Celebrating 70 Years on the Princeton Beat
IN THE BEGINNING: Town Topics’ founders Dan Coyle (left) and Don Stuart wrote all the copy and sold all the ads for their timetable sized publication.
Seventy years ago, on Friday, March 15, 1946, the Princeton Post Office delivered approximately 3,400 copies of the first issue of Town Topics to homes and businesses in town. Printed on both sides of a piece of paper 10” by 3.2,” the small paper was folded together like an oversized train timetable.
As Jeb (Donald C. III) Stuart (1941-2008), editor from 1981 until 2001, wrote in 1996 in a 50-year history of the paper, “Town Topics began in a couple of briefcases carried around Princeton early in 1946 by brothers-in-law Dan Coyle and Don Stuart [Jeb’s father]”. The plan was to cover the entire Borough and Township with a single free circulation newspaper, an idea which the editors felt would appeal to potential advertisers and set Town Topics apart from the competition, the Princeton Packet and the Princeton Herald.
For the first issue and every week for the next 25 years, Mr. Coyle wrote the front page, which consisted of an article titled “We Nominate,” about a person or persons who deserved recognition. The 1,625 Princeton men and women who had been involved in World War II, 38 of whom had died, were the nominees for the first issue.
There was no Town Topics office. The editorial and advertising work were carried around in two briefcases and delivered once a week to the Princeton Herald on Chambers Street for printing.
The paper grew in popularity with advertisers and readers, tripling its size between 1946 and 1949. Mary Coyle (Mr. Coyle’s wife) and Cissy Stuart (Mr. Stuart’s wife and Mary Coyle’s sister) came on board to help out with billing and publication day rush.
By 1949 the paper had grown to the point where it was printed on actual newsprint and in a full tabloid size, and in 1950 the editors moved into much-needed office space in a three-story brick building at 4 Mercer Street, where it remained until 2007.
The Coyles lived at 11 University Place, just behind the new Town Topics offices and Mary Coyle found she was increasingly on the job both in the office and at home, where they shared their phone number with Town Topics.
Mrs. Coyle’s daughter Georgie Evans, who now lives in San Francisco, remembers, “It was a family enterprise. Our life was centered around Town Topics. Uncle Donnie was in the office. My mom worked as office manager and did the advertisements. Aunt Sissy was in charge of the mailing, so it was really a family enterprise with Uncle Donnie at the helm. My father wrote the ‘Man of the Week’ column, and every Monday night С of course he never wrote it ahead of time С we’d hear the typewriter clicking into the night.”
Ms. Evans described running with her sister Mardie around the corner to the newspaper office, playing with her cousins Jeb and Charlie Stuart. “The office was our playground. Our cousins became our best friends. We had fun.”
Ms. Evans fully expected Jeb to follow his father as editor. “I wasn’t at all surprised that Jeb took it on,” she said, “and then Sheila became so involved. I’m delighted that it’s still going.”
As the paper grew in the early 1950s additional employees were hired. Kay Bretnall began writing a column titled “It’s New to Us” in 1953, became a full-time reporter in 1959, and continued in that post until 1984.
The paper grew to its current six-column format by the early 1960s, with a circulation of 14,000. Preston Eckmeder arrived in 1959, and, as he describes it, “did a little bit of everything” at Town Topics for the next 35 years. He covered sports events, the police beat, selling ads, layout, picking up and delivering papers, and, according to Jeb Stuart’s 1996 account, “a hundred and one other jobs, all with unfailing good humor.”
Mr. Eckmeder, retired since 1994 and living in New Hope, Pa., described his Town Topics career as “the best years of my life. We were proud of what we were doing. We were a band of brothers. We enjoyed working with each other. It was a great place to work, first it was me and Don, then me and Jeb. It was a pleasure to work for those guys. I’d get up every day and couldn’t wait to get to work.”
In the early 60s, Town Topics moved its printing operation to Merlo and Sons in Trenton, 20 miles closer to Princeton, a move which provided the opportunity to expand the paper and to print on Wednesday mornings, 24 hours earlier than before.
Later in the decade Town Topics had to adjust its free circulation policy and institute a charge of ten cents per copy at newsstands, while still delivering free of charge to every home in Princeton.
The Coyles left Princeton to settle in Maryland in 1973, and later that year Mr. Coyle passed away at the age of 57.
