Harry S. Jewell, publisher of Springfield Newspapers, Inc., oversees one of his paper’s presses in the late 1920s or early ’30s.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Crabtree)
Note: It would be impossible to write a story that encompasses all events and notable names in Springfield’s journalistic history. That said, this is but a brief look at the papers through the lives and stories of a few people. Many thanks to Hank Billings, Dale Freeman, Sony Hocklander, Everett Kennell, Louise (Whall) Knauer, Bob Linder, Mike O’Brien and Kathleen O’Dell for sharing their memories for this project — an endeavor where it seemed better to share some stories than none at all.
Silent-speaking newsprint stands in stark contrast to the world that brings it life. After all, the news business is anything but quiet: There’s the train-like whir of a printing press, rumbling toward its deadline destination. And where that news is written, chatter supplies the soundtrack. Fingers urgently tap keys, now aided by electricity – an advance that requires less effort from the fingers but asks no less of the mind.
Then there are voices. They audibly fill interviews, discussions, and these days, perhaps videos. But more than that, voices written and printed by mission-minded people intent on sharing what they know and others don’t.
Many voices throughout the Ozarks have dedicated decades of their lives to such a cause. Here are just a few of their stories.
Hank Billings is an anomaly in today’s world: 73 years after he began his career in journalism, his words are still published in Springfield’s newspaper every week.
“My brother Jim worked with the paper, and that always interested me,” says Billings, seated in a chair at his home near Phelps Grove Park. “I was on the school papers all the way through so it was kind of natural for me to get a job at the newspaper, and I started there in 1943 working on the night side while I was still in high school.”
Hank Billings, far left on the second row, on staff at Central (then Senior) High School’s newspaper in 1944. (Courtesy of The Resume)
When Billings began as a police reporter, Springfield Newspapers, Inc., was only a decade old. The company, a merger of several local publications, consisted of three papers: the Springfield Leader & Press, the Springfield Daily News and the Sunday News and Leader, all of which were editorially directed by George Olds.
“I remember that Mr. Olds, the managing editor, would come over on Thursday night in the newsroom and write his weekly column,” says Billings, who would try to look busy while the older man was in eyeshot. “I could see him looking at me under his green eyeshade. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was scared to death of it.”
Billings remembers that Olds ended up being a good boss. He also recalls what is was like to work in the newsroom in the midst of World War II.
“We lost a lot of reporters and photographers and editors to the war efforts,” says Billings. “Most of the people were as excited about working for the newspaper as I was, so it made up for some of the hardships. But the newsroom, it was kind of deserted at times.”
He didn’t go into the service because of a bad hip, but recalls that newspapermen on the Home Front tried to do their part in other ways. “They wanted to contribute to the war effort as best they could,” he says. “And they thought working longer hours might be a way to do it.”
The alarm was sounded at 6:03 a.m. by the night watchman, who noted that “flames were almost to the roof when I saw them.” (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
Two years after the end of the war, breaking news came to Springfield — but it was at the expense of the city’s newspapers. On March 27, 1947, “fire roared through the plant of Springfield Newspapers, Inc. at 6 o’clock this morning, completely destroying the building except for the business offices,” proclaimed the Springfield Leader & Press later that day.
The staff of the Springfield Leader & Press managed to get a paper out the door the same day as the fire. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District – SGCLD)
Yes, later that day.
Because even though the plant was virtually wiped out, and most of the dazed dayside workers knew nothing of the blaze until they reported for work, a four-page paper made it out that evening. It was filled with news of the fire and photos of the destruction — but also included other coverage of local and international happenings, sports, and even the day’s “Sad Story,” a regular feature from the past.
It’s safe to say that at least one writer for the mini-issue was an optimist. When explaining how the paper was printed that day — without a press, offices or materials — it was simply said that “News and Leader publishers (were) under a slight handicap.” It took a bit of creativity to get the job done, but as proven by the article, get it done they did:
“Editorial rooms were set up in the newspaper’s executive offices, which weren’t touched by the fire. Six reporters were assigned to the fire story itself — and they began beating out their copy on typewriters from the undamaged business office.
Meanwhile, Radio Station KGBX, which is supplied with Associated Press news, turned over part of its copy to the newspaper, to keep Leader & Press readers abreast of national and world news.
Pictures of the fire were taken and developed in the police department’s darkroom — the newspaper’s darkroom was a total loss.
