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When Ink Ruled

Before the Internet, newspapers dominated the public discourse: A conversation with longtime T-D reporter and editor, Earle Dunford.


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While the economic outlook for The Richmond Times-Dispatch might give some cause for concern, the publication is still rich in history. And it was once a giant in state, to some extent national, journalism.
Earle Dunford spent 36 years working at the Times-Dispatch, the majority of them as city editor, and he eventually wrote a history of the publication, “Richmond Times-Dispatch: The Story of a Newspaper,” in 1995. Dunford, who also taught journalism courses at the University of Richmond from 1969 to 1996, says the paper lost its soul by abandoning its roots.

Style: How long were you at the Times-Dispatch?

Earle Dunford: I was at the T-D from 1952 to 1988, so 36 years -- half the time as a reporter, and half the time as an editor, I was city editor for the last 20 years. So I was a police reporter, courts reporter, county reporter, covered business, labor -- little bit of everything. So then I got to be assistant city editor, city editor, now they have a metro editor, it's essentially the same thing.

What were the best years of the Times-Dispatch?

I'd like to think that the '70s and '80s were, because that's when we branched out. We established bureaus around the state. We had, in Washington, two full-time reporters. Then the Media General, the parent firm, had a bureau there. We were more concerned about spending money than saving it. … The news department convinced management that they should be spending more money covering more things. We covered the national political conventions, we covered two Olympics. … When Khrushchev came over here in the '50s and toured the United States, Charlie McDowell, one of our reporter-columnists, made the tour with him around the entire United States. … We covered the national conventions of major religious denominations, a little bit of everything.

What were the worst times at the Times-Dispatch?

During the period I was there, maybe the worst time was when you have a mild recession and you had to do such things as log in your long-distance telephone calls. That didn't last long. A few things like that. I thought the years got better as time went on. Maybe because I had more responsibility I thought things were getting better.

How did you approach your book, “Richmond Times-Dispatch: The Story of a Newspaper”?

It's really the history of the Times-Dispatch and its competitor across the hall. The News Leader was the afternoon daily, so we had separate staffs. We competed just as though we had different ownership. The papers merged. … so, those were very good years. We competed with, to some extent, the Washington Post, sometimes with … the paper in Newport News, with Norfolk, on various state stories. And nationally, one year, in 1956, our head political reporter got a national break on what the Democrats' civil rights plank was on the Democrats platform. So Jim Latimer scooped the rest of the country on that, so that was a high point. I'll tell you what else we did. We covered an awful lot of space shots. Beverly Orndorff, who's now retired, a science writer, covered the moon landing and covered any number of space shots. He was probably one of the best science-medical writers in the United States. There were a lot of good people.

Why did you decide to write the book?

I retired, and the managing executive editor thought it would be a good idea to have a history of the paper. Tennant Bryan, the publisher of the paper, was getting old. Virginius Dabney, who was the editorial page editor, won a Pulitzer in the '40s, he'd retired and he was getting old, so someone ought to write a history. I was approached and I said I would do it, and the managing executive editor of the publication said they did not want to read the book before it was published. So I had absolutely no censorship whatsoever. I worked on it a long time.

How did the paper change while you were there?

We expanded bureaus around the state. We had one in Williamsburg, we had one in the valley, at Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, then later on Norfolk, Southside Virginia. We covered more events as the years went on. During my tenure we never cut back on things, we were covering more events, and now it's contracted. 

How has the T-D changed since you left?

Reporters are getting fired, a reduction in staff, more and more the metro part of the paper has been filled with stories from other papers around the state. You look at the T-D, you'll find stories from papers owned by Media General, such as Charlottesville, then there will be stories from the Fredericksburg paper or the Virginian-Pilot sometimes. The Washington bureau is closed. Nobody is covering religion anymore. There's no science reporter anymore, the movie reviewer was fired. Somebody could tell you the figures, I don't know, but an awful lot of people have been laid off. This is going on all around the country.

In the way that the T-D's changed over the years, do you think any mistakes have been made?
The front page seems to be devoted to entertainment, crime -- I think the selection of what's on the front page is abominable, but that's the way with most pages in the country. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, newspapers are going the way the Times-Dispatch is. There's no relationship whatsoever between the size of a headline on the front page and the importance of the news story. It used to be that a three-column head, well that was a pretty big deal. Now it's a eight-column head on anything.

How would you suggest that the T-D improve?