Different weekly stories replaced the “We Nominate” feature, and the paper switched from hot to cold type or offset printing in November 1973. Large and bulky though they were, a couple of computers, according to Mr. Stuart’s account, “could typeset news and ads a lot faster and cleaner than the huge rattling linotype machines that used molten lead.”
The changeover, taking place in just six days, was not entirely smooth, with some ads going in upside down and columns of news and classifieds crooked, but from late 1973 all editorial advertising copy would be set, proofed, and laid out on pages in the Mercer Street office, with pictures turned into halftones by a new camera at Town Topics. Camera-ready pages were prepared and taken to a new printer, Somerset Press in Somerville, which had the latest web offset press. Preparation time shortened and technique improved so that the camera-ready pages could be completed most weeks by 7 p.m. Tuesday.
By 1980 Town Topics had made its final transition to a tabloid newspaper with a full front page, which could include more than one story and all late breaking news.
New Editor, New Era
In 1981 Don Stuart, the newspaper’s co-founder and editor for its first 35 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly of cancer at age 67. He had not missed a day of work due to illness since the paper began. His son Jeb, who had been an assistant editor and sports writer since June 1967, took over.
In 1982 he was joined by his wife Sheila, who had previously written the “It’s New to Us” column. She took on the paper’s finances, and, under her guidance, Town Topics modernized the billing and circulation operations and upgraded to Apple computers and page layout software to replace some of the paste-up process.
Ms. Stuart, who now lives for most of the year in San Francisco, reminisced about the old days at Town Topics. “As far as our family is concerned,” she said, “Town Topics dominated everything. I don’t know where we would have been without it. It formed the whole rhythm of our family life.”
Emphasizing the importance of the newspaper to the town, Ms. Stuart added, “Jeb’s dad and Jeb and Dan Coyle had integrity about reporting on Princeton and reporting the news. Everything got edited very carefully.” She commented also on the high standards and painstaking care of Barbara Johnson, assistant editor and writer from 1975-1998. “Their intentions to stay as accurate and local as they could made Town Topics a very special thing,” she said.
Jeb and Sheila’s son Craig, now head of treasury management strategy at Wells Fargo Bank and living in San Francisco`with his wife and two children, remembers Town Topics setting the rhythm of the week — “every week the same pattern, with intensity levels rising on Mondays and Tuesdays” as the deadline approached, then a great relief on Wednesdays and a relaxed Thursday, before getting back to work on Friday. “The tenor of work and home life was marked by this cycle of getting the paper out,” he said.
The Town Topics office on Mercer Street was a home base for Craig when he would sometimes be dropped off from Princeton Day School, or later when he would stop in from his dorm room at Princeton University. “We didn’t give a thought to just walking into the office and plumping down in dad’s chair,” he said. “It was a family business. We had that liberty.”
He would frequently help out with the Wednesday delivery and distribution of the papers and would occasionally take sports photos or write feature stories, “whenever what my dad needed that would match with my interests.” He described two memorable feature stories he wrote, one on a controversial bike helmet law in town and another on “an art project at the University where somebody posed nude and was arrested.”
Craig was editor of the PDS school paper and wrote for the Daily Princetonian in college, then after college went to Thailand, where he wrote for an English language magazine for four years. As far as following in his father’s footsteps was concerned, Craig explained that “something further afield was more interesting to me. I wanted to get out into more of the world.”
Craig’s younger sister Laurie, who also lives in San Francisco, with her husband and two daughters, remarked on how “interconnected with us as a family” Town Topics was. She too helped with the Wednesday newspaper deliveries, either on her bicycle or throwing the papers out the back window of the family car.
After getting her driver’s license, Laurie remembers with pride being entrusted with taking the paper down to the press on Tuesday nights. “I was glad my dad trusted me with that. That was one of the most important jobs. If I didn’t get there, the paper wouldn’t come out.”
Laurie stated that Town Topics had a major impact on her life. She emphasized the integrity of the enterprise and the importance of people so clearly invested in their work and taking responsibility for the quality of the newspaper.
New Editor, New Directions
In the late 1990s Lynn Adams Smith, who had been commuting from Princeton to a furniture and design business in SoHo in Manhattan, decided she “wanted to do something more involved with the community.”
She responded to an ad to work in sales at Town Topics, went in for an interview and liked what she saw. She had always loved the idea of community newspapers, and before moving to Princeton had read a copy of Town Topics to get a sense of the place she would be moving to.
After working at Town Topics a few months, Ms. Smith asked her attorney to contact Mr. Stuart with an anonymous offer to buy the paper. Eventually, “he knew it was me, but it took me three years to convince him. He didn’t want to retire, but did it because of his health.