An engraving plant at Aurora agreed to make the “cuts,” under the supervision of the newspapers’ engraver.
Various printing companies in Springfield agreed to tackle the task of settling the type and headlines, then printing the paper.”
The article also noted that “plans for publication tomorrow are indefinite.” However, under a temporary name of the News-Leader & Press, a paper came out the next day. And the day after. And even though “it was bad, and then we really worked under hardships until they got it repaired,” says Billings, there wasn’t a day without a newspaper due to the fire.
Indeed, production wasn’t easy. A temporary facility wasn’t secured locally until mid-June, and until then all papers were printed in Oklahoma and trucked to Springfield each morning. “Some of our editors went down to Muskogee to coordinate the printing down there,” recalls Billings.
While the newspapers needed a building, another issue was finding a press.
At the time, typesetting machines and printing presses were almost unobtainable. It was only two years after World War II, a time when production news machines was virtually nil — and as a result, “a tremendous backlog of orders” had piled up for manufacturers of such equipment, the paper reported. However, a used press — from the Chicago Tribune — was eventually purchased that could make 36,000 impressions per hour.
Work was underway on the new facility in April 1948.
Springfield Newspapers’ new home
(Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
On Jan. 21, 1948, it was announced in the newspaper that a $348,000 contract had been awarded to rebuild the plant, and that work would begin immediately. That building is where the Springfield News-Leader operates from today.
Fresh from high school, Dale Freeman’s first stint at the newspaper was when he took over the night side police beat from Billings.
It was a short beginning to a long career. About three months after he began, he left — for the Navy and for college — before returning to Springfield in 1949 as a “cub” reporter.
Those days were eventful: About a month after his hire, the papers’ printers went on strike. “They dynamited, they threatened, they put tacks in the driveways,” recalls Freeman of the men and their efforts to obtain more money.
It was a tough, rugged time. “But the ironic part of it is about half these guys who were walking the line I was playing ball with at night,” says Freeman. In those days, Springfield was a hotbed for fast-pitch softball and the newspaper had a team.
While the men were out on strike, “scab,” or non-union printers, came in to make sure the paper was produced. But getting the paper out the door was the only thing anyone “got” out of the deal, which was never officially resolved. After 2.5 years of walking the line, it “just went up into the ether,” says Freeman.
Since it was news, even other media outlets covered the strike — an ideal that Springfield’s papers also adhered to. “We’d go back on what old editor once said: ‘If somebody wants something in the paper, it’s advertising. If somebody wants to keep something out of the paper, it’s news,” says Freeman.
He even recalls the time when the paper’s publisher got picked up on a DWI. “We ran a story about it,” he says.
Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue are featured in this shot circa 1950. (Photo by Betty Love; courtesy of The History Museum on the Square)
While Billings was a journalist by trade, he was a pilot by passion.
The day he graduated from high school was also the day he took his first solo flight, and it wasn’t hard for the teenager to decide which was more impressive. “The solo flight was the biggest thrill,” he says.
That love affair with flying continued as an adult, and was infused into his career as a journalist. For years, he regularly wrote a column entitled “Hangar Flying,” which highlighted fly-in breakfasts in the area and other aviation news.
But his flying expertise also allowed him to propel a high-flying idea in the newsroom: aerial photography. “I think I pushed it to give me an excuse to fly,” says Billings. “And I think they were glad to get a new angle.”
While he recalls flying various newspaper photographers at different times, one of his regular passengers was longtime photojournalist Betty Love. “It was inspiring because she was an excellent, excellent photographer,” says Billings of the iconic photojournalist — one who knew exactly what angle she wanted for photos. “I remember her saying several times, ‘Get your wing up! Get your wing up!’ so she could take a picture,” he recalls.
Such trips, often taken with a list of several assignments, prompted a variety of emotions. At one point, even fear was felt — but it wasn’t of crashing.
“I remember one day Betty had a telephoto lens and we were taking a picture of a site over on Campbell (Avenue) for something,” says Billings. “She dropped the lens, and we were scared that it’d hit somebody. If it’d hit somebody, it would’ve killed them. But we kept watching the paper and there wasn’t any obit.”
Nor, as far as he knows, any further trace of the lens.
Ten years after becoming a reporter, Billings got international attention — along with all of Springfield — when more than 10 cobras were found slithering around the city. Although no one knew for sure the why or how at the time, it was widely suspected that they escaped from a local pet shop on St. Louis Street.
