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States, and he refused to pay the tax. A private citizen sued the Federal bank in Maryland court, charging McCullough with non-payment of taxes—and also angling for the substantial reward Maryland law allowed for finding banks not in compliance. The argument was that the U.S. Constitution did not specifically mention banks and therefore was not allowed to participate in banking and therefore that the Second Bank of the United States was unconstitutional. Maryland’s courts agreed, and the matter was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court overturned the state court’s decision, and in what became one of the most important decisions for our form of government, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that, first, the Constitution’s Section 8, Clause 18, the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” gave the Federal government all the power it needed to establish a bank, even though banking is never mentioned in the Constitution itself. Second, Marshall wrote, the states do not have any special sovereignty because they approved the Constitution. That’s because, Marshall wrote, the people, not the states, ratified the Constitution. Third, Marshall found Maryland’s attempt to tax the Federal government unconstitutional, famously writing that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” which was what Maryland was trying to do to the Second Bank of the United States.

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River controlled by Ira Munn.

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River controlled by Ira Munn.

3. Munn vs. Illinois: The 1870s were a volatile time in the Midwest. The financial Panic of 1873 was seriously affecting farmers. In addition, powerful railroads were brutally squeezing the region’s farmers, charging exorbitant and unfair fees to ship grain to market and to ship coal into communities who needed it to heat their homes and power steam engines for factories and farms. Farmers joined together, forming associations including Grange lodges and other groups, to fight against what they considered economic tyranny. In response, powered by a progressive surge led by farmers and workers, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing the state to set the maximum rates railroads could charge to ship grain and that grain elevators could charge to store it.

Chicago grain merchant Ira Munn sued on behalf of grain combines and the railroads, contending government didn’t have the power to meddle in commercial activities—which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound much different from the arguments plutocrats are still making to this day.

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877, however, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, writing for a 7-2 majority, ruled that government does have a legitimate interest in regulating commercial activities that affect the public interest. Further, the decision allowed for the regulation of interstate commerce as a legitimate function of the Federal government, opening the way for such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I’ve often wondered if our march towards plutocracy might have been different if Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito had had Gerner Anderson for U.S. History when they were in high school. I’m guessing probably not, because there seems to be a problem among the right wing doing the right thing coupled with doing what’s best for the most people, which amounts to almost a genetic predisposition to attack those perceived to be weak. But we should thank our lucky stars that John Marshall and Morrison Waite were on the court when they were instead of those three. Otherwise, we’d be living in a very different America today.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Law, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Journalism as I lived it…

My friend of some 40 years and former boss sent a photo to me the other day that was, in turn, sent to him via this wonderful communications medium we call the Internet.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

There I was, perched at my borrowed desk at the Kendall County Record office in Yorkville on a Wednesday morning in 1989, running out copy. My trusty TRS-80 laptop is on the desk, connected with a null modem to the 512k Mac that we used to print out copy on the LaserWriter printer. While we knew we weren’t exactly at the cutting edge of news biz technology, we weren’t too far removed during that era when the Mac revolutionized how newspaper production.

By that time, we’d gone through a number of technological changes as the old Linotype hot type technology was left behind in favor of computerized type setting. But even those earlier typesetting reiterations were light years ahead of where newspapers started out when Kendall County was a youngster.

H.S. Humphrey's Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego's first paper.

H.S. Humphrey’s Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego’s first paper.

