Read All About It!
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
Once upon a time, if you wanted the local or national news, you grabbed the daily or weekly paper. Newspaper boys yelled, “Extra! Extra!” when a big story hit, and millionaire newspaper magnates like William Randolph Hearst had a sixth sense about what stories would attract the average reader.
If you worked for a newspaper, you could say “I’m a reporter for such-and-such paper,” or “You might’ve seen my story in print in last week’s edition.” There was pride in chasing down a story, with the knowledge that your words would be read by many people.
Then, along came cable television and the internet and cell phones and all the methods of instant news and communication. The world indeed has changed a lot over the last 25 (or more) years, and perhaps that is why I adore museums and history.
You can learn a great deal from studying an old photo, if you really look. And you can learn a tremendous amount about how life was lived and how we got to where we are today from visiting historical museums. Luckily for Lakes Regioners and visitors to the area, the Laconia Public Library at 695 North Main Street (in Laconia) is the place where the Laconia Historical and Museum Society presents changing exhibits on a variety of topics.
When I learned that the Society is featuring an exhibit on the history of Laconia’s newspaper, the Citizen, I knew I was in for a treat. Since high school, I have worked in the newspaper business. I can thank the owners of the Bristol Enterprise for my tentative first step into the print world. My brother was employed, while still in high school, at the Enterprise and soon I too was working part time, typing address labels and doing errands. Even though my role was miniscule at the weekly, small-town newspaper, I was fascinated. People waited with anticipation for the paper to be printed each week, and I saw then the power of the printed word.
I think Edward John Gallagher (1890-1978) must have been aware of that power as well. His initial foray into journalism came about when he was recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. He was ill for four years and was given a typewriter, probably to stave off the tedium of a long recovery. At age 15 he wrote, “How to Care for an Invalid” and saw his story published in a national magazine.
Sometimes from adversity come great things. It is Gallagher’s story, along with the history of the newspaper he founded, the Laconia Citizen, that is the subject of the exhibit at the Laconia Library.
I arrived at the library on a rainy, chilly springtime afternoon, and made my way to the top floor rotunda area where the Historical Society exhibits are on display. (I have seen some wonderful exhibits in the rotunda area, from the history of local clinics and hospitals to beautiful old theatre curtains, to name but a few of the varied displays.)
The exhibit is a “you-can’t-miss it” eye catcher, with the words The Citizen hanging above the entrance, banner-style. The title of the exhibit is “The Citizen 90 Years of an Iconic Laconia Newspaper.” The Laconia Historical and Museum Society certainly have done the memory of Gallagher and the newspaper proud. The exhibit traces the start of the paper, right up through the time it ceased publishing, in 2016.
According to information in the exhibit, Gallagher never attended college, but still he was a big success when he moved to Laconia, where he was a businessman, mayor, banker…and of course, the publisher of the Citizen.
The first edition of the paper was January 4, 1926, but it wasn’t the first or only newspaper in the town. Somehow, above all others, the Citizen thrived while other papers came and went.
Typefaces are a huge part of the printing of any newspaper, and a glass case in the exhibit shows a book of early typefaces. A 1920s catalogue from the American Type Founders Company is on display, and it was from books such as this that the Citizen staff could order type, printing presses, paper cutters, cabinets and more.
Before today’s speedy computers, reporters had to craft their stories on typewriters. A wonderful old Underwood typewriter shows how reporters once typed their stories, which, when completed, were sent to be handset, letter by letter, by staff. In 1925, Gallagher purchased a flatbed printing press that weighed 14 tons. It was a mammoth piece of machinery and so big a pit had to be dug in a building on Hanover Street to house the press.
Type was set by hand, letter-by-letter and a single column inch of type could a long time to set. It was an incredibly slow process, and newspaper staff all over the country must have rejoiced when linotype machines came along. (This method used a hot metal typesetting system that could produce an entire line of type at once.)
Gallagher knew the public relied upon the Laconia Citizen for news, no matter what. An old photo with caption shows staff at work at the Linotype machine after the Hurricane of 1938. The power outage caused by the hurricane was a dilemma, but the machine was rigged with a gasoline engine for power and the paper was printed in spite of the weather!
Early in the days of the Citizen, the paper sent photographs by morning train to the Union Leader in Manchester for processing. The completed images would be returned by afternoon bus. (And by the way, until 2006, the paper was called The Laconia Evening Citizen. After 2006, it became a morning newspaper.)
Those who love the early days of computers will enjoy seeing an old, rather boxy Macintosh computer, which at one time was quite a wonder and time saver. (Before the computer age, each section of the paper was printed and coated with wax, then cut out section by section. Then, page layout was done on a large board…by hand.)
Although there were a number of weekly newspapers in the area, the Citizen was the only daily paper. It may have started modestly, but Gallagher likely had a vision and a plan to grow the paper. He joined the Associated Press early on and he had the courage to hire a woman, Ebba Janson, as city editor.
Not to give away everything in the exhibit, I can say viewers will be treated to many black-and-white photos showing some of the early, fun things in Laconia, such as a method of selling papers via a decorated auto with Gallagher’s daughter, Alma, going along for a ride!
Early newspaper boys smile at the camera as they gather at the Citizen’s Beacon Street location with copies of the “Victory in Europe” edition in May of 1945. They are all smiling, dressed casually, some in jaunty caps, ready to deliver this very-important and joyful news to the public.
Eventually, Gallagher’s daughter, Alma, and her husband took over the paper. In later years, it was purchased and run by others. The paper ceased publication in 2016.
The exhibit pays tribute also to a number of men and women who made the Citizen possible, from 1926 to 2016. As I read the long list of names, it was brought home to me what an impact the paper had on the Lakes Region. Many made a viable living and a big contribution to the public through their jobs at the paper, from general managers to news reports, photographers, graphics staff, circulation, advertising, correspondents and office staff who were often the first voice one heard when contacting the newspaper.
No matter how you get news today – whether via the internet, television or radio, there was a time when the one and only (and most reliable) way to get the news was to grab a newspaper. The Laconia Citizen brought local news as well as the sometimes scarier but always newsworthy larger world to the homes all over the Laconia area.
If, like me, you grew up with the viewpoint that daily and weekly newspapers were (and are) rather special, you will love the exhibit. Plan to take someone younger with you – a child or grandchild – so they can get a look at how the news has morphed over the decades.
And take a moment to say a silent thank-you to Mr. Gallagher, whose daring and vision started it all so long ago.