While the event now can now be seen as an iconic part of Springfield’s history, Billings remembers it as one of real fear throughout the community. “As a matter of fact, my wife came in one night and said, ‘My god, I saw a rope out there in the driveway and I thought it was a cobra!’” recalls Billings. “So yes, it was scary. It certainly was. And I tried to reassure her — but I didn’t go out and look.”
During the height of the scare, Billings wrote numerous articles about the ongoing saga to capture the snakes. After all, “it was our duty to write about ‘em, to publicize whatever was going on and to publicize ‘em when they were captured,” he says.
One of those articles ran on Oct. 18, 1953, when Billings wrote that “for a while it seemed as though no well-dressed person would go out into the street here without carrying a hoe. This was not because of pride in agriculture, but because the city has had a bad case of the snakes.”
He also had the chance to explain the concept of a hoe to a stringer for the BBC who called about the snakes. “That got worldwide attention because, you know, people were scared of cobras,” recalls Billings. “They couldn’t understand why a pet store would have cobras, for crying out loud.”
(Locals couldn’t understand that, either — but they finally found out the who and why behind the mystery when a local man confessed to crime, one he’d committed as a boy, in a story that ran on the front page of the newspaper in 1988.)
The King — sans cobra — came to town three years later, passing through on a Sunnyland train. Freeman heard about Elvis’ impending visit from Les Arnold, a ticket agent for the Frisco railroad, who he asked to keep mum about the news. “I said, ‘I don’t want a bunch of screaming teenagers around when I’m talking to Elvis,’” says Freeman.
He got his wish. “There wasn’t a soul there when he came in,” recalls Freeman, who boarded the train with Love and visited with the King for around an hour. “He was a hell of a nice guy.”
Elvis wasn’t the only celebrity that Freeman interviewed. Another was vocalist Pearl Bailey — although he had far less time with her.
“I’ll tell you how long my interview lasted,” says Freeman. “I knocked on the door, and I said, ‘Ms. Bailey, I’m Dale Freeman of the Springfield Leader & Press.’ I said ‘I’d like to talk to you.’ And she said, ‘Go away, honey.’ That was the end of the interview.”
But there’s more to that story.
When Bailey came to Springfield, she couldn’t even stay in a hotel. Freeman recalls that period, one in the depth of the city’s Jim Crow days. Back then, he remembers that the newspapers’ staff was even instructed to list any black deaths last on the obituary page.
And when it came to employment, for a long time the only black person ever employed by Springfield Newspapers was the publisher’s chauffeur, says Freeman. Years later, however, the journalist had the privilege of making history.
“I hired the first black reporter ever in Springfield Newspapers,” Freeman says, a change that probably occurred in the late ’60s.
Of all the things Freeman oversaw as editor, one that still brings him pride was the newspaper’s internship program. For years, he regularly visited the University of Missouri’s J-School seeking prospective interns.
In 1966, however, one of the recruits was a mistake.
Because technically speaking, Mike O’Brien shouldn’t have interned at Springfield Newspapers as a reporter. After all, he was an advertising major — and in those days, an impenetrable wall separated the two departments.
Somehow, however, that detail got overlooked. Freeman offered O’Brien a position, one that was accepted without any mention of the student’s specific degree program. “I never would’ve gotten the chance to prove myself as an intern if he’d known I was an ad major,” says O’Brien.
That summer in the newsroom proved a few things. It convinced Freeman that O’Brien, despite his advertising background, could be a reporter. But more than that, it showed O’Brien that he wanted to be one.
“I was really hooked,” he says. “I knew that was what I wanted to do.” After graduating the next year, he was hired as a reporter for the Leader & Press.
Covering the Ozarks
One of Mike O’Brien’s favorite reporter-related roles was writing about the people of the Ozarks, such as Eva Barnes “Granny” Henderson. Such people, some dubbed “Children of the Pioneers,” were also among Bob Linder’s favorites to photograph. Click here to learn more about these unique people. (Photo by Bob Linder)
Even though the papers’ names included Springfield, staff members covered much more than just the Queen City.
“Back then we tried to be the ‘journal of record’ not only for Springfield but for the Ozarks region of southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas,” says O’Brien. “We reported happenings large and small, in communities large and small. We tried our best to give a complete picture of life where our readers lived.”
The staff found some of that news, not-so-shockingly, via newspapers. “We took a lot of area newspapers,” says Billings. “Weeklies mostly, and looked for stories and ideas in there.”