The first county newspaper was the Kendall County Courier, established by Hector S. Humphrey in 1852 at Oswego, then the Kendall County Seat. A native New Yorker like so many early pioneers, after earning his journeyman printer’s status, Humphrey headed west in 1848 to boisterous, fast-growing Chicago. After a few years there, he moved farther west to Naperville before deciding to start the Courier at Oswego.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

During that era, printers need a variety of skills. Presses were operated by hand, producing one sheet at a time. Type was ordered in full sets from type foundries and graphics were set with individual woodcuts. Type cases were arranged so typographers stood, and pulled type from either the lower cases (with lower case letters) or the cases up high with capitals (upper case letters). Individual letters, punctuation marks, and spaces (which varied from N to M spaces—the width of a capital N or M) were set by hand in frames. When the setting was done, the frames were locked and a proof page was run off for the proofreader.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

The first innovations in newspaper printing technology came with powered presses. Originally, presses were operated by apprentice printers or “printer’s devils,” who had to crank them by hand. Small country weeklies then moved to presses operated by a horsepower—the power provided by a horse plodding around a circle, the rotating arm providing power, or on a treadmill. In town, a treadmill horsepower was probably used.

On Feb. 15, 1883, publisher John R. Marshall wrote in the Kendall County Record that: “The Record office met with a catastrophe Wednesday morning. The snow on the horsepower shed gathered weight from the rain Tuesday night and the roof came down with a crash, making a ruin for awhile. The old power was badly busted and we haven’t money enough to buy a steam engine.”

But Marshall finally did find the money and by the late 1880s, the horsepower had been retired in favor of a small steam engine.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

The next innovation was setting type by machine. Linotype was the leader in that field for the next several decades. Sitting at a giant, seemingly Rube Goldberg device, the Linotype operator used a keyboard whose keys were mechanically connected to the machine’s works. Each key struck caused the machine to cast a letter, space, or punctuation mark on the fly. At the Record, the first typesetters were powered by the same steam engine that powered the press, but in 1907, Marshall installed electric motors to run both machines. Originally, a gasoline burner melted the lead for typesetting, but in 1913 Western United Gas & Electric extended municipal gas lines to Yorkville from the company’s plant in Aurora, and the Record reported: “The Linotype machine in The Record office is now equipped with a gas burner to heat the metal for the casting of slugs. This new attachment does away with a gasoline burner.”

Off-set printing came in next, with pages being “burned” onto aluminum plates that never really touched newsprint. Instead, the plate was wrapped around a roller. When the roller turned, it picked up ink from an ink roller and the image was transferred to yet another roller, and THAT’s the roller that actually printed the image on the paper.

Then in the 1960s Compugraphic introduced computerized typesetters priced for smaller weeklies. With these gizmos, type was set on strips of photographic paper that spooled out of the machines. The strips were run through a waxer (which applied a thin layer of wax on—we fervently hoped—the blank side of the strip of copy) and then were pasted onto blank layout pages. Input for these cold type (as opposed to the old Linotype hot type machines) typesetters was either through a built-in keyboard, or a punched paper tape. The tape was produced by a sort of computerized terminal that offered a single line of copy viewable as the typesetter worked.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

That’s how the Ledger-Sentinel’s type was set when the paper was formed in Oswego by the merger of the old Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. We typed copy on yellow foolscap using electric typewriters, edited our copy, and then passed it on to our faithful typesetter, Dorothy Kellogg, who transferred it to yards of paper tape. The rolls of tape were taken to the print shop in Yorkville and run through the typesetters, proofed and changes carefully pasted in place using the trusty waxer again.

The next big thing was the Macintosh revolution that allowed anyone with room for a Mac and a LaserWriter to start their own paper. No more paper tape, odd third-party typesetting terminals, or phototypesetters. Instead, copy could be printed on plain paper, waxed, and pasted up. Instead of ordering sets of type from foundries, they came on floppy discs from some of the old names in typesetting and typography.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter's tool in the late 1980s.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter’s tool in the late 1980s until replaced by early, far more useful, laptop computers.

Those early Macs were expensive, though, so we compromised by equipping our reporters with the then-new TRS-80 laptops. They were crude machines, but far better than typewriters. Copy could be edited—though it was a bit of a struggle since only about four lines of type were visible at a time and no spell-check was available. Every evening, we’d connect the TRS-80s to the phone line and send our copy down to Yorkville via the machines’ built-in 300 baud modems, where it was downloaded and formatted on Macs. Then on Wednesday we’d all gather at the print shop in Yorkville to do paste-up and download all the remaining copy to the accompaniment of the low rumble of the web press on the first floor spitting out copies at a rate that would have made old J.R. Marshall green with envy.

