On Oct. 15, 1867, Wilmington residents were greeted by the first edition of the Morning Star. Today, StarNews Media publishes a daily newspaper and related Web sites, including StarNewsOnline.com and MyReporter.com. Over the years, the newspaper has seen a lot of changes — from hand-operated presses and fountain pens to typewriters and teletypes to the digital age.
The StarNews is owned by the Halifax Media Group, based in Daytona Beach, Fla. Halifax owned more than a dozen newspapers that range in size from 10,000 to more than 100,000 daily circulation and are located in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and California.
On Oct. 15, 1867, Wilmington had a new newspaper, or a recycling of an old one. William H. Bernard, a Virginia native and Civil War veteran – known universally as “Major” after his Confederate army rank – had launched The Evening Star a few weeks earlier, on Sept. 23.
As an afternoon paper, though, the Star ran into problems: “(I)t was impossible to have the paper delivered to our numerous city subscribers before a very late hour of the day,” an editorial explained, “and the few hours of the morning that could be devoted to the compilation of news were too limited to enable us to get up such a paper as we wish to publish.”
Accordingly, on Oct. 15, the Star was re-launched as The Morning Star. “THE EVENING STAR goes down (but not in defeat) and THE MORNING STAR rises in its place,” an editorial noted.
That Star would eventually grow into today’s Star-News, although the resemblance might be hard to spot. The Star-News, and newspapers in general, would pass through a technological revolution in the next 140 years and see other radical changes as well. The early Star had no photos and no illustrations of any kind, except for little engravings of trains on the railroad ads. In the early issues, advertisements took up the first two or three columns of the front page.
As late as the 1880s, it was just four pages long (although the pages were rather larger than modern papers’). And little wonder: In those years, Bernard was putting the paper out himself, with just one associate editor and one reporter.
Those three weren’t the whole staff, though. In terms of print technology, the Star of the mid-1800s was not all that far removed from the days of Benjamin Franklin. Dozens of compositors set the type for each page, often letter by letter, in enormous frames, which were then hung on presses turned by hand. Small boys not only delivered the copies but folded them by hand as the newsprint came off the press. The first experiment with a self-service newsstand wouldn’t come in Wilmington until 1939.
In 1867, the Star’s price was 3 cents per issue, or $1.25 for a three-month subscription. Ads were 75 cents per day for one “square,” discounted to $2 for a week.
Apparently, the practice of charging for obituary notices started early; in 1869, the Star announced, “We are compelled to remind our friends that we cannot publish gratis [free] obituaries and tributes of respect; and it scarcely appears just that we should pay for articles of friendship written by strangers as tributes to their departed friends … (W)e deem it a fair discharge of our duty to publish such articles at half-rates, paid in advance.”
It was a tough market, for what was still a small town. Lots of daily and weekly papers jostled for readers’ attentions; in the days before radio and television, they were the only game in town. There was The Messenger, the paper Bernard had worked for when he first moved from Fayetteville to Wilmington after the Civil War. There was the weekly Journal, a holdout from before the Civil War, and an upstart founded in 1875, the Daily Review. Three papers targeted a “colored” readership: The Cape Fear Advocate, The Bulletin and The Afro-American Presbyterian.
Neutrality and balance were not yet considered virtues in journalism, and papers openly backed one political party or another. In Wilmington, first the Union Herald and later the weekly Post supported local Republicans. The Star was unabashedly Democrat. Bernard, in his spare time, served for years on the Democratic Party’s state and New Hanover County executive committees, and he managed the congressional campaigns of conservative Democrat Alfred M. Waddell. (Such active politicking by newsroom employees is banned today by the ethics policies of the Star-News and its parent company.)
Other papers such as the Dispatch, the Independent, the Index (“devoted to the interests of the Knights of Labor,” an early labor union), The Democrat and The Palladian (launched in 1895 in support of “16-to-1 free coinage of silver”) would enter the market, publish for a few years or sometimes a couple of decades, then fold. Only the Star held on. As early as 1876, it boasted that it was the oldest daily in continuous publication and, for a while, it claimed the highest circulation, back when Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest city.
The “daily” claim needs some clarification, though. Until 1913, the Star did not print a Monday issue so Bernard and his workers could have Sundays off.
Well into the 1920s, the Star suspended publication on Dec. 26 to give the staff a Christmas holiday.
A big factor in the Star’s survival had to be the personality and character of “Major” Bernard, who edited and published the paper for more than 40 years. “He had the courage of his convictions” is the epitaph on his tombstone in Oakdale Cemetery, where he was buried in 1918.
Unfortunately, those convictions included a belief in white supremacy and a tolerance for political violence. Bernard’s paper spoke well of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period and joined in the agitation that led to the Wilmington “race riot” of Nov. 11, 1898, and to the deposing of the city’s elected government by a slate headed by the former congressman Alfred Waddell.
On the other hand, the early Star generally supported education, an upgraded water and sewer system and other improvements for the city.