But besides those papers, Freeman also relied on “opossums,” a term in Ozarks-speak for news sources. “We had them all over,” he says. “I got to know every editor of every small town in the Ozarks. I also spoke at the Ozarks Press Association. I had drinks with him. When I would be out someplace, I would go in and visit them in their back shop.”
Those relationships made a difference, since it gave Springfield’s reporters a network to call if they wanted to know about something, says Freeman. Decades later, those ties still bind. “I’ve still got some good friends, who are retired now, (from) the weekly newspapers,” he says.
While there were good relationships, there was competition, too — even between the newspapers’ staffs. “You didn’t want to get beat by anybody, even by your own other half of your staff,” recalls O’Brien, noting that the attitude was also held towards external media outlets.
But TV reporters weren’t necessarily a match for the newspaper — or at least one of its photographers. “Betty Love, the great Betty Love, used to love to stand in front of the television photographers,” says Freeman with a laugh, recalling the photographer’s intent to block the videographers’ shots.
The year was 1970 when a college freshman by the name of Bob Linder became a part-time photographer for Springfield Newspapers. Not long after his hire, he took a trip to Springfield’s old Frisco railroad depot — but he wasn’t planning on embarking on a journey. After all, the depot had seen its last departure the decade before: He was simply there to capture the crumbling, mission-style architecture with his camera because he found it interesting.
But after O’Brien saw the shots, added some text and used them for a Sunday picture page, the trip launched a landmark journey in Linder’s own life.
“It was kind of the epiphany for me of what words and pictures could be together,” he recalls. “And that they become something, you know, dimensional. And it kind of was just a spark in me about print (journalism).”
The newsroom was featured in a 1968 special section that showcased the papers’ ability to print in color. (Courtesy SGCLD)
A look through Linder’s eyes reveal a buzzing, busy newsroom that today lives only in memories. It was a different time, one serenaded by teletype machines — big, bulky contraptions that lived in a room near the newsroom — that brought in stories from all over the world via the Associated Press and United Press International.
“Then if you had a big story the AP broke, the bells went off,” recalls Freeman. But even when those bells weren’t sounding, the machines were loud anyway. “It was like an electric typewriter that never stopped,” says Linder.
But neither did the newsroom, which was accented by “real phones ringing, and typewriters typing and…a lot of secondary smoke,” says Linder. News, city and copy editors sat in a circle, always facing each other. Reporters weren’t far away, each armed a long pair of scissors, a jar of rubber cement and a typewriter that ate accordion-style lengths of paper.
At one of those typewriters likely sat Billings, who was famous for pounding the keys with his two-fingered typing technique. “I was a bad typist,” he says now, but admits that “I did get pretty good speed alright, and I guess (it was) pretty accurate. I hope it was.”
Besides that typewriter, the first two items allowed writers to create their stories with an early cut-and-paste technique. Extra-long in length, the scissors “could go all the way cross the paper in one clip,” says Linder, noting that the rubber cement allowed parts of the story to be changed or added before going to the copy desk. “And they read it, and if they had any questions they would come to you or they would make corrections,” says Billings. “And sometimes, we disagreed. But they had the authority.”
A series of subsequent steps ensued to get the story from long-sheet to broadsheet, and included ample feedback from others in the newsroom. “You know, we didn’t email,” says Linder. “Didn’t text. It was face to face. So you got great feedback and you learned quickly.”
And at the end of the day, “it was always great to go back and have them hand you that first paper coming off,” says Freeman, recalling the room full of reporters looking through the finished product after it rolled off the press.
The ’70s was to be a decade of major change for Springfield Newspapers: On Aug. 23, 1973, an article in the Leader & Press announced that Springfield Newspapers, Inc. — including its broadcast affiliates — would eventually be sold to Gannett Co., Inc. “I think people were overjoyed,” says Freeman of the sale. “I know I was.”
The transaction, however, took longer to finalize than originally intended. “It seems as if they had reached a deal, but Gannett’s stock plummeted and the people here backed out,” recalls Freeman. “Or said they did anyway. Then Gannett came back about mid-‘70s with another offer.”
During that time of debate, a new young man joined the papers. Everett Kennell wanted to teach college-level English, but the need of a job brought him to journalism — and gave him the inadvertent discovery of a life he loved.