Early Macintosh computers were a revelation; they offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

The early Macintosh was a revelation; it offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

Which is what I’m doing in that 1989 photograph. It wasn’t too long afterwards that we got Macs at the Ledger-Sentinel office so we could create an office network, edit each other’s copy, and send the results down to Yorkville on much faster modems.

By the time I retired from the news biz in 2007, we were emailing copy via the Internet; no more dial-up modems required. And nowadays, paste-up is long gone, too. Pages are laid out using QuarkXpress, and are sent through a gizmo that turns the files directly into off-set printing plates.

Newspaper offices used to be notable for their noise: the machine noise of the Linotype, then the tapping of typewriters and the low hum of photo typesetters. Now, they’re fairly quiet places with only the tapping of keys on computer keyboards audible. But while the technology has seen great changes during the past few decades, the goal of journalists is still the same: Get the news and print it. While the big media folks seem to be having some problems figuring out exactly what’s news and what facts are concerning the big issues of the day, real journalism is still being committed at the local, weekly level.

And long may it be so.


Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Uncategorized

Same old scam; brand new tech…

Matt Taibbi had another fascinating article in Rolling Stone this past month, this time concerning how the giant media conglomerate Thomson Reuters seems to have been helping some giant hedge funds and other powerful financial companies cheat by selling them economic survey data earlier than their regular customers.

According to a July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, Tomson Reuters and the University of Michigan jointly conduct the Survey of Consumers, the results of which are publicly released twice a month at 10 a.m. However, they’ve also been selling access to the survey results to subscribers that allows them to access the data five minutes early. Further, however, and this is where it gets dicey for Tomson Reuters, they’ve been further selling access to a select band of 16 heavy financial hitters that arrives two seconds earlier than it does to their other paying customers.

Now, five minutes advanced notice doesn’t sound like much, and two seconds sounds like even less. However, in this day and age of computerized stock and bond trading, getting any jump at all on the competition concerning consumer confidence could mean billions in profits.

As CNN put it:

“In the milliseconds before the survey is released to other paying clients at 9:55 a.m. ET, trading volumes can soar up to 20 times their normal levels. By 9:54:59 a.m. ET, long after computers have acted on the number, volumes have already returned to normal.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was not amused, taking the sensible, though seemingly far from universal, position that:

“The securities markets should be a level playing field for all investors and the early release of market-moving survey data undermines fair play in the markets,”

Schneiderman threatened to sue; Tomson Reuters backed off and said they’d start releasing the data to all their subscribers at the same time; but now it appears the story was even worse than originally thought.

It’s a very big deal. Time will tell, however, whether any actual legal action will take place, especially given the general immunity from investigation and prosecution the financial sector enjoys these days.

The interesting historical aspect of this story, to me at least, is that something very similar was taking place back in the early 1800s, leading the U.S. Post Office to institute Express Mail delivery in an effort to level the economic playing field. And please note, this was decades before that publicity stunt called the Pony Express was a gleam in William Russell’s eye.

The U.S. Post Office's Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

The U.S. Post Office’s Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s than the Pony Express ever did. And interestingly enough for those of us in Illinois, one of the branches of the Express Mail connected Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill. on the National Road.

Express Mail differed from regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who hurried to make the best time possible. Unlike regular mail contractors, Express Mail contractors could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Express Mail service had been sporadically and temporarily established many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders, for instance, carried messages during the colonial period. After the Revolution, most expresses were part of the nation’s military communications network.

But the need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service finally became apparent in the spring of 1825. New York cotton merchants, learning that prices on the London market had skyrocketed, bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the price news. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news, making a hefty profit by buying low from uninformed sellers and selling high on the international market.

