A history of The Chautauquan Daily through a peek inside the newsroom

Alfreda Irwin, seated in front, with her staff in 1976, the 100th anniversary of the Daily. Third from left is Nancy Gibbs, current deputy managing editor of Time and author of The Presidents Club, which formed the basis for the 2012 Week Nine lecture platform. Standing sixth from the right is Mary Lee Talbot, who currently writes the Daily’s “Morning Worship” column. The newsroom was in the Post Office building where the Afterwords Café currently resides. Photos courtesy of Chautauqua Institution Archives.

Joanna HamerStaff Writer

In his book Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion and Arts in America, author Theodore Morrison presents a photo of the original 1876 staff of the Chautauqua Assembly Daily Herald. Among those seated in front of a building marked “Editorial Rooms – Assembly Herald” is the publication’s founder and editor, Theodore Flood.


The caption reads, “Anyone consulting the bound volumes of the Assembly Herald may well wonder how so much thoroughness and order emerged from these editorial quarters.”

Much has changed about Chautauqua’s newspaper in the 136 years it has been published —  name, office, staff size and average age, tone, content and technology — but its mission has remained the same. The mystery of how the Daily has managed to continue publishing such a breadth and depth of information about and for the Chautauqua community, through periods of war, reorganization, computer revolutions and cramped quarters, is a story of those who worked in the newsroom — those who believed in its mission and purpose.

A 1951 Daily article celebrating the newspaper’s 75th birthday suggests that “the long history of what is now The Chautauquan Daily is entertaining and instructive.”

The character of the reportage over the years has indeed changed with each decade, but the original editors to those who followed all identified the two central roles of the paper.

“Always it has recognized its duty to the event, person, or group it was reporting, to the public, to the aims and character of Chautauqua Institution,” stated the 1951 article. “It also carries a responsibility to the future, for it is to its pages that the historian must turn for his knowledge and evaluation of Chautauqua’s contribution to American life.”

A Turbulent and Confused Life

While the pages of the Daily rarely offer glimpses of newsroom life, photographs and mastheads have provided small peeks: the two-window “shack” on the site of today’s Brick Walk Cafe where the entire editorial staff worked from 1909 to 1932, or the 1932 masthead listing Arthur E. Bestor Jr. as editor, Paul R. Ebel as assistant editor, and only four other staff members.


Ida Tarbell, famous “muckracker” and editor of The Chautauquan from 1880 to 1891, wrote candidly in her autobiography, All In The Day’s Work, about her first few years working for Flood.

“Dr. Flood has little interest in detail,” she wrote. “The magazine was made up in a casual, and to my mind disorderly, fashion. I could not keep my fingers off it.”

She related how she was set the task of answering Flood’s correspondence with pre-written answers, but felt so engaged by people’s letters that she began answering them personally, and signing Flood’s name. This caused a few office eddies when a correspondent showed up in the office seeking the Dr. Flood who was so interested in his case, and Tarbell describes the humor of the scene wonderfully.

As The Chautauquan was an off-season publication, Tarbell and the rest of the staff all relocated from Leadville to Chautauqua in the summer to work on the Assembly Herald. Here, she found herself writing two editorial columns a day, often on public or political matters.

The Chautauquan interested itself in all of this turbulent and confused life,” she wrote. “Indeed, it rapidly became my particular editorial concern. We noted and discussed practically every item of the social program which has been so steadily developing in the last fifty years.”

Through her recollections we can catch sight of a busy, tumultuous office frequented by visitors and filled with political discussion — and, as always, the constant fervor associated with producing a daily newspaper.

Lots of Change, Then Not Much

The paper’s offices have moved many times, from the original cottage on Whitfield Avenue to the corner of Simpson and Miller, on to Hultquist Center’s current location in 1889 and then the Bowman Avenue fire department building. In the early 1900s the offices moved to near Bestor Plaza.

At the turn of the century, the newspaper itself also went through considerable change, spurred by the death of Institution co-founder Lewis Miller. Theodore Flood retired, the Assembly took over ownership of the Herald and appointed Adrian McCoy editor, and in 1906 the name changed to The Chautauquan Daily.

When the Colonnade building burned down in 1909, the editorial and business offices, along with the print shop, moved into the Post Office building.

Dick Duke, who worked for the Daily as a reporter and assistant editor between 1950 and 1954, was one of a staff of six under Virgil Freed. There was an assistant editor, a symphony reporter, a Women’s Club and Bird, Tree & Garden Club reporter, and two reporters for the lectures and services. The office was on the second floor of the Colonnade then, where it had moved in 1931.

Click here for an interactive timeline of The Chautauquan Daily. Photos courtesy of the Chautauqua Institution Archives and The Chautauquan Daily.

“People would come back year after year to be on the Daily,” Duke said. “There wasn’t much change, and there wasn’t much change on the grounds or at the Institution.”

