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The Gazette's origins: A time for innovation (1990s)

125 Years

The Gazette's origins: A time for innovation (1990s)

Gazette moves to new building, buys new press, changes name and format, launches Sunday edition, adds color photographs
The Gazette's origins: A time for innovation (1990s)
The Daily Gazette in Schenectady.
Photographer: Marc SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

When The Daily Gazette moved its offices to Maxon Road Extension from State Street four years ago, the old furniture and desks stayed behind.

But the tarnished brass letters that used to spell “Schenectady Gazette” above the old downtown building’s entrance moved to the new office.

These days, the letters, hanging in the hallway, look different: polished, colorful, cleaner. Just like the newspaper.

Over the last five years, the Gazette moved to a new building, bought a new press, changed its name and format, launched a Sunday edition and added color photographs.

At the same time, the newspaper grappled with a national economic recession that cut into advertising revenue and prompted the first layoffs in recent memory. In the wake of the Sunday edition, the newspaper faced its largest drop ever in daily circulation.

And last year (1993), the newspaper underwent a change in leadership when its sixth president, David C. Hume, died after a career that spanned nearly five decades as he worked his way up the ranks.

More from 125 Years of Gazette special anniversary edition:

The newspaper’s transformation over the last five years has done more to shape the future of The Gazette than any other period in its 100-year history.

But newspapers would rather report change than make it. And readers seem to want their papers to keep the same look, even though headlines and stories change daily. So many of the changes have not been easy for either the newspaper or its longtime readers.

Of all the transformations in the last five years, the addition of a Sunday paper was the most dramatic and controversial. The Sunday paper offers an in-depth look at issues facing the region while tackling breaking news that used to wait until Monday.

Without the Sunday paper, the Gazette wouldn’t have delivered news of the Blizzard of ’93 as the snow continued to fall. Or the historic end on Dec. 21, 1991 of the former Soviet Union.

Besides expanding coverage, the Sunday paper has enriched it, said John E.N. Hume III, the Gazette’s editor and publisher.

“Readers are now getting stories that take more thinking and research to write,” he said. “One-liners are great but now there’s a place for shaggy dog stories. When you need a lot of space, you’ve got to have a Sunday paper.”

But the Sunday paper, and all the earlier changes it reflected, alienated some readers while attracting others.

“I can see why people got a little annoyed with us,” said Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin, who joined the paper in 1981. “You could pick up the paper back in 1945 when you were home from the war, in 1952 when you were married, in 1960 when your kids were in school, it was still the same.

“It’s like going back to high school and talking to a buddy and he hasn’t changed anything. There is sort of a certain comfort to that I think.”

SWEEPING CHANGES

The launch of the Sunday edition on Sept. 9, 1990, did more to shake up the newspaper than anyone had expected, despite the paper’s gradual transformation in the months before.

Earlier in 1990, the Gazette left its cramped State Street offices in downtown Schenectady and consolidated its operations, adding a new press at a new $15 million complex on Maxon Road Extension.

By then, the newspaper had changed its look, using a larger type size and dropping the column rules that had separated stories and defined the newspaper’s layout since its start in 1894.

When the paper published on Dec. 30, 1989, it did so under its original name, The Daily Gazette, dropping Schenectady from the masthead to reflect a commitment to regional coverage that began in 1948.

The name change alone was a blow to a community that was undergoing its own transition at the time. By the late 1980s, downtown Schenectady storefronts had emptied in the face of competition from suburban malls and a shrinking work force at General Electric Co.

“From someone who was mayor at the time, I found it a little bit of a loss of identity,” said former city Mayor Karen B. Johnson, now the director of development at Proctor’s Theatre.

Even before the new Sunday edition hit the stands, the newspaper lost hundreds of subscribers, who canceled rather than agree to buy the paper seven days a week.

One or two called the state attorney general’s office wonder if the Gazette’s policy of requiring home subscribers to buy the Sunday paper was legal.

“We gave the Sunday paper away for three weeks so people could take a look at it,” said Hume, who assumed the paper’s presidency after the death of his uncle, David C. Hume, in July 1993. “Many of the cancellations came before anyone had seen the paper.”

After the launch of the Sunday paper, the newspaper’s circulation dropped from 70,206 daily subscribers in 1989 to 60,591 as of the newspaper’s last official audit in 1993.

James A. Wilson, a Gazette reader since 1935, wasn’t among the subscribers who dropped the newspaper after the Sunday edition made its debut. But he still has mixed feelings about the newspaper that arrives each morning at his Park Place home.

He acknowledges that the newspaper’s new layout and design make the Gazette easier to read.