Postmaster General John McLean, vowing such a thing would never happen again, prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” and also established an Express Mail to follow the Great Mail route from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was forced to fire his Postmaster General, William T. Barry, ostensibly for corruption, but also for mismanagement. During his four years as the first cabinet-level head of the post office department, Barry had driven the financially healthy agency into bankruptcy.

In May 1835, enter Amos Kendall—our county’s namesake—who instituted a wide range of reforms. Kendall’s reforms, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal surpluses. Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service.

Regular mail was carried along the Great Mail route by the express at three times the normal postage. Newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news as quickly as possible.

President Jackson signed the bill creating the Express Mail in July 1836, and service began that autumn. Within a few weeks, another express was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala.

Then in 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed upon Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis, following the old National Road through the Illinois state capital at Vandalia.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, and each day thereafter, express riders quickly pushed their horses from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours. And that made a huge difference in the lives and economic circumstances of those living on what was then the western frontier.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. By then, thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major road improvements, the regular mail was nearly as fast as the express. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

It never ceases to amaze me the way we keep seeing aspects of history repeating themselves. With the recent story in Rolling Stone, we see that the predilections on the part of dishonest financial manipulators to cheat remains unabated, even in this modern computer age when two seconds advanced notice are apparently as valuable as a few days used to be 188 years ago.

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Gotta give old Stub Russell credit…

So I was reading through the Kendall County Record for December 1884 (hey, you read what you like for fun, and I’ll read what I like) and came across an item in the Dec. 16 paper that is an instant classic of local history. It’s one of those things that keep getting better the more of it you read until it winds up with a bang at the end:

Sheriff Newton has a boarder he would be glad to be rid of. The neighborhood pest, Stub Russell, is now in the County jail at Yorkville, much to the disgust of everybody. He stole a satchel over at Plano and was bound over by Squire Horton to appear before the Circuit Court. How a man with both legs off at the juncture of the thighs and only one arm can steal is a mystery.

I could find nothing more about the inventive and ambitious Mr. Russell, but by golly, you’ve got to admit he didn’t let a little thing like being a triple amputee keep him from trying to live a normal life. Even if he was a thief. And besides, he had one of the great names in history. Am I right?


Filed under Kendall County, Newspapers, People in History, Uncategorized

All the news that fit…

So last weekend, Athenae over at the First Draft blog (which you need to bookmark, by the way) posted her usual weekend question thread. This time it was “What is your favorite short story?”

I pondered that for a while, mostly thinking about all the great science fiction short stories I’ve read over the years in various collections and monthly in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.

But when I really thought about it, it came to me that my favorite short story has nothing to do with SF. Rather, it’s one by Samuel Clemens writing as Mark Twain, and titled “Journalism in Tennessee.” Twain was doing gonzo journalism a century before Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and doing it just as well. And in “Journalism in Tennessee,” he captures the absurdities of the weekly newspaper biz in the 1870s, which were only a little more absurd than the business had become by the time I got involved.

While we didn’t have to deal with other publishers taking potshots at us through the window, we did have to deal with people stealing our stuff, including a nearby daily paper, as well as local radio stations who seemed to figure that reading our stories without attribution during their newscasts was just part of the game.

Weekly newspapers spread west in the wake of settlement, with the first papers in most counties opening in the county seat to take advantage of revenue from printing legal advertisements. Here in Kendall County, the first weekly paper was the Kendall County Courier, begun by Hector Seymour Humphrey.

Interestingly enough, there was no Kendall County newspaper from 1841 when the county was established until Humphrey decided head west down the Chicago to Ottawa road from Naperville in 1852 and start one in what was then the Kendall County seat.