Duke credits Freed with much of the character of the Daily and its staff, offering independence and support. He had taught journalism in Ohio, and worked on several newspapers before coming to Chautauqua.

“Virgil was a journalist, and he had a journalist’s approach to things,” Duke said. “I remember one Saturday morning, I was sitting on the front steps of the Colonnade, and Virgil happened to see me so he came up and sat down on the bench beside me. We’re both looking at the plaza and there are people there because it was 10:30 in the morning, and he said, ‘There’s a story in every one of those people there.’ ”

The newsroom environment was, as it always has been, influenced by the technology of the day — typewriters, paste-up and three daily deadlines to take copy to the printers. The reporters would often try to get an advance copy of an evening speaker’s speech in order to write the article before the talk and have it sent off for the next day’s printing before the talk had even finished.

Old First Night presented a unique challenge, as Freed insisted that the evening’s performances be entirely written up in the next morning’s paper.

“We all sat down front, all six of us, and he would tell each one of us when to leave, go back to the office and write our two pages, and then the assistant editor would paste those together so there would be one long story that could be driven to the printer that night in time to have it in the next day’s paper.”

“The extra work that Old First Night took, nobody complained about having to work late that night, it was just understood,” he said.

The Daily did not employ any photographers in the ’50s, as making the metal cuts was too expensive. The paper was also shorter — “we seldom had a two-section paper, almost never,” said Duke — as there were fewer activities on the grounds to be covered.

Freed would organize end-of-season picnics for his staff, and present them with home-made certificates applauding their work and satirizing humorous moments of the summer.

“My first two years I was covering the devotional hour, and one chap made a point of saying he did not like the ‘lukewarm op-ed,’ so my certificate said it was to Richard ‘Lukewarm’ Duke.”

Duke recalled that the Daily staffers shared a sense of responsibility and duty in their work.

“We felt that we were covering Chautauqua, and, if you will, trying to tell its story, without saying it that way, without getting grandiose about it.”

Learning From A Legend

Duke left the Daily to pursue a graduate degree in economics. He then worked for the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, and taught at universities. His is one of many inspirational stories of those who worked for the Daily early in their careers.

Another Daily alum to go on to great things closed the 2012 morning lecture platform on Friday. Nancy Gibbs, now deputy managing editor of Time magazine, worked as an intern under legendary editor Alfreda Irwin and said that many of her journalistic skills came from her
newsroom experience, along with the mentorship of the incomparable Irwin.

“For me, as for generations of young writers, the Daily was an extraordinary classroom. We weren’t just learning the basic rules of journalism, about focus and fairness and getting the facts straight; we got to test our skills on a fascinating range of subjects.”

Gibbs remembers interviewing Alger Hiss and profiling General William Westmoreland, both of whom she had studied in school. Approaching their stories through the Daily challenged her again to revisit what she knew about them and history.

“Looking back, I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel to Alfreda Irwin and her team of editors, for giving us so much room to run and making sure we didn’t fall flat on our faces,” she said. “The Daily may only exist for two months of the year, but I know its influence on the lives of a great many writers extends far beyond that.”

Irwin cultivated her own newsroom style during her 15 years as editor, from Freed’s retirement in 1966 until 1981, and presided over the move back to the Post Office in 1972. She began working for the Daily in 1958 under Freed. Upon her retirement she became editor emeritus and official historian.

The paper changed during her tenure with technological advances and as Irwin made her mark on the Institution. The size of Daily and its staff grew, providing coverage of more programs and offering daily photographs. Irwin also began the college intern system that continues today.

What Changed? Everything

When Irwin retired, Jane Mead, who had previously served as editor of the Chautauqua County Summer Calendar, took over as editor, Amid a time of much change, Mead took her role seriously and began to make changes of her own.

“What changed? Everything,” she said. “We were in the digital age.”

Mead was editor from 1982 until 1986, and recalls being the first person in the office to have an electric typewriter. The paper was a tabloid which, though it had grown under Irwin, never totaled much more than 32 pages. The staff numbered 14, which included just one photographer who still developed film in the dark room above the bookstore.

Mead was given permission — if she could find it in the budget — to hire someone to redesign the Daily, and she did. In an article announcing her retirement in 1986, Mead reflects on the response.

“The first question asked at the open forum of the year was whether the Daily could go back to the way it used to be. But Bob Hesse was very supportive and said he hoped people would give the new editor a chance. That first year was rough because I followed Alfreda Irwin, a beloved editor.”

Time was still of the essence in the newsroom, as morning lecture photos had to be printed within the hour and copy still required to be taken to the printer and then cut for paste-up.

