Northern New York Newspapers
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Tue., Sep. 1
Serving the community of Ogdensburg, New York
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Reflections Of A North Country Girl At Heart


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

The Newspaper

It was neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post.

There was not an O’Burg-gate scandal (not that we could print anyway.)

There was no Woodward or Bernstein—but we did have some characters.

And, it was definitely the very beginning of the end of an era in the newspaper business.

I worked as a summer hire for the Ogdensburg Journal and Advance-News from 1965-1968 together with Tom Brown, a Heuvelton resident. Tom was studying to be an MD, a goal I think he accomplished—but not with the wages we earned during those summers. We were both hired at minimum wage of $1.25/hr.—but remember, Cheerios were only 28 cents a package. One of our jobs was to arrive at the newsroom early, and retrieve the AP and UPI galleys that were piled like Christmas ribbon candy under the teletype machines, with stories that those news agencies generated over night. We would then take the yards of 8” paper, separate them into individual stories, and hang them on large hooks by category—national news, international news, features, arts, sports. The editor and sometimes others (including Tom and me) would choose what would appear in the paper—and we often picked articles that reflected our own interests or positions. It’s a myth that what you read in the newspaper is entirely objective.

It was the last hurrah for “hot type.” The news room led directly into the composing room, a dark, hot and malodorous space, ruled with an iron hand by Mr. Mitchell. Short, stout, white-haired and in his ever present uniform of white tee shirt, visor and full apron, he fit the accepted stereotype, often outwardly unhappy that these college kids were invading his world. At the far end of the composing room were the linotype machines—huge monoliths of complex machinery, with bars of lead hanging on one side, melting in a pot and feeding into the machine as more grumpy old men typed away. The stories for that evening or Sunday were transformed into columns of backward and upside down “slugs” which were then set into newspaper page size frames, awaiting the proof reader.

We were always proactive. We often made up full pages of news we anticipated might happen—the page announcing President Eisenhower’s death was stored and updated for years—until he actually did die.

The badge of honor for the composers was perpetual black fingernails, the result of printer’s ink. There’s an old saying in the newspaper business that “printer’s ink makes you drink” and there were more than a few examples of that adage around our composing tables.

But the real characters were in the newsroom and on the second floor. The newsroom was one large open space with utilitarian desks, dominated by large Royal manual typewriters. Everything had to be typed, and bells rang as you approached the margins of the paper, reminding you to hit the return bar—a motion I carried well into computer days when return buttons were no longer needed. There were no spell checks or font choices. Corrections were made with a thick white substance that had to dry before changes could be made. There were no copy machines. Duplicates were made by using carbon paper and banging the keys to make deeper impressions.

The real star of the newsroom was Meryl Norton Doren, the self-styled Hedda Hopper of the social page. Meryl wore a black sleeveless sheath dress—she was of an age that would have benefited from a cardigan—wide-brimmed straw hat, appropriately decorated with fashionable ribbon, high heels which dangled over her crossed legs, glasses suspended from a chain around her neck and an ever-present cigarette dangling from the right side of her mouth. She loved the college students as she regarded herself intellectually superior to the rest of the newsroom cast. She would invite us to her apartment near St. John’s Church, open the wine bottle, and regale us with stories of world travels, failed marriages, and her genius son who mysteriously lived in Australia. One of the better stories she told us involved her flinging her wedding ring out the window of a speeding car.

Meryl wrote the “soft stories”—weddings, obituaries, fashion—she was in charge of what was then openly called the women’s page (try finding one of those today!) It is Journal legend that she was the only one to ever actually run into the press room and yell, “Stop the Presses!” on the afternoon that John F. Kennedy was killed. (Walter Cronkite announced on CBS—a classic news clip— that the President had died at approximately 1:00 pm in the afternoon, and, by that time, the evening paper was already in production.)

The characters on the second floor were the photographers, whose lab was reached by very narrow, non-ADA compliant stairs. Photographs in those days were taken with a camera that resembled those contraptions seen in old-time movies being carried by men with a card marked “Press” stuck in their hat bands. The cameras were heavy and bulky, used flash bulbs that had to be changed with every photo (carefully—as the coating melted when fired), and film in a slide holder (4” X 5”) that you had to change with every exposure. The negatives were then developed in tubs of chemicals (probably highly toxic which might have explained the behavior of the two lab technicians) and hung on a clothes line to dry. Very high tech!

I never saw the publisher, Franklin R. Little, in the newsroom or composing room. He didn’t need to be—he had Chuck Kelly. Bold, brash and ignoring residents’ early snide comments, like—“oh there he is again, pushing his way through the crowd with that camera,” Chuck seemed to have a vision of exactly what a small town newspaper should be. It would not be hyperbole to say that Chuck would go to the opening of an envelope. It wasn’t long before we all felt that there was no “event” if Chuck didn’t show up. One of Chuck’s real strengths was that he was not a micromanager. He encouraged us to take on projects that would be the envy of any seasoned reporter. We didn’t just receive lessons in journalism but, more importantly, lessons in life that, in my case, guided my entire career in development and public relations. He was a mentor, and then friend, who was always interested in what was happening in our lives—in my case for over five decades.

There was one thing that always puzzled me, however. Franklin Little always struck me as a conservative Republican—like most of the town fathers in the early days. How did a bleeding-heart liberal, openly a Democratic die-hard, (evident over and over again in Kelly Comments), manage to survive? The only answer? The newspaper was his life.

I had thought for a time that I might be a journalist. I even had the privilege of editing my college newspaper. After graduate school, I applied to the Providence Journal. I had a great portfolio and good writing skills. However, I couldn’t name all of the newly elected federal and state officials—they didn’t hire me. Career choice number six—diverted.

By the way—the last time I saw a linotype machine was on a tour of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

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