“Back when I first started there, I was working in sports,” says Kennell, who came to the papers in 1976. “I worked nights, and the pay was low. (It was) hard work. But when 11:30, 12 o’ clock rolled along and it’d be time for me to leave, I’d think, ‘Gosh, I’ve got to go home now — but I (get to come) back tomorrow!'”
Just a few months after Kennell came to work, the sale of Springfield Newspapers (and newspapers in Muskogee, Okla.) to Gannett for $39.8 million in cash was officially announced in the same newspaper.
Kathy Maniaci wasn’t employed at Springfield Newspapers when the sale went through. She arrived a few months later, but she remembers that period as a time of uncertainty because no one knew what Gannett was going to do. Ultimately, “Gannett really updated and modernized the whole approach to the newspaper,” she says. “But the community, or parts of the community, saw that as taking away their hometown newspaper.”
But despite the national ownership, covering local stories of news and people was exactly what Kathy wanted to do when she came to Springfield as a copy editor in September 1977. It was a desire that quickly became obvious after beginning the new job, which involved her editing stories but not writing them.
“On my own time, I would go and do assignments,” she recalls. “I would do these interviews and go on these little assignments that I would find for myself, and then I’d turn (them) into stories.” Those efforts ultimately earned her a job as a reporter — and a byline that people know today as Kathleen O’Dell.
Kathleen O’Dell began working for Springfield Newspapers in 1977. In 1982, she joined the first staff of USA Today before returning to Missouri in 1984. (Courtesy of Kathleen O’Dell)
Other things besides O’Dell’s job were changing in those days: Technology allowed typewriters to be replaced by computers, aiding efficiency — except when they crashed, which wasn’t unusual. “So you’d be in the middle of a story and the computers would go down and you’d hear this great wailing,” says O’Dell of the moaning and groaning that ensued. With nothing to do but wait, what did the staff do until the machines got back up and running?
They threw Frisbees around the newsroom.
“You know, we were professional in our jobs but when you got us in our own living room, it was just goofy,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was very competitive, but in a good way. And I think everyone seemed to celebrate the good things that each person was doing.”
That camaraderie was felt in other ways as well. With a close of the newsroom’s generation gap, the young reporter found a similarly aged and like-minded group to work — and have fun — with. “The first time I played Spin the Bottle was at a newsroom party, actually,” she says. “How weird is that? And one time we all went skinny dipping in the James River late at night.”
After six years of having the “great fortune” of being executive editor — and three years after the sale to Gannett — Freeman knew it was time to leave.
“I was exhausted,” says Freeman. “Mentally and physically.” And as things changed, “I guess probably (there was) the fact that it was very evident it wasn’t going to be ‘my’ newspaper. Period. For sure. And I guess there was a little bit of ego involved.”
An article about his retirement appeared in the newspaper on March 22, 1980 — and also announced his appointment as editor-in-residence at then-Southwest Missouri State University.
While many memories about the news business are positive, others stand out in stark horror. One example was the collapse of two catwalks at Kansas City’s Hyatt-Regency Hotel in July 1981, which O’Dell and Linder journeyed from Springfield to cover.
“It was pretty intense when Bob and I were there,” O’Dell recalls of the scene, which involved the death of more than 110 people and injury to nearly 200. As a member of the media, she wasn’t supposed to be in the building that fateful day — and emotionally, perhaps she wishes she hadn’t been. But in an effort to get inside, she and Linder volunteered to take refreshments to the rescue workers. “I guess my warped thinking at age 26 was …‘I’ve got to get in there. I’ve got to get the story,’” she recalls.
Today, she’s not sure she would’ve used that approach. “But they were taking anybody,” she says. “I guess that’s how I was rationalizing. They were taking anybody who would be willing to put on the (vest).”
And they took O’Dell and Linder: While other media were outside, the duo got in with coffee and donuts — as well as a camera and notebook. “And once we were inside, we were inside,” recalls Linder. “We were there for not very long. But I got the pictures I needed and she got the first-person experience of being able to describe what she saw from it.”
Even that period of time, however, was enough to cause lasting impacts. One was Linder’s photo being included in Time’s “Year in Pictures” for 1981.
But other results, while also noteworthy, weren’t positive. “I think it was the first time I was ever kind of … aware of post traumatic experience,” recalls Linder, but notes that it wasn’t until years later that the event really sunk in for him.
It hit O’Dell much sooner.