“I had to do all the page layout, and we had sheets that were this size that had the columns on them, and I had to get everything in. I had to do all the pictures and cutlines, and do all the headlines and read all the copy because I was the only proofreader. The editor had to do a great deal more hands-on stuff.”

Her staff included Gibbs, along with reporters who went on to work for US News and World Report, and her photographer had a photo featured in USA Today. Mead’s philosophy as editor was to include as many stories about people as possible, and she maintained the integrity of the publication by hiring professional reviewers for events on the grounds.

“I’m absolutely convinced that everyone on the grounds has a story to tell,” she said, echoing Freed’s comments decades earlier.

Though some technological advancements were made during her tenure, Mead’s staff still had to call Erie to get the day’s weather, and they still weren’t able to print that many photos for lack of space.

“In many ways it was much simpler, in many ways it was much harder, but it was always fun.”

Multi-Generational and Community-Oriented

Cutting and pasting copy to fit proof sheets continued to be the Daily staffroom practice until the 2000s, when Linda Berrey was editor. Berrey first worked at the paper under her predecessor Sharon Brock, who she recalled as a true journalist with very high standards.

“She worked hard to make the newspaper what she called a community newspaper,” Berrey said.

When Berrey took over as editor in 2003, she hired college interns as designers, and they overhauled the look of the paper once again.

“The two designers designed on computers, so that was a big step,” she said. “Over the next few years we were able to set up with our printer where we could actually transmit the pages to them electronically. We completely did away with the whole paste-up thing, and came into the 21st century.”

Berrey credits her advertising manager, Melissa Long, with selling enough ads that they could have feature stories and color photo pages. She also spoke of the atmosphere in the newsroom as a great mix of young college interns and older, more experienced Chautauquans.

“As we moved into using more technology, the staff probably became younger, but we had a really nice mix,” she said. “We had a man in his 80s who came in and wrote headlines for us. I always thought that was one of the good things about Chautauqua, that you had the opportunity to work with people from different generations.”

As the Daily became more technologically advanced, more designers and photographers were hired, and the publication began to use digital photography. The office was still in the Post Office building, though Berrey said that size was an issue.

“It was a wonderful place to be because it was right on the plaza, but we sometimes felt like we were sitting in each others’ laps,” she said.

When talks began in her last year about moving the office, Berrey counseled that it should not go far.

“I said that you have to realize that probably more people come into the Daily office than perhaps any other office space in the Institution: people advertising, people who want their newspaper, all the organizations that are turning in stories or meeting reporters,” she said. “I tried to make the case that the Daily office needed to be in the center of the Institution.”

Berrey was the first Daily editor to be hired for a year-round position, combining the past editor role with the Institution’s off-season publications editor. She recalls the atmosphere of the newsroom as exciting and evolving, with many students bringing their own laptops instead of using the desktops. It was also, as it has always been, incredibly busy, and Berrey said that she only truly got to understand the Chautauqua experience once she retired and returned.

“The most wonderful thing about not working on the Daily, and actually visiting the Institution, is that I get to attend events,” she said. “When you’re working in the newsroom all day long, you know about everything, because you’ve read about it, but you don’t get to attend much.”

Looking to the future, Berrey said the greatest changes to the Daily will probably come with technology.

“I think that the Daily will probably always rely on student journalists, because they are the ones who will have their summers and who can come, and because they’re on the cutting edge of what’s going on both in journalism and technology.”

Matt Ewalt, the current editor, took over after Berrey retired in 2007, and oversaw the office’s move first to Kellogg Hall, and then to its current location in Logan Hall, a return to Bestor Plaza. This year’s editorial staff numbers 34, including five photographers, two copy editors, four designers, and 24 college students or recent graduates. The newsroom is spacious, though nearly always packed with staff, and the business office up front receives an almost-continual traffic.

The Daily still focuses, as it always has, on its dual missions, as described by Berrey: “One of our main purposes was to let people on the grounds know, every day, what was going to be going on. And then our second main purpose was to be the archives for the Institution.”

Technology still advances, and the Daily moves with it: most newspaper stories and photos are now published on the publication’s website, http://www.chqdaily.com, which offers up additional content as well, including interactive timelines, videos, full-length Q-and-A transcriptions and full PDF versions of the paper. When they’re on the go, readers can stay engaged through the Daily’s active Twitter and Facebook accounts. And using Storify, the Daily chronicles social media posts from community members to tell a story of each day during the 2012 Season.

Throughout its evolution from typewriter to iPad, Post Office to Colonnade to Post Office, from editor to editor and staff to staff, the newsroom has adapted to the needs of the Institution and the community, all the while keeping in line with the Daily’s history and purpose.

There is one comment

  1. texaslib

    Wow! 136 years! What a legacy!

    I so appreciate the stories I get back here in Texas from the on-going sessions. I was in attendance for week 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it; being kept up on subsequent sessions has been an added benefit!

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