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The Herald turns 120

The Albany Herald newsroom circa 1930s.

The Albany Herald newsroom circa 1930s.

ALBANY -- It's been hawked on the streets by 7-year-old kids barely big enough to wrap their arms around its hefty bundles. It's been dropped out of airplanes to waiting carriers.

It's been tossed onto sidewalks by kids on bikes, delivered to thousands of homes all over the southern portion of the state and even ferried across raging flood waters by helicopter.

Its reporters have written about the opening of Albany State University, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the Albany Area YMCA, all institutions that have celebrated more than a century of history.

And even as much larger newspapers across the nation have closed up shop, unable to compete with the Internet, ever-expanding social media and 24-hour-a-day television news networks, The Albany Herald has endured. This month it celebrates its 120th anniversary as the primary news source of Southwest Georgia.

"As I think of 120 years of history at this newspaper, my first reaction is one of utmost humility," Publisher Mike Gebhart said. "When I think of the great publishers who came before me, who've passed the baton down to me, I'm honored to be a part of a publication that has always been and remains today a vital part of this community and this region."

Gebhart succeeded Gary Boley as publisher of The Herald in 2005, and he's overseen the continuation of Southwest Georgia's largest news publication through industry changes that left only the strongest standing. Publications like The Chicago Sun-Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Rocky Mountain News and The Baltimore Examiner have either ceased operations or done away altogether with printed versions of their product.

But The Herald, come Web or high water -- sometimes really high water -- has continued its Quixotic quest of gathering and reporting local news stories and delivering those stories, along with regular features that enhance their readers' lives, to some of the most loyal customers in the region.

"This job is one-of-a-kind," Herald Editor Jim Hendricks, who started at the newspaper as a general assignment reporter 28 years ago, said. "You meet all kinds of people who have great stories to tell, and you get to tell them. You take abstract events, capture their place in history and put them somewhere where they'll never go away.

"There are plenty of people who claim that reading -- that books and newspapers -- are dead. But when they make that statement, it usually comes when they're talking about a book or a newspaper article they've just read."

The Albany Herald was founded by newspaperman Henry M. McIntosh, who had come to the region to establish the Quitman Free Press in 1877. McIntosh bought the upstart Albany Advertiser in 1878 and in 1890 bought the Albany News, which had started printing in 1866. He combined the papers into The Albany Herald.

The Herald's first four-page edition was printed on Oct. 24, 1891, and McIntosh remained the newspaper's publisher until shortly before his death in 1925.

Massachusetts transplant James H. Gray Sr. bought The Herald in 1947 for a reported $250,000, and it became the centerpiece of a media empire that lasted until Gray's death in 1986 and beyond. His children, sons James Jr. and Geoffrey, executive editor and advertising manager, respectively, of The Herald when their father died, and daughter Constance Greene kept the newspaper running under the Gray Communications System umbrella until 1993, when they sold their holdings to Atlanta-based Bull Run Corp.

Westfield, Mass., native James Gray Sr. had been stationed at Fort Benning while serving in the U.S. Army, and he returned to the region after completing his military duty. He worked as a reporter at The Albany Herald before buying the publication. Under his leadership, the Herald's circulation increased from 6,000 to near 40,000, and he eventually added TV stations in Albany, Panama City, Fla., Monroe, La., and El Dorado, Ark., to his media holdings.

In addition to his media empire, Gray served as mayor of Albany from 1973 to 1986, and he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1966.

After Gray's death and the sale of the newspaper by his heirs, The Herald carried the banner of Triple Crown Media until it was purchased and restructured under the Southern Community Newspapers Inc. banner in December of 2010.

There are as many reasons readers still seek their daily newspaper fix as there are readers themselves. The pages of The Herald and its sister publications contain tidbits, analyses, news reports, can't-do-without features and dozens upon dozens of items that are as much a part of readers' lives as their morning coffee.

But a newspaper is only as good as its reporters, and the bylines that have graced the pages of The Herald over the decades include some of the most respected names in the newsgathering business. Names like Whiting, Robinson, Pryse, Postell, Shelton, Gaines, Mills, Pierce, Maschke, Emerson became among the most trusted in Georgia journalism.

It was these men and women who told the stories that mattered to readers.

"Once you get the ink in you, you're part of one of the most unique jobs there is," Hendricks said. "You're paid to be nosy, to ask questions and then tell people what you found out. It's the kind of job where you might be interviewing someone like Jimmy Carter or San Nunn one week, and the next you get an opportunity to meet someone like Joe Pharis or Alice Conway, who operated the neatest thrift shop."