“The next day, I had to go to the newsroom and start writing again,” recalls O’Dell. But as she tried to type, “I think it all just kind of crashed in on me. And I remember sitting at the computer terminal, and just so stuck, and really getting visibly upset I guess. And Mike just walked me outside, sat me on the steps and he just let me cry it out.”
Fresh from Michigan State University, Louise (Whall) Knauer applied to newspapers nationwide before getting a letter from Springfield requesting an interview. “I had to scramble and figure out which Springfield it was, because I think I’d even applied to several,” says Knauer.
The interview resulted in her hire as a regional reporter for the Daily News, a job that had her covering an eight-county area to the north and west of Springfield. “So I got to go to a lot of towns and places, and cover issues, that most people in Springfield never had any reason or need to go to,” she says. “I’ve always valued that experience, and getting to know the Ozarks better.”
A variety of jobs followed after that reporting position, including her first editing role with the Leader & Press. That job required an early-to-rise routine to meet the noon deadline so the paper could get out the door each afternoon.
Most days, something else happened around midday in the newsroom: “We sat around and watched the news at noon, and then we watched Andy Griffith,” says Knauer. “That was the routine.”
She remembers one day, however, when that routine didn’t happen. A day, even 30 years later, that is completely clear in her mind: The day when staff saw the Challenger Space Shuttle explode on the newsroom’s TV. “You stood there, and you were in shock for a few minutes and disbelief,” says Knauer.
Kennell was there that day, too. “I was working on the afternoon paper at that time, and that was about the time of day we put that thing to bed,” he says — but as soon as the disaster happened, everyone knew that it had to be included. “So we stopped everything as far as printing and production,” says Kennell.
But that was the only thing that stopped. While staff waited for stories to come in over the wire, they figured out how to change the paper’s content to reflect what happened. Finding local angles for the news was also a priority: If staff knew of someone local who could shed some light on the issue, they had to get him or her on the phone right away.
“Long story short, we got the story,” says Kennell. “You’ve just got to scramble, and use your training and your experience without pausing to think about it too much.”
(Part of) the front page from when the Challenger exploded: Inside its pages were nearly 10 stories about the disaster.
For decades, Springfield was a two-paper town. However, that began to change in 1975 when the Saturday papers were combined to form what was called the Sunrise Edition.
That laid the foundation for what was to come 12 years later. “We spent much of 1986, at Gannett’s insistence, figuring out how to combine the two newspapers into one,” says O’Brien, who by that time was associate editor. “They didn’t think it was economically feasible to continue both a morning and an evening (paper).”
The change was officially announced in January 1987. The last issue of the Leader & Press was on March 20, a “souvenir edition” stamp on the corner of the front page. Three days later, the first issue of the Springfield News-Leader rolled off the presses.
The completion of the efforts to combine the newspapers also marked the departure of O’Brien from the newsroom’s day-to-day operations. After 20 years, he decided to try something new: He became a journalism professor at then-Southwest Missouri State University, but maintained his byline through a column that appeared in the News-Leader every week.
According to the Missouri Press Association, the turn of the decade marked a time of great journalism at the Springfield News-Leader. That’s because, in 1990, the association awarded the paper its highest honor: the Gold Cup.
Kennell feels that award tied to the paper’s emphasis on information accessibility. “We were kind of ahead of the pack there,” he says, citing things such as “points of entry” on the front page that directed readers to stories within the paper. “Nobody (else) did that back then, really,” says Kennell. “But we did that a lot.”
But the award wasn’t the only reward: Another was back home with the work itself. “There was sort of a period in there (when) you just felt like everything was greased and all the cylinders were running,” says Knauer. “We were just ‘on it.’ And we were just doing some really great work.”
One of those all-out efforts was found in 1992 through coverage of Springfield’s “three missing women,” something that was led by editor Lou Ziegler. “We interviewed police, we interviewed neighbors, we interviewed people who knew the three women,” says Kennell. “We wanted to get as much information out there as possible.”
Part of that work was done to update the community on the situation, says Kennell. But at the time, the staff also felt that perhaps “if we dig around enough in this, maybe we’ll find something that will help explain what happened here,” he recalls.
That adrenaline, albeit in a different way, manifested itself through a later editor named Randy Hammer. That was the age of “public” journalism, says Knauer, a concept that tied to the Good Community movement of the mid-1990s.
It was an effort that involved much of the city, but the News-Leader was very invested in the cause: The paper dedicated a great deal of time and space to covering issues facing the area, many of which were youth and violence-related. “It was the first time I’d experienced journalism where we were actually allowed to … be part of the story,” she says.
