In 1980, the Gazette launched an experiment that was meant to dramatically change the look and feel of the newspaper, while providing readers with virtually everything they had before.
The experiment lasted just three weeks, and the idea vanished without a trace. The project, described briefly in the Gazette, involved an expansion from two to four zoned editions.
The editions would all carry essentially the same news, Jack Hume said in 1989. But the display would vary dramatically from one edition to the next, playing up the Montgomery County news in the edition going to those readers, Schenectady news in the edition closer to home. Unfortunately, said Hume, the paper did not do a very good job of explaining the new format to its readers.
The Gazette has traditionally been low-key to the point of silence about its plans, echoing a comment from 1894 that it wanted to be judged by what it did rather than the promises it made.
This was a case where being low-key blew up in the paper’s face.
Readers apparently did not understand that they were getting essentially the same news regardless of what edition they received. That was particularly painful for readers in areas along the borders of the different zones.
So readers howled about the zoned editions.
Hundreds canceled their subscriptions, Hume said.
“I think it was a good concept,” Hume said later. “I think we could have stayed with it, and people would have gotten used to it. I don’t think we handled the public relations well. We didn’t explain it very well to the readers. We probably should have done an advertising campaign.”
Still, as is common with the leaders of the Gazette, Hume sought a positive side in the debacle of the zoned editions.
“It really heartening in a way, to see how strongly people felt about the paper,” he said. It’s great to look back and see how loyal readers were. … But when they thought we were cheating them; they weren’t loyal anymore.”
And reader loyalty was becoming more of an issue.
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You can find signs of continued economic health in the Gazette. In December 1985, the Gazette moved its TV supplement from the Saturday paper where it had been since its debut in 1966, to the Friday editions. The reason was the boom in advertising inserts for the Saturday paper made it impossible for the paper to produce the TV supplement for Saturday and to get in all the inserts.
On the other hand, the dramatic circulation growth of the ’60s and ’70s did not continue in the 1980s. The newspaper’s circulation peak to date came in 1986 but was only about 2,000 copies ahead of the 1970s.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the reason for that stagnation. Certainly, television has been a factor in newspapers’ struggles throughout the country, as many people see the tube not merely as their main source of news, but the only one. Schenectady itself was no longer a boom town, as it had been in its industrial heyday. The loss of competitors meant also that the Gazette’s opportunity to steal readers from another paper had also ended. And one could argue that the Gazette had planned things safe for too long. Indeed, as the ’80s began, the paper took another step away from controversy.
In 1980, the Gazette tried quietly to drop its practice of endorsing political candidates and has done so with one embarrassing exception.
In recent years the Gazette had chosen candidates, somewhat haphazardly. Members of the editorial page staff made recommendations, but the final decision rested with David Hume and John Hume Jr. in 1979, for instance, the Gazette endorsed David Roberts for mayor over Frank Duci (Duci won) and endorsed two candidates for city council, even though there were four seats to be filled.
When it came time for the 1980 presidential endorsement, there was no consensus. Jack Hume, who is unhappy with the notion of political endorsements, decided that the paper would accordingly endorse no candidate, then or in the future.
The difficulties of the zoned-edition disaster in 1980 may still have been felt in 1984 when the Gazette changed from an eight-column format to six columns. The change was mandated by a national change, in which a standard newspaper column width was adopted for advertising and other material.
Before it made the change, the Gazette told readers it “will not affect the basic appearance and content of the Gazette… Readers will notice very little difference.” The paper’s managers were so determined that readers not lose anything, they shrank the paper’s print size in order to keep the content the same in the new format (A decision that has promoted periodic complaints about the Gazette being hard to read).
Still, there was a sense at the Gazette that what worked in the past was no longer good enough.With John Hume Jr.’s retirement in 1980 and death in 1986, Jack Hume was able to assert more control, and in doing so to permit more change.
The change was most dramatic in Monday’s editions and when the Sunday Gazette arrived in 1989. But in another respect those initiatives were at the crest of a wave that the Gazette has been riding, an attempt to make not merely a different paper but a better one.
Such efforts included the addition in January 1986 of a weekly “op-ed” page, which provided a platform for other voices and opinions other than those of the Gazette’s staff. The old women’s pages finally stepped toward a more general attitude including a change to name to “life and leisure.” Investigative journalism, never a strength of the Gazette, began to appear more frequently in the 1980s, and with it came a willingness to go after institutions and individuals who had once been untouchable. Carl Strock’s general-interest column, which began in 1987, created another place where accountability came into play.
Sometimes the former beneficiaries of the Gazette’s gentleness howled. The General Electric Co. certainly did. But one could also look at the exchanges and see not a radically different Gazette so much as one that was returning to the impulses that helped create it. It might still be a far cry from the thundering front-page editorials of its youth, but it is a paper where iconoclasm is once again acceptable.