Alton Telegraph newsroom evokes fond memories

Slambrouck - Alton Daily Telegraph copyEditor’s note: This is a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

I fell in love with the Alton Telegraph newsroom. Who wouldn’t, with its dangling cables, stacks of yellowing newsprint, reference books – that’s right, BOOKS – on cabinets with wheels and reporters’ desks adorned with the bric-a-brac from years of school-board meetings, election nights and city council debates?

Founded in 1836, the Telegraph would watch journalistic history come to this Mississippi River town. Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy moved his newspaper from St. Louis to Alton, where he expected less opposition to his views. Instead, he and his Alton Observer became targets and he was slain by a mob of anti-abolitionists.

Today’s Telegraph editor, Dan Brannan, seated at his desk, let me wander for an hour to take these photographs. I couldn’t help but feel the Telegraph’s struggle to survive. Now owned by Civitas, its news staff has dwindled to a handful and its print circulation has declined.

Whatever the future holds, newsrooms like this have an ambience not found in the more sanitized digital-news offices of today. Their struggles to survive make their gun-metal gray furniture and abandoned Styrofoam coffee cups all the more appealing – at least to anyone who once sat at desks like these, wheeled backward on squeaky chairs and fiddled with a tangled phone chord while scribbling notes for the next day’s story.

  • Walt Sharp

    I spent 20 years working in this newsroom and it has been nearly that long since I left. Leaving was the best decision I ever made, but I still miss it and think about it each and every day.

    When I started in 1976, The Telegraph was a family-owned, Monday-through-Saturday, evening newspaper. It had a feisty personality and a scrappy approach to newsgathering and was a force in the community. I had the great opportunity of working in just about every job from reporter to managing editor during my tenure and the challenges of working on big projects such as the conversion to a morning publication and the creation of a Sunday paper.

    The newsroom was a magical place with clattering Selectric typewriters; an old AP teletype that turned your hands inky if you looked at it; reams of copy paper sliced from leftover newsprint; paste pots for real honest-to-goodness cutting and pasting; a couple of hulking, primitive CRT portending the future to come; and dozens of newspeople scurrying about. Hard to imagine today, but at the time, we even smoked at our desks, so there was often a haze of blue smoke hovering in the air.

    Over the years I saw the paper wounded by a politically driven libel suit, sold to a chain and then passed along through a series of new absentee owners whose cookie-cutter approach to journalism pretty much destroyed the paper’s soul. And I also had the privilege of working with some pretty fine journalists and good human beings.

    Eventually, the time came when it was right for me to move on into a second career in public relations.

    In the nearly 20 years since I left The Telegraph, I have watched the paper from a distance with a mixture of fondness and sadness. Increasingly, it seemed, an editorial policy of benign neglect,
    convenience, and lowest common denominators led to the dulling of the paper’s sharp edge and the erosion of its foundation as the bellwether of the community.

    The sale of the paper to Civitas Media seemed to cement the decline. And, frankly, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Civitas is part of a portfolio of cash cows for Versa Capital Management – a portfolio that includes a random hodgepodge of businesses ranging from a chain of steakhouses to locker storage systems to parking lots to Polartec fabrics. And, oh yes, community ewspapers. Not unexpectedly, their first priority is profit, not the First Amendment.

    In the last year or so, the Civitas decline seemed to have accelerated, if that’s possible. The pressroom and composing rooms were closed, putting a lot of people out of work. Journalists were bought out, laid off or just drifted away. Advertising and business support staff were cut to the bone. Composition of the paper was outsourced to a remote location where design seems to be by template and clumsy editing is employed to make the copy fit. The printing was outsourced to a town an hour and a half away, straining news deadlines and stressing home delivery on a good day and sabotaging it totally in the event of hazardous winter road conditions. There were days this past winter when the paper couldn’t even be delivered and subscribers were invited to read it online. Reader discontent and defection became rampant and pervasive.

    Meanwhile, the remaining loyal employees still seemed to be trying their best.

    Now, today, Civitas — stinging from community derision, declining advertising and circulation, and a challenge from a local weekly shopper that is trying to restyle itself as a serious newspaper — has actually begun investing in the paper with some added new staff.

    Whether it’s too little, too late remains to be seen. I hope it is neither. The Telegraph is simply too important a resource for the Alton community to lose.

    Somewhere in that newsroom — perhaps in the back of one of the sticking drawers in an old,
    stained desk — is a little piece of my heart.

    I, for one, will be cheering for Civitas’ success in Alton and for the speedy renewal of The
    Telegraph. I do it for the sake of the community, for the sake of many treasured colleagues, and for the sake of that lingering bit of my heart that I’ve never been able to lure out of the place.

  • Fred

    I think this article needs some serious updating…and fact-checking.

  • georgia mills

    They most certainly don’t have the feelings in mind of the forever faithful employees that had dedicated their lives and careers, to this publication owners. Those dedicated employees who planned on a lifetime career and retirement from the Telegraph, have had their plans and futures shattered at the hands of Civatas Media. FOR NO REASON!

  • Scott Dixon

    Sad to see a formerly well-run newspaper with such a storied history go straight down the tubes, which has become quite apparent since Civitas purchased it. Every single reporter whose name I remember is gone, as is their editor and their former publisher. They laid off almost their entire staff and now most news is provided by people sending in stories. Even editor Dan Brannan, featured in this story, is now gone. The drop in the quality of news provided by The Telegraph was so obvious, it prompted a local competitor, Today’s Advantage, formerly most a free advertisement circular, to recently establish its own news department and separate subscription newspaper, called Advantage News, and that paper has hired most of those let go by The Telegraph. Thanks to changes by its new owners, for the first time in my life, I’d say The Telegraph’s almost 200 years are about to come to the end.