In 1909, Bernard retired, and in a complicated arrangement, the Star was taken over by a corporation of local businessmen and investors, including W.H. Sprunt, James Sprunt, Walker Taylor, J.O. Carr, Capt. John W. Harper, James H. Chadbourn and M.J. Corbett. The paper changed hands a few more times until 1927, when it was bought by the Page Estate, a family firm that owned papers in Columbus, Ga., and Bradenton, Fla. Rinaldo B. Page, a former manager of the Palm Beach Post and Sarasota Times, took over as publisher, a post he would hold until 1955.
Later in 1927, a Star editorial looked back on the progress the paper had made in the past 60 years. Gone were most of the hand compositors: “machines now perform that task faster and more efficiently with not one-third the personnel. Presses are no longer turned by hand.”
These machines were the Linotypes, the mechanical typesetters perfected by German-American inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler in the 1880s. Operators sat at typewriter-like keyboards and typed out textblocks – the lines of type – which were then cast from molten lead into molds.
At least a few compositors, however, remained behind until the 1960s. Headlines in 48-point type or larger still had to be built by hand, letter by letter, lined up on a “stick,” said Jimmy Teachey, a compositor who joined the staff in 1960. The compositors also had to handle much of the spacing (or “leading”) by inserting lead space-slugs. Photos and drawings were reproduced with lead plates. ”It was just like building something out of lead,” Teachey said.
That 1927 anniversary editorial noted other stylistic changes , too: “The ‘We’ and ‘Our’ of the news columns of 1867 is now confined entirely to the editorial page, and in place of the long articles tinctured with the personality of the writer, there has come into existence a staccato style, stripped of personality and presenting a straight array of facts without effort to color or influence.”
In 1929, the Page family acquired Wilmington’s afternoon paper, The News, which had been launched by the Star in 1923 but was later sold to a rival paper, The Dispatch. A joint edition, the Star-News, came out on Sundays.
For much of its run, The News functioned as a sort of afternoon edition of The Star, slightly updating the wire service stories. David Brinkley recalled that The News actually outsold its morning counterpart for years, but with the advent of TV’s evening news in the 1960s, News circulation withered, and the paper was finally discontinued in 1975.
Both papers remained small operations. In the mid-1930s, when Brinkley first worked there, the combined newsroom staff had just three reporters and one photographer. High school students, such as Brinkley or a New Hanover High School baseball star named Bill McIlwain, filled in some slots as part-timers, especially during World War II.
The combined operation grew enough, however, that in 1935, the Star-News moved into the Murchison Building at Front and Chestnut streets.
Change came slowly, in technology and otherwise, during the next few years. Publisher Rinaldo Burrus Page would earn notoriety in the 1950s for ordering that one face be expunged from a front-page photo of Korean War Medal of Honor veterans; the soldier in question happened to be African-American.
Revolution would slip in quietly in 1968 and 1969, though, as the Star-News began to make the switch to “cold” type – to offset printing, using aluminum plates that indirectly transferred ink to the paper, rather than striking, it molded lead type.
The change was completed in 1970, when the Star-News moved from downtown to its current home on South 17th Street. In place of the Linotype, photo typesetters ran off column after column of print on photo paper, Teachey explained. Compositors now cut the type columns and paper photos, waxed their backs, and “pasted up” the results on a full-scale model of the page. (The ads would be prepared by a separate day-shift crew.) This model would be photographed by a special camera, which transferred the image onto an aluminum plate.
This new system offered many advantages; for one thing, the paper could now print in color on a regular basis. A downside was that editing suffered, said former editor Charles M. Anderson, who joined the staff in 1976, a year after The New York Times Co. bought the Morning Star and Sunday Star-News from the Pages. For one thing, the newsroom had only two video-display terminals (VDTs) for editing stories that fed into the typesetter.
Anderson quickly got some more VDTs. The next step was an early ATEX computer system, installed in 1983. For the first time, reporters typed their stories directly into a terminal, rather than on a typewriter.
A new computer system, with real desktops at every work station, arrived in 1991 and 1992. Now, whole pages could be laid out on the computer screen, and “paste-up” became a thing of the past. Dozens of employees had to retrain themselves for new jobs. A quieter milestone passed in 1995, when Managing Editor John H. Meyer launched the Star-News’ first website, which has morphed into today’s StarNewsOnline.com.
Social norms sometimes took longer to update than technology. The newsroom quietly desegregated in the early 1970s and in 1973 – in a story headlined “Women’s Lib old news at Star-News” – reporter Wiley McKellar noted that one-third of the newspaper’s 151 employees were women. In that same decade, editorial page editor Lyndal Warren, copy desk chief Vicki Clemmer and city editor Susan Kille would break the paper’s glass ceiling. Robyn Tomlin became the newspapers first female executive editor in 2008. In January 2012, Halifax Media Group purchases all of the New York Times Co.’s Regional Media Group, which included the StarNews and 15 other publications.
Based in Daytona Beach, Fla., Halifax paid The New York Times Co. $143 million for the papers in Florida, elsewhere in the South and in California.