I don't know. A lot of it is monetary, because the revenue is not coming in, the ad rates, I don't know anything about what ad rates are. The paper's thinner, plus the advertising's off. The value of the stock is down, oh God, from 70 or some dollars a share to 4 dollars and something a share. They're just suffering like most every other paper in the country. The Washington Post laid off 100 people in one week. I don't know how you improve it. A couple of journalism reviews, magazines, suggest the future of our newspapers will be smaller, thinner, more expensive and more devoted to really important news. The size of a magazine maybe, like Newsweek or Time. I don't mean they'll be the same content, but be that size. And I guess the only newspaper I know of that charges for access to their Internet access to what's in news columns is the Wall Street Journal. I just punch in and read The New York Times on the wire, it doesn't cost me anything. There's been a lot of concern among newspaper people about whether they made a big mistake in putting things on the Web. … first. But that's what reporters are taught now, the first thing you do is “bingo,” you put something on the wire. I mean, I can go punch in The New York Times and see some story filed five minutes ago, and this was 3 o'clock, and the paper doesn't come in until 11 o'clock at night. So that's a big change from what was.

Do you think that newspapers should steer away from spot news, as far as print?

No, I don't think they should do away with spot news. I just think, from an economic standpoint, that they ought to charge for access to stuff on the wire, and I don't think it's wise to put things on the wire before you put them in the paper you hold in your hand. But [the young] generation, even the generation between. … is not so used to having a paper in the hand every morning. I mean, we grew up that way, and I still do, I read the T-D and The Wall Street Journal every day, then I read others on the wire. The majority [of young people] are not regular daily newspaper readers, which is too bad.

If, hypothetically, the T-D no longer existed, how would that affect Richmond?

I think it would affect (Richmonders) pretty much, because local television is “If it bleeds it leads.” Outside of weather, sports and crime, local television doesn't give you much. They give you very little on local government, county or state Capitol, City Hall, you get very little of that. You get very little on the courts, or religion, medicine, science -- none of that locally do you get on channels. … And I've got some friends that joke they get the paper to get the local obituaries. Well there's something to that too.

How do you think people would get their news if there were no daily paper?

Well, they'd turn on channel 6, 8 or 12 and get what you could locally on there. I think there would be an awful lot you'd miss. … I don't know how you'd do local news without a daily paper. There's some local papers, like Goochland has a paper, maybe Chesterfield. I don't know if they'd thrive, but maybe they'd be weak ones.

Do you think the merger of the Times-Dispatch and the News Leader hurt the publication?

They had to do that. Afternoon papers are a thing of the past. There are maybe a couple left in the United States. Most cities, the dailies merged. If one owner had a morning and an afternoon paper, they all merged. Look at a city like New York. You have the Times, then two tabloids, and Newsday. Chicago still has two papers. Very few cities have two papers, even different ownership.

Of all the stories that the T-D covered over the years, which ones do you think were the most important? 

The civil rights issue during the '50s and '60s -- I think that was probably the most important. I devoted, not the majority of my book, but the bigger percentage of the book to that. What was so glorious with that was no matter what the editorial policy of the paper was, the news staff just played it straight down the middle, covered everybody and everything. Blacks, whites, liberals, conservatives, whatever. Our reporters got commendations from people involved, like the NAACP people would congratulate the news columns. They had a problem over the editorial page, which was understandable. But they were very complimentary of our coverage, and I thought it was pretty darn good too.

What were the editorial stances of the T-D and the News Leader on massive resistance?

The News Leader was mostly known for that. Jack Kilpatrick, a brilliant guy, he endorsed it. The T-D, editorially, went along with it. Mr. Dabney, the editor at that time, since he didn't support it, he didn't write any pro-massive resistance editorials. He was never for racially integrating the schools, but he was not in favor of closing schools like massive resistance was. But the paper's veered away from that a long, long time ago. But luckily, the news department people never gave a damn what the editorial page says, just like today. I mean you'd never think, of asking a reporter, when I was hiring, what his politics were. I mean, I couldn't care less, whether you're Democrat, Republican, atheist, Christian, Buddhist, what your ideas were or whom you sided with. We didn't want to know.

What do you think newspapers today are doing wrong?

What I think they're not doing enough of is covering the serious news and playing up entertainment. As an example, the coverage given Michael Jackson's death was greater than that given the president of the United States. I remember when Kennedy was assassinated, there was, I think there may have been one other little story on the front page, but the idea of an entertainer meriting the entire front page is just absurd, [whether] it's Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra or whoever it is.


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