On the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa is a small copse of trees at the very edge of what were the Northern lines on that bloody day in July, 1863 when the tide of the war turned forever.
Confederate soldiers marched nearly a mile across open fields toward the Northern troops through withering fire, cannon shot and the screams of dying companions. The local museum displays two bullets which met in mid-air and are forever joined. A handful of Confederates actually breeched the stone wall of the northern position and advanced to this small grove of trees before their lives were extinguished. That copse of trees is regarded as the high point of the Confederacy; the furthest they ever advanced on Northern soil.
Early 1974 was the high point of the Courier News. The initial phases of the expansion succeeded so well that then-publisher D. Ray Wilson signed 10-year building leases for distribution centers as far away as Roselle.
The Courier News put out four editions daily; North (McHenry County), Near north (Dundees), Tri-Village (Hanover/Streamwood/Bartlett) and Home (Elgin, South Elgin and St. Charles). Circulation in the Tri-Villages was 12,000. Penetration in the Dundees was 80 percent, meaning 80 percent of all the households in the Dundees took the Courier News. In Elgin, it was even higher.
Gromer’s supermarkets spent $100,000 annually in advertising, a princely sum nearly 40 years ago. Others in the $100,000 club at one time or another were The First National Bank, Home Federal Savings, Fretter, Silo, Highland (all appliance stores), several other banks, Jos. Spiess Co., and Ackmann’s Department Store. Within a decade, most were out of business and by the mid-1990s, all of them were, and with it, much of the Courier’s revenue.
The recession of 1973-74 was crushing. Business collapsed. Without the steady flow of advertising dollars, the business model that supported the expansion failed. By that time, managing editor L.S. Clemens, one of the best journalists I have ever known, was kicked upstairs to make way for younger, more personally ambitious and irredeemably incompetent editors. Their sole appeal was that they never said ‘No’ to anything Wilson wanted, no matter how exuberantly self-serving.
One day in mid-1974 as I sat at my desk in the back of the newsroom, then-Managing Editor Dave Stamps emerged from his office and summoned sportswriter Jay Loprest who disappeared into the office to reappear with a handful of paperwork and a face drained of blood. It took two or three of those before we realized lay-offs had begun. We concentrated on our sweaty palms as Stamps emerged to call name after name, the doomed trudging in front of everyone to the little cubicle to get the axe. When Stamps called, “Nick Petersen,” Mary Buchwald screamed, “Oh NO! Not Nick!” and began weeping. That was not a day one forgets easily. Of all the people let go on that day, only Nick was re-hired and as of this writing, he is still employed, a testament to his competence.
Nick was hired the year after me and since people were terminated by seniority, there was only one other person between me and the door when the bloodletting ceased; Jim Kutina, who went on to a very distinguished career as a photographer. We survived, although as in nuclear war, sometimes the survivors envy the dead.
Circulation fell back to about 33,000, a respectable number but from that moment on, we were on the defensive, trying to hold on to what we had rather than grow. “You can’t cut your way to prosperity,” the saying goes, something that did not resonate with Copley Press and Courier News management. Relentless cuts continue to this day.
The bureau in St. Charles _ where we once sold thousands of newspapers _ was closed and all expansion terminated. Stagnation set in amid a series of missteps and embarrassing episodes.
Publisher D. Ray Wilson’s self-aggrandizing knew no limits. He ordered his secretary to organize a testimonial dinner on his behalf. He contributed enough money to Judson College (now Judson University) to be conferred with an honorary doctoral degree. He used the reporting staff to research and write a term paper for one of his college courses. He openly supported an Elgin City Council candidate, used Courier News photographers to shoot campaign photos, organized his brochures, ordered a flattering profile, and demanded we endorse him, all to our red-faced shame. The candidate finished last in a field of six.
A new scanner system which was to read typewritten words and translate them to typesettable text was an unmitigated disaster. Any stray mark, smudge, unusual character or poltergeist caused massive gibberish to replace carefully crafted words. Sport editor Bill Kindt’s by-line alternated between Bill Lindt and Kill Kindt.
Typos were amazing. One high school female athlete announced that she looked forward to “laying” at the University of Wisconsin. We once advertised a car with “power doors, power windows and an electric cock.” I’m told there was a line at the showroom.
The follies continued with inconceivable regularity. Circulation found fertile ground for new subscribers in places editorial didn’t cover. The poor people of Cary were promised on multiple occasions that we would begin covering their community when no such plans were even discussed.
To make up for lost revenue, advertising launched a ruse called the “Progress Edition” in which businesses would buy an ad and receive a free story of such pap and fluff as to send one into a diabetic coma. It made $130,000 in the 1970s. When it was mercifully euthanized just a few years ago, it netted $5,000.
The years ground on in dull sameness. Stamps moved on to torment other departments and eventually, Aurora. Another managing editor, my third, replaced him with no more vision, energy or news sense than his predecessor.
The recession of 1981-82 was particularly brutal. Business ground to a halt amid 20 percent inflation and 20 percent interest rates. City efforts to attract a fourth major retailer to the downtown mall became a desperate attempt to hang on to what was left. The downtown pedestrian mall, a disaster from the beginning, became an embarrassment. I wrote in a column that one could shoot a cannon off in downtown Elgin and never harm a soul. In desperation, the Elgin City Council briefly considered a consultant’s suggestion to enclose the mall with a roof.
The once-vibrant, robust central business district was abandoned. With it went a lot of what remained of the dwindling base of advertisers, never to be reclaimed.
The Courier News pulled in a little tighter. The lack of geographical diversification much beyond the Elgin area meant the Courier’s fate and the city’s was inextricably linked. No effort was made to anticipate future growth. No thought was given to defending a dynamic territory. All decisions were reactions to current events.
More lay-offs resulted, reducing staffing to the levels of 1972. The loss of an industrial/commercial/retail base meant lean times for the Courier News.
But it was about to get leaner.(To be continued).