An 1858 Washington hand printing press of the type H.S. Humphrey probably used to publish the Kendall County Chronicle. This press was bought new in 1858 and is owned by the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Tubac, Ariz. (Courtesy Tubac Presidio State Historic Park)

An 1858 Washington hand printing press of the type H.S. Humphrey probably used to publish the Kendall County Chronicle. This press was bought new in 1858 and is owned by the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Tubac, Ariz. (Courtesy Tubac Presidio State Historic Park)

Humphrey was born in Tompkins County, N.Y. in Jan. 29, 1828. Early in his life he got into the newspaper business at the Ithaca Chronicle and News where he learned the trade. He headed west to Chicago in 1848, where he worked as a journeyman printer on the old Chicago Journal. Looking for more opportunities, Humphrey headed west to Naperville. It’s possible he may have brought out the press and type sold by the Chicago Journal to Charles J. Sellon, who was eager to start a newspaper in Naperville. Sellon teamed with a consortium of Naperville residents to finance the paper and the first issue of the DuPage County Recorder came off the press on Dec. 1, 1849.

Sellon, however, was no businessman, and apparently he wasn’t much of a newspaperman either. The Recorder had been designed to be non-political. That didn’t suit Sellon a bit, so he left and started the Democratic Palindealer, plus a smaller weekly called the Daughter of Temprance. Neither proved successful, and Sellon abruptly ceased publication and left town.

According to A History of the County of DuPage, Illinois by C.W. Richmond and H.F. Vallette published in 1857, by the time he got out of the business, Sellon owned a lot of money, including a considerable sum to H.S. Humphrey, who Richmond and Vallette described as “a journeyman printer in his office.” In return for the debt, Sellon signed over a half interest in his papers to Humphrey, who was able to retrieve at least part of his cash after they were bought by Charles W. Keith and C.C. Barnes. Keith and Barnes paid off the papers’ creditors—including Humphrey—and started a new paper called the DuPage County Observer, which issued its first number in early January 1851. Keith, Barnes, and Humphrey were all on the masthead of the new paper.

Also adding to his life story, Humphrey found someone to marry in Naperville. Helen I. Fox was born near Detroit, Mich. on Feb. 14, 1833 and had come west to the Illinois frontier with her family. She and H.S. were married in Naperville on May 22, 1851.

Unfortunately, Humphrey’s new paper was not a financial success, either. On April 6, 1852, Humphrey sold his interest in the Observer to Gershom Martin, and once again headed farther west on the Chicago to Ottawa road, this time with a new wife, and ending up in Oswego, then the Kendall County seat. In that era, papers heavily relied on legal advertising so if a town in a county was going to have a paper, it was usually the county seat.

Dard Hunter sets type by hand at Mountain House Press at Chillicothe, Ohio in 1950. Hunter is retrieving a capital letter from the upper type case. Lower case letters were stored in the lower case and thus today's terms for capital and small letters. (Courtesy Mountain House Press)

Dard Hunter sets type by hand at Mountain House Press at Chillicothe, Ohio in 1950. Hunter is retrieving a capital letter from the upper type case. Lower case letters were stored in the lower case and thus today’s terms for capital and small letters. (Courtesy Mountain House Press)

Humphrey decided to name Kendall County’s first newspaper the Kendall County Chronicle. It advertised itself as neutral in politics, and was apparently just barely successful. Humphrey ran the paper himself as both editor and publisher until the fall of 1854 when he sold it to Abraham Sellers. Humphrey agreed to stay on as the editor. That arrangement lasted until the summer of 1855 when Humphrey bought the office back from Sellers. Then during the winter of 1855-56, Humphrey sold the paper to William P. Boyd.

Boyd wrote under the pen name of Niblo and made the mistake of changing the Chronicle from a neutral paper to a Democratic sheet. That didn’t go down very well in Oswego or the rest of Kendall County, which had been fairly strong Whig country before the Republican Party was established. After the Republicans organized, Kendall County, driven by its heavy population of New Englanders and New Yorkers, leaned heavily towards the new party.