“The Gazette can’t sit there like a bump on a log, even though it’s the only newspaper in town, said Wilson, a frequent contributor to the paper’s editorial page. “I’m a practical person, I understand changes have to be made.”

And for an industry in transition, the Sunday newspaper is the key to survival, Hume said.

According to the Newspaper Association of America, the number of Sunday newspapers across the country is growing while daily newspapers are on the decline.

For teen readers, like 17-year-old Silas Alben of Niskayuna, it’s a matter of convenience.

“Sunday is the day when I have the most time to read the newspaper,” said Alben, a co-editor of the Niskayuna High School newspaper, The Warrior.

In 1980, there were 737 Sunday newspapers compared to 889 in 1993, the Newspaper Association reported. During that time the number of daily newspapers dropped from 1,745 to 1,556.

“When you look at everything, if we hadn’t done what we did we would have gone out of business,” Hume said.

“The money in the newspaper business today is in the Sunday papers. The readership is drifting toward Sunday papers,” he said. “Keeping daily papers alive and vibrant is an enormous challenge.

NEW LOOK, SAME MISSION

That’s one challenge that veteran Gazette reporter Peg Churchill Wright has faced every day for the last 37 years. 
And, from her perspective, the Gazette has never done better, even though she still occasionally hears complaints about the paper’s new appearance.

“There were so many changes, I think people were traumatized by them,” she said. “Bu there is no question about it. The product we’re putting out today is really a good newspaper.”

And producing a quality newspaper still means finding the stories that are relevant to people’s lives, she said.

No matter what the newspaper looks like, people seem to prefer reading about their communities, with their successes and problems.

If a story isn’t about Niskayuna or the General Electric Co., Kenneth C. Wallender acknowledges he doesn’t spend as much time reading it.

Wallender, 82, has been reading the newspaper since moving to Niskayuna in 1948. “I’m interested in what goes on locally,” he said.

In 1969, he started clipping articles he thought important to share with GE colleagues and town officials.

Today, Wallender, a retired GE Employee Relations manager, still spends several hours each morning reading the paper for stories to save.

“I’ve been doing it because I think people ought to know what’s in the paper,” he said. “I try to share information that’s useful to government.”

Despite the transformation, Hume said the Gazette’s underlying mission, to inform readers like Wallender about their communities, has remained the same.

“We have always been, in my experience here since 1966, a regional paper,” Hume said. “I think we’re doing it infinitely more professionally now than when I started editing copy in 1968 or 1969, when we used to have people who wrote — and were paid — by the inch.”

Without the changes, especially the move from State Street, he said the Gazette could not survive in one of the most competitive markets in the nation, where six daily newspapers vie for readers and ads. 

“We didn’t have any choice,” Hume said. “We didn’t have enough land to expand on. We had nowhere to go with the pressroom,” he said.

“Without a new press, we simply couldn’t have published a Sunday paper and we couldn’t have stayed competitive. It wasn’t like we made a decision to move and build a new plant and act like we’re big-time guys.”

It was a question of, “is it too late to salvage the business. The answer was we needed a Sunday paper,” he said.

KEEPING UP THE PACE IN A COMPETITIVE MARKET

The Gazette, like the communities it covers, is still in transition. The old State Street office building which was donated to the county earlier this year (1994), sits empty like many of the storefonts and offices in downtown Schenectady.

Besides a changing economy, newspapers across the country face the challenge of competing for readers as people increasingly turn to other media for their news.

“Before it was just us and radio and TV,” Wilkin said. “Now it’s us and radio and TV, TV and more TV because you can get all the news you want on all these cable channels.

“I think the newspaper really has to inform and entertain a little bit more now than it used to.”

For Wilkin and other reporters, that means continuing to write stories that are relevant to people’s lives, whether they are about volunteer senior citizens or the latest controversy in Schenectady City Hall.

From the business perspective, that means making the paper more efficient, Hume said.

“I would like to see us running so efficiently that we can do a better job doing what we’re doing,” he said. “The faster and the cleaner you can put out the same stuff, the more time you have to read it to make sure there aren’t any errors — from typos or spellings to somebody’s name being incorrect in any story.”

More from 125 Years of Gazette special anniversary edition:

The newspaper is already moving toward pagination, a relatively new tool in the industry that allows editors to design and lay out pages from their computers.

Another technological change could include and expanded press that would allow the Gazette to run more color ads, more color photographs and even more color comics on days other than Sunday.

“It’s something we’ve thought about and talked about for a number of years,” Hume said.

One change Hume isn’t planning in the near future in is a change in career or in the newspaper’s ownership.

The Gazette is one of only 330 independent newspapers left in the country and Hume said he doesn’t want to sell the business.

“I think that the rest of the Gazette Co. board of directors is pretty well agreed on that,” he said.

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