“He had a lot of confidence in me, and I’ll always appreciate that,” Ms. Smith said. “He respected my business sense. He trusted we weren’t going to sell to a big newspaper chain.”
With the financial backing of a small group of the newspaper’s employees and former employees, along with the Princeton architect J. Robert Hillier, Ms. Smith took over Town Topics in 2001 with a goal of preserving the paper’s look and tradition, upgrading where possible, and bringing Town Topics into the 21st century.
Mr. Hillier, who remembered Town Topics’ beginnings, “because my mother’s flower shop, the Flower Basket, was one of their early advertisers,” explained how he became part owner: “My direct involvement with the paper began with an email, ‘How would you like to own a piece of a Princeton institution?’, followed by a cup of coffee with Lynn Smith the next morning, and an investment in the purchase of the paper the next day. The rest is a happy history.”
Ms. Smith described cutting and pasting the paper together, sticking the copy to a large board during her early days at Town Topics. “We’d put the large boards into a big suitcase and take turns driving them to Lakewood to the printer. The paper, in some ways, was still stuck in the 1950s.”
Under Ms. Smith’s leadership, Town Topics acquired computers for everybody and began to send files electronically. The old metal desks from the 1950s, which had become embedded in the floor, were melted down for scrap metal and replaced. And the office, for the first time in many years, even got a new coat of paint.
In 2007, after 57 years at 4 Mercer Street, Town Topics moved from the University-owned building to new quarters, a two-family home re-modeled by Mr. Hillier, at 305 Witherspoon Street. Town Topics purchased Princeton Magazine in 2008, and in 2012 launched Urban Agenda Magazine, giving birth to Witherspoon Media Group. In 2014 Princeton Magazine established its online retail site, A Store by Princeton Magazine.
By 2015 Witherspoon Media Group had outgrown its Witherspoon offices, needing more storage, parking, and work space, which it found at its current home in Kingston, one mile north of Princeton, where its headquarters dates to 1878, when the Union Line Hotel was built to serve stage coach traffic between Philadelphia and New York.
Town Topics, Princeton Magazine and Urban Agenda now benefit from a daily stream of online content. A Store by Princeton Magazine at www.princetonmagazinestore.com represents approximately 50 artisans and local retailers.
Princeton Magazine is on instagram @princeton_magazine, with shots of everything Princeton, including local scenes, events, landmarks, and links to news articles. Witherspoon Media Group’s publications receive a growing number of followers on Twitter, Facebook, eNewsletters, and LinkedIn.
Multiple times per week colorful, thematic articles known as Princeton Insider on TownTopics.com and PrincetonMagazine.com and Urban insider at UrbanAgendaMagazine.com link directly to each product page for easy, streamlined shopping.
Witherspoon Media Group is also moving into the field of custom publishing, putting out newsletters, newspapers, and magazines for different companies.
In reflecting back on the past 15 years as Editor-in-Chief of Town Topics and now the expanding Witherspoon Media Group, Lynn Smith first stated that she will “always be thankful to Jeb for having confidence in me and for Bob and Barbara Hillier for stepping in when I needed them.”
Ms. Smith said that she is “proud of the positive environment at Witherspoon Media. The staff takes pride in their work and in all the different publications. It is a multi-talented group, with many different, rich backgrounds.”
Mr. Hillier, commenting on the role of Witherspoon Media in the rapidly-changing Internet era, added “In spite of what is written about the challenges of print media, local publications like Town Topics continue to thrive and play an important role in the spectrum of media communication, as do its sister publications, Princeton Magazine and Urban Agenda Magazine. Town Topics has a history of good objective reporting that is well written and, under Lynn Smith’s excellent leadership, that will continue.”
In 1996, on the occasion of Town Topics’ 50th anniversary, Editor Jeb Stuart wrote about the effort and dedication of the paper’s employees. ”Town Topics has been fortunate in its 50-year history,” he said, “in having a staff that cares deeply about publishing the best possible issue 52 weeks a year.”
Despite so many other changes in the 20 years since then, many important factors have not changed. “I feel very fortunate,” Ms. Smith said. “I love my job, and I am so appreciative of everybody’s efforts. I like to let people express themselves in their work, I believe in the value of the creative process and our publications are a creative expression of the whole group.” Ms. Smith and her creative staff look forward to leading Witherspoon Media Group into the next 70 years.