As fresh local reporters took their place in that most hallowed of ground -- the Herald's newsroom -- they quickly started learning the ropes, gleaning bits of wisdom handed down by veterans who'd been through the wars.

"Every politician ate lunch at the Gordon Hotel (in downtown Albany) when I started at The Herald," said Milton Robinson, who retired from the newspaper in 2003 after a career that spanned more than 40 years at the publication. "One of the first things reporters learned was that your best sources for news were at the Gordon.

"If you were a reporter at the Herald, you planned to have your lunch and your coffee break at the hotel."

The reporters who've done the job best over the years are the ones who've been able to adapt, the ones capable of writing about a major catastrophe one day and then turning around the next and writing a feature about a lost pet or the area's latest centenarian.

"You have to be prepared to do a wide range of things," Herald Managing Editor Danny Carter, who's been at the paper for 25 years after 14 at The Tifton Gazette, said. "One day you may be covering a crime scene where someone has been killed and the next day you may be doing an interview with a nationally known personality. That same day, you may also be writing a story about a church homecoming."

"And then there are those once-in-a-lifetime stories like the flood in 1994, stories that dramatically impact peoples' lives. They're counting on the newspaper to help them figure out the next steps in their lives. Being a part of the (news) team that covered the flood here is probably the most memorable thing I've done at The Herald."

Of course, getting the news out to a newspaper's readers would not be possible without the unheralded professionals who work behind the scenes: the crew in the plate and press rooms, IT technicians, advertising and circulation staff, library and archives specialists, anonymous carriers and others whose parts add up to make the whole of the publication.

"There are challenges every day," said Weyman Pinson, whose 36 years at The Herald started when he was a 7-year-old hawking papers on the streets and has included stints in the mail room and currently in the circulation department. "But that's the nature of this business. They say it gets in your blood, and that's true. Because if you don't like it -- if you don't really want to do it -- you should never start.

"You've got to be willing and able to adapt to each challenge. We had a convoy take the paper to Columbus on Mother's Day of '94 or '95 to print the papers because of press problems, and during the Flood of '94 me and one other guy loaded up 15,000 papers by ourselves and took them to every place we had subscribers except the places that were under water."

The stories of the men and women who've worked at The Herald over the years are as varied as the individuals themselves. Some came to the newspaper wanting only a career in journalism, while others took a more roundabout path to the paper.

IT Director Bill Strickland, who has been at the paper more than 30 years, took a job because he had a car payment due.

"I had (someone I know at the paper) look at my resume to see if it was suitable because I was thinking of applying at the Atlanta Journal Constitution," Strickland said. "I'd gone to school at Georgia Tech and missed Atlanta."

Strickland's resume eventually made it to Executive Editor Jimmy Gray Jr., who offered him a job. When Strickland told Gray he wasn't really looking for a job at The Herald, Gray told him he'd leave the offer on the table for a week.

Strickland hired on as a reporter and eventually used the skills he'd developed while studying electrical engineering at Tech to move into an IT position.

"There is what I consider the platonic ideal of the newspaper, but the reality of each varies," Strickland said. "I personally feel that the role newspapers fulfill is an integral function of society. Of course, I also feel there's something special about journalists and the printed product they produce.

"Being a part of a place with a history like The Herald's is kind of like a family's genealogy. It's like being part of a family business that's been handed down for 15 generations. You're connected; you're another page in a work that's much larger than yourself."

Being one of those pages is what brought younger journalists like Deputy News Editor Casey Dixon to The Herald. The newspaper had been a part of her life before she came here 4 1/2 years ago.

"The Albany Herald has been a constant in my life," Dixon said. "I remember as a young girl my mom and dad would read it first, then I'd get it to read the comics. As I got older, I started reading the news, and the paper just became a part of my routine.

"Something like putting together the (10th anniversary) 9/11 section was really important to me. I was a senior in high school on the day of the terrorist attacks, and to be able to present a historical look at that event 10 years later was special."

Most people develop a love/hate relationship with their hometown newspaper. Those who get to know the people who work there, though, understand the mentality of the ones who become true newspapermen and women; people like Hendricks, who came to the newspaper expecting to work 18 months, only to have "18 months turn into 18 years and 18 years turn into 28."

That's the mentality that has carried The Albany Herald through 120 years. Who's to say it won't continue for the next 120?

"This newspaper is still part of the mainstream," Gebhart said. "It's a part of this community; it's a part of people's lives. People talk about the decline of the newspaper industry, but we're entrenched in this community. We're as much a part of Albany today as The Herald was 120 years ago."