It’s no secret that journalism, particularly of the print variety, is going through some tough times these days. Randy West ’64, editor and chief photographer of the Corydon Democrat for 35 years, is being inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in April. Under his leadership, the Corydon Democrat won the Hoosier State Press Association’s Blue Ribbon Award for outstanding nondaily newspapers a record 14 times. Portico asked Randy to take a look back at his career and offer some insight into where the field may be headed.
by Randy West ’64
I suppose you could say my newspaper career is the consequence of a fortuitous intersection of the Indianapolis Star, New York Times, Louisville Courier-Journal, and Corydon Democrat.
I misspent most of my youth on the east side of Indianapolis, attending Howe High School, before going on to what was then Indiana
Central College, now UIndy.
For several years when we were kids, my brother and I were paperboys for the Indianapolis Star. My dad was a missionary executive for the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was very well-educated and well-read, a Yale man, and liberal in his world view. He loathed Star
publisher Eugene Pulliam’s unapologetic rightwing editorial pages.
Dad loved to read the New York Times and cut out interesting articles that he would file away, usually never to be seen again. The walls of the
basement in our house in Irvington were lined with Sunday editions of the New York Times that he hadn’t read yet.
I graduated from ICC in 1964 with a major in social studies and a minor in English literature. My favorite teachers were Dr. Allen B. Kellogg
(English literature), Gerry Boyce (art history), and Marvin L. Henricks (sociology).
I taught junior high social studies at School 52 on the west side of Indianapolis for three years, and my wife then, Marydee Meyer West ’66, taught one year at George Washington High School. That’s where we learned to hold our own in the classroom.
We moved to Corydon, her hometown, in 1967 to start a family and I planned to teach English at the high school there. However, the school needed a journalism teacher and school paper sponsor, and I said, well, why not?
The school paper was printed at O’Bannon Publishing Co., which printed the Corydon Democrat, a weekly newspaper that had been around about as long as the state.
Giants of Journalism
The 1960s and ’70s were tumultuous times for our nation. Journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley, Mike Wallace, and Charles Kuralt, and photojournalists like Larry Burrows, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White, and Bryan Moss, Bill Strode, Barney Cowherd of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Brian Lanker of the Topeka Capital Journal were my heroes.
I enjoyed teaching and liked being around teenagers, but it began to seem that being a journalist would be much more interesting and exciting than teaching and working for a school board.
When the editor’s job opened up at the Corydon Democrat in 1970, I applied. The owner/publisher was Robert P. O’Bannon, who had just retired from a distinguished 18-year career in the Indiana Senate. He was a kindly, thoughtful man, respected throughout Indiana as a statesman. I loved working alongside him.
Bob was a great story-teller and he loved his community and state. He had high standards for his family’s “weekly wheeze.” We wanted the Corydon Democrat to be the New York Times of the Indiana weekly newspaper world—in other words, a paper that would be as complete and trustworthy as we could possibly make it for our readers in Harrison and Crawford counties.
We were fortunate to be located a few miles away from Louisville, Ky., where the Bingham family had a media empire that included one of the best daily newspapers in the world. The Courier-Journal set the standard in just about every way: expansive news coverage, writing and photojournalism, editorials, newspaper design, community and state leadership, and so on.
If we wanted to see how world-class journalism was being practiced, all we had to do was study the Courier-Journal. It was the conscience of Kentucky.
We lived in a time when newspapers were making money. We hired some really fine writers over a period of 30 years or so. Because of Bob and
Frank’s political connections (Frank would serve 18 years in the state senate, be lieutenant governor for eight years and governor for seven, before his
tragic death in his second term of office in 2003), it wasn’t unusual for political luminaries to stop by in our newsroom for interviews.
We got to know people like governors Matt Welsh, Evan Bayh, Joe Kernan, and Mitch Daniels; U.S. senators Birch Bayh and Dick Lugar; congressmen Lee Hamilton and Baron Hill; and Secretary of State Larry Conrad, who hailed from Harrison County and may have been the best storyteller of them all.
The prognosis for print?
But things changed with the arrival of acquisitions, the computer, the Internet, iPhones, digital cameras, the blogosphere, and then the recession. Advertising dried up, circulation went down, news staffs shrank dramatically at papers all over the country, and people looked elsewhere for their news, even national news.
Newspapers have struggled ever since.
Many have been gobbled up by money machines like Gannett; others have merged or gone out of business. The Courier-Journal, like the Indianapolis Star, is nothing like it once was. No one knows how to compete with or make money by providing news on the Internet.
I do not pretend to know the future of print journalism, but in a news-hungry democracy there will always be a demand for large papers with arge reportorial staffs that can “cover the world,” like the New York Times or Washington Post.
It can’t be left up to the Internet, TV networks or news magazines alone. Other dailies are going to have to find some way to exist in the digital or cable news age. Things change so fast now that it’s possible that no one has imagined the way yet.
I am hopeful about the smaller community newspapers. They will probably continue to exist once we get through the recession, because local people, especially elderly readers, do not like to get their news via a personal computer or handheld device, or from an amateur “reporter” with a cell-phone camera who doesn’t have a clue about fairness, balance, and good writing.
Local advertisers still will need to get the word out about their products, and local readers always will want to know what’s going on with their town and county government, their courts, their police, their high school sports teams.
Hard news events, weddings, anniversaries, births, and deaths are still important, not to mention editorials, letters to the editor, “country correspondents,” the anonymous and scurrilous “call-in” columns and, yes, the classified ads and the yard sales.