March 17, 2021

Town Topics Celebrates 75th Anniversary

THE FOUNDERS: Conceived by Dan D. Coyle, left, and Donald C. Stuart in 1946, the original Town Topics looked like an oversized train timetable. Coyle and Stuart wrote all the copy and sold all the ads in the paper’s early years.    

By Donald Gilpin

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” to borrow a line from the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto, and let’s add, “nor hurricane nor snow nor pandemic.” It’s the 75th anniversary of Town Topics —3,900 weeks, 3,900 issues, delivered to the residents of Princeton and the surrounding area.

The first edition of Town Topics, on March 15, 1946, looked like an oversized train timetable, a piece of folded 10” by 3.2” paper printed on both sides. Conceived and published by Donald C. Stuart and his brother-in-law Dan D. Coyle, Town Topics was distributed for free to homes and businesses throughout the town.

J. Robert “Bob” Hillier, a Town Topics shareholder and publisher of Princeton Magazine, recalls the early days of Town Topics when he was a young boy. “Having grown up in town I can look back to 1946 when Town Topics was founded by a couple of Princeton University public relations people. That was the year my mother started her business, the Flower Basket, right next to the A&P Market, which is where CVS is today.”

He continued, “Each week the cover was entirely dedicated to a ‘Man of the Week’ or ‘Woman of the Week.’ My mother was an advertiser, and, over the years, each of my parents was named ‘Person of the Week,’ which is what I believe the heading became.”

There was no Town Topics office at first. The editorial and advertising work were carried around in Coyle and Stuart’s briefcases until 1950, when the rapidly growing paper, at that point on actual newsprint and full tabloid size, moved into office space at 4 Mercer Street, where it remained until 2007.

With several members of the Coyle and Stuart families helping out, the paper continued to grow with additional employees, expansion to its current six-column format by the early 1960s, and a circulation of 14,000.

The Coyles left Princeton to settle in Maryland in 1973. In 1981 Don Stuart, who had been editor for Town Topics’ first 35 years, died suddenly of cancer at age 67 and his son Jeb, who had been an assistant editor and sports writer since 1967, took over.

Jeb and his wife Sheila, who directed the business side, ran the newspaper for the next 20 years.

In the late 1990s Lynn Adams Smith, who had been commuting from Princeton to a furniture and design business in Manhattan, decided she “wanted to do something more involved with the community.”

She had read a copy of Town Topics before moving to Princeton, and when she saw an ad to work in sales at Town Topics, she responded, went in for an interview, and joined the advertising staff.

After working at Town Topics for a few months, she asked her attorney to contact Stuart with an anonymous offer to buy the paper. Soon afterwards “he knew it was me, but it took me three years to convince him,” she said. “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. 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 Bob and Barbara Hillier, Smith took charge of 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.

Hillier recalled, “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 happy history.”

Smith remembers Hillier’s email response to her offer, the invitation to meet over coffee at Sneddon’s Luncheonette the next morning, and even Hillier’s breakfast, as he sat at a window seat eating a poached egg and English muffin and agreed to come on board as part-owner of the new Town Topics.

Under Smith’s leadership, the newspaper acquired computers for everyone 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, got a new coat of paint.

In 2007, after 57 years at 4 Mercer Street, Town Topics moved to 305 Witherspoon Street, then, in 2015, to its current
home in Kingston, one mile north of Princeton, where its headquarters dates to 1878 in what used to be the Union Line Hotel, built to serve stage coach traffic between Philadelphia and New York.

In 2008 Town Topics purchased Princeton Magazine. “When I got a call from a classmate of mine from Lawrenceville, asking if I would want to buy Princeton Magazine, my immediate and enthusiastic response was YES!” Hillier wrote in an email. “At the time the magazine was being published by a company in Bergen County, and it was mainly about galas and dinner parties in Princeton.”

Hillier described the transformation of Princeton Magazine. “Lynn Smith and I relocated the magazine’s operation to the Town Topics offices and with the rich inventory of prominent people in Princeton municipality and Princeton institutions and the University, we completely redesigned the magazine with an emphasis on people instead of parties, changed its graphics, its size, and even its reach to 35,000 readers. It has been a huge success. I know that from the comments I get from readers every time a new issue comes out.”