The flag of the Kendall County Courier from 1855 when H.S. Humphrey was the editor and publisher.

The flag of the Kendall County Courier from 1855 when H.S. Humphrey was the editor and publisher.

As Humphrey recalled the era in a 1903 letter to Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall:

In the spring of 1856, the Republicans desiring an organ, called a meeting of the leading men of the county, decided to establish a paper, and requested me to take charge of it. Subscriptions were made for the paper, for advertising and job work, for which money was advanced for about two-thirds of the cost of material, which was purchased at once and “the Kendall County Free Press” was out soon after for the campaign of 1856.

Boyd’s Chronicle was soon out of business, his printing outfit sold to an Iowa newspaper.

Humphrey's second Oswego paper, this time a partisan Republican paper, was the Kendall County Free Press.

Humphrey’s second, and last, Oswego paper, this time a partisan Republican paper, was the Kendall County Free Press. He published it until the spring of 1864, after which he moved to the old state capital city of Vandalia.

Humphrey continued to publish the Kendall County Free Press as the Civil War broke out as Oswego’s hometown newspaper. Like their counterparts in past and future wars, soldiers serving during the war wrote home asking that their parents forward copies so they could keep abreast of what was happening on the home front. Typical was Alfred X. Murdock’s letter home to his parents on April 3, 1863:

I received your letter of the 22 today and three papers: one Free Press and two ledgers, and can assure you that I never was so glad to get hold of them – more so than I ever was before. It gives me a good deal of pleasure to read them down here – and all of the boys want to borrow them. These make 3 of them that I have got and I hope that you will keep sending them to me.

The “Ledger” Murdock referred to was probably Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, a weekly story paper popular for its exciting fiction and dashing illustrations.

Humphrey seemed to be making a go of the Free Press, which he published while also serving as Kendall County Treasurer. During that era, it was not unusual for a newspaper publisher to also serve as an elected or appointed government official, from county school superintendent to working as the local postmaster. Humphrey served as postmaster from 1857 to 1863. Although he was pressed by the local Republican establishment to run again, Humphrey had already made the decision to move his wife and young son (born in 1858) from Oswego to Vandalia, Illinois.

He would have had to move from Oswego in any case. In 1859 county voters had passed a binding referendum to move the county seat from Oswego to Yorkville, and that meant if he wanted to continue to serve as county treasurer, he’d have to move his wife and son six miles south to the new county seat.

Further, it was about that time that John Redmond Marshall, a newly released Civil War soldier and former journeyman at the Chicago Journal—Humphrey’s old paper—had announced plans to establish a new county seat paper he proposed to call the Kendall County Record.

Ready to leave Kendall County, Humphrey offered to sell Marshall his printing outfit including type and press for $2,500, a price Marshall figured was highway robbery. Instead, Marshall bought a press and set of type from Chicago Journal publisher S.P. Rounds for his new four-page sheet, which began publication on May 7, 1864. A month later, the official county records were moved from Oswego to the newly finished courthouse in Yorkville, and Oswego was county seat no more.

Hector Humphrey's tombstone in the South Hiull and Fairlawn Cemetery, Vandalia, Ill.

Hector Humphrey’s tombstone in the South Hiull and Fairlawn Cemetery, Vandalia, Ill.

By that time, Humphrey had been gone for a month or so. He moved his press and type down to Vandalia, where he established the successful Vandalia Union, the first issue coming off the press on April 16, 1864. Humphrey published the Union for more than 20 years. In 1869, President U.S. Grant appointed Humphrey postmaster at Vandalia, a job he carried on along with the Union. He also opened, in partnership with his son, Fred, a successful drug store, on which he concentrated after the sale of the Union in 1887.

H.S. Humphrey, Oswego’s pioneer newspaper man, died at Vandalia on April 18, 1914 and was buried in the South Hill and Fairlawn Cemetery in Vandalia.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History