Looking backward, moving forward

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 12:50 PM

Durham has always enjoyed robust civic engagement. Tenacity and inventiveness are admired and dissected much like Final Four basketball performance.

So it’s fitting this newspaper was birthed, almost a century ago, in part by a face-off between two powerful community leaders over a matter of transportation policy.

As the 19th century neared its end, Julian Shakespeare Carr, one of Durham’s early business titans, had for years owned Durham’s leading – and first -- newspaper, The Tobacco Plant.

In 1887, he bought the only other paper, the Durham Recorder

Washington Duke, eager to get a railroad to his tobacco plants – the railroad line passed near Carr’s textile mills – persuaded James Algernon Robinson to leave the Recorder and become the editor of the Durham Daily Sun, which published its first edition on Feb. 26, 1889.

Just four weeks later, the city authorized the Durham and Northern railroad to extend its tracks up Peabody Street to Duke’s factory.

I’m indebted for the details of this story to a column Mena Webb, the long-time chronicler of life in Durham who died last year, wrote for the centennial edition of The Durham Sun in 1989.

I had briefly encountered that story before, but never dug into the details.

But recently, I rediscovered her column while researching the paper’s history to prepare a talk to one of Preservation Durham’s “Lunch and Learn” events.

The timing was fortunate. I’m eager to learn more about the history of this paper and its antecedents, the first of which was that Durham Daily Sun. Launched as a morning paper, it switched to afternoon publication the following September and would remain an afternoon paper until it ceased publication in 1990.

Aside from inherent curiosity, my interest is intensified because in less than a year, this newspaper will be 125 years old.  I wasn’t in the area for the 100th, so I’m anxious to take note of the 125 milestone.

I learned last week the Durham Public Library plans a program next February on our history, and we’re in other discussions on ways to mark the event.

The modern history of the paper dates to 1929, when E. T. Rollins, on the eve of the Great Depression, paid cash for The Sun, concluding it was better to buy the paper than to compete against it with his Durham Morning Herald, founded in 1895. His family owned the papers for over a century.

Reading of this paper’s early history, one back-to-the-future note struck me. We have increasingly emphasized local news, seeing that as a unique value we bring to readers amid a dizzying array of sources for national and international news.

“The value of the journal was its local news, in which it was richer than most of its antecedents or its contemporaries,” Trinity College history professor William K. Boyd wrote of the young Sun in 1925 in “Durham: City of the New South.” Boyd also noted that “for a city of its years, Durham has been the home of an unusual number of newspapers and periodicals.”

It’s still a richly competitive media market, 124 years and counting after the Sun, in Boyd’s words, “cast its first journalistic beam.”

I’ll write more about that history from time to time in the next several months. I’d love to hear from readers about their recollections of the papers, their personalities and characters.

We’ll also be moving forward to further adapt to new technologies and new preferences for how to read about the news of our community. Being open to change at 124 years of age seems a good way to stay young.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678, or at bashley@heraldsun.com.