A year ago, when the pandemic began, many businesses and institutions shut their doors temporarily or permanently. The scene changed in the newsroom and advertising department at Town Topics, but as Editor Laurie Pellichero said, “When the pandemic hit, it was never an option to miss an issue of Town Topics. That had never happened in the history of the paper. The team adjusted quickly, some in the office, and some at home, and never missed a beat.”

Operations Director Melissa Bilyeu recalled the tense early days of the pandemic when keeping the office open was in question before the governor declared newspaper workers essential personnel. “When they decided that, that’s when I kicked into gear,” she said. “Most of the staff came to the office, picked up their computers, and took them home. Everything was through texting and email. Putting the paper together, I was wearing 10 different hats.” She continued, ”But as far as missing an issue was concerned, we never ever gave that a second thought. It was the furthest thing from our minds. We are considered Princeton’s community newspaper, and even when we had hurricanes Irene and Sandy, we always put out a paper. We never missed an issue.”

As the weeks went by, the production team quickly got on track. “It did get easier,” said Bilyeu. “We got into a routine, and once that routine was established it was much easier.”

Bilyeu remembers reading Town Topics when she was a child and now has been working at the paper for more than 15 years. “I love what I’m doing, so it’s not like a job for me,” she said.

Sports Editor Bill Alden noted how the pandemic diminished the opportunity to make connections with coaches and athletes of the local teams he covers and made it difficult to develop a feel for the culture of each school and the people in and around their athletic programs.

“Although it was tough to cover sports without having games,” he said, “it was even harder to hear the frustration and disappointment of the players and coaches as they talked over the phone about lost seasons.”

He continued, “When high school sports returned this fall on a limited basis, I felt lucky to be back on the sidelines, even if masked and instructed to stand in the far end of fields to keep my distance. The normal post-game interview was a little stilted, talking through masks and trying not to get too close with the tape recorder.”

Alden talked about the joy for coaches and players of being back on the field or in the gym or on the rink. “The coaches and athletes, for their part, were relieved to be talking about how the games went, but they repeatedly made it clear that the results took a back seat to the joy of simply being able to play and be together on the field again,” he said. “That theme was repeated again and again this winter when sports moved inside to the gyms and the rinks.”

Alden looks forward to a return to normal on the sports beat. “Hopefully, by this fall, the high school and the University teams will be busy with full schedules, and I will be running around town trying to keep up with the games and complaining about my hectic life,” he added.

Hillier noted that not only has Town Topics carried on through the pandemic, it has delivered further proof of its importance to the town. “During the pandemic it became obvious to me that Town Topics was truly appreciated by the community and perhaps even essential,” he wrote. “Several markers indicate this. First of all, there were fewer of the plastic wrapped papers left on the sidewalks in the center of town. Secondly, not only did the readership go up, but so did the reading, as measured by the increased number of emails that I got about articles, when Barbara and I are not even listed on the masthead. I think all this was due to people living in lockdown mode and yet wanting to know what was going on in their hometown.”

He added, “I think it is a credit to the staff and also to the advertisers that the paper kept publishing when several other publications stopped. The government PPP loan program was also a big help!”

Hillier praised Smith for her dedication to Town Topics and Princeton Magazine, as well as “her loyalty to the staff, and her acumen as a business woman in controlling costs while maintaining quality in everything we publish. Barbara and I have immensely enjoyed working with her over the last 20 years,” he said.

Smith reflected on her role in the editor and publisher’s seat for more than 20 years.  “Jeb Stuart used to say that he had ink running through his veins,” she said. “The newspaper was a big part of his life and he would be thrilled to know that we are celebrating our 75th anniversary.”

She continued, “I will always be appreciative that Jeb trusted me to manage the paper and that Bob and Barbara Hillier had the confidence to invest in the company. I feel incredibly fortunate for the long-standing partnership and friendship I have with the Hilliers.”

Describing some of the difficulties of the past year, she went on, “publishing during the pandemic with so many of our staff members from different departments working remotely has been challenging. Thanks to our dedicated staff we never missed an issue, and the community has responded with messages of gratitude.

“Both Princeton Magazine and Town Topics have been a labor of love for me, and the staff has been my extended family. Since I have been in this role for 20 years now, maybe I also have ink running through my veins.”