The newspaper also propelled Good Community Fairs, gatherings of local civic organizations with volunteer opportunities, to get more people plugged in. The first year, “we had like 7,000 people,” recalls Knauer. “I mean, we were just overwhelmed.”
The Good Community Fair in 1996 drew more than 7,000 people.
The turnout proved success: “(People were) trying to take a positive approach to some of the issues that we’d been covering and they’d been reading about for months by then,” says Knauer.
Two decades later, that change isn’t over: Even though it isn’t a decision-making body, the Good Community Committee still meets monthly.
Sony Hocklander (left), Kathleen O’Dell and the rest of the Features department occupied what was not-so-affectionately known as The Devil’s Portal while the newsroom was remodeled around 2000. (Courtesy of Sony Hocklander)
When Sony Hocklander joined the Springfield News-Leader’s Features department as the Arts and Entertainment reporter in 1999, it began a whole new chapter in her life. “I’d never worked for a newspaper,” says Hocklander, who had written for magazines before moving to Springfield. “It was trial by fire … but I knew how to learn.”
And learn she did. One of those lessons came early: The very first thing her editor asked her to do was create a “package,” journalism-speak for a story with multiple components. But there was one problem. “I’m like, package?” recalls Hocklander. “What the hell is a package?”
Too embarrassed to ask Knauer — her editor — for clarification, she turned to O’Dell for help. As it turned out, “I’d been already writing (them) for the magazine, but no one called them that,” recalls Hocklander. “It was lingo that I didn’t get.”
Hocklander quickly picked up newspaper terminology and adapted to daily deadlines. Since her start, she’s also seen the business change time and again. “I would say daily, monthly, the industry is changing,” she says.
Those changes were just ramping up when Knauer decided to leave the News-Leader in 2001. It wasn’t because of the job: At the time, she was Features editor, which “I thought was about as much fun as you could have,” says Knauer.
But there were other factors. New leadership at the paper had spurred a de-emphasis on public journalism, something that disappointed Knauer. The Good Community efforts had informed her about local issues, and “it was not very satisfying to me to have to kind of pull back,” says Knauer.
So when the Director of Public Information for the City of Springfield position came open for the first time in years, Knauer decided to apply. “I just felt like if it only opened up every 10 years, this was going to be my shot,” she says.
She was selected for the job, which ultimately provided a bridge to her current role of Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Community Foundation of the Ozarks.
The necessity of change
Looking back, Hocklander doesn’t remember if the newspaper even had a website when she began. “If we did, it was a nonentity,” she says. “It just didn’t factor into anything.” But sooner rather than later, writing for the web became a new skill to have. “Some people resisted that at first,” recalls Hocklander. “For me, maybe because I wasn’t a traditional longtime journalist, it didn’t feel invasive or such a big change to me.”
She’s also seen the comeback of long-form stories. “For a while, it was short, short, short,” says Hocklander. “But now there’s a sense that if it’s the right story, people will stick with it.”
Those longer stories give reporters the chance to delve deep into a subject, something Billings says would surprise newspapermen long gone. “I think they’d probably be amazed at the detail that newspapers go into and the knowledge that some of the writers have,” he says. “I mean, they’re experts in their field. And that’s what gives them a place in journalism, I think.”
Like the reemergence of long-form stories, some changes are cyclical: Another example is column writing. “It seems like they will go through phases where they decide that it’s not fashionable to have personalized reporting that way,” says O’Brien. “That everything is supposed to have the appearance of being strictly objective. Even though lots of times a personal column is an objective presentation of the facts.”
The current popularity of columnists is evident through local names such as Amos Bridges and Steve Pokin. But in the mid-2000s, columns were on the outs. It got to the point that “I figured one day I’d come in and they’d decided they didn’t need my column anymore,” says O’Brien.
Those sentiments coincided with O’Brien’s 40th anniversary of column-writing, the first of which was penned the summer he was an intern. He thought it seemed like a good time to stop, and wrapped up the four-decade run in 2006.
It’s something he says he misses. “There’s a magic about being a journalist in that it gives you license to do things that you’d never have the nerve to do as a private individual,” he says. After all, reporters are privileged with a license to go — literally and figuratively — where few other people can.
“So I got to meet a lot of interesting people, and go to a lot of interesting places and see a lot of interesting things while continuing writing the weekly column that I wouldn’t have been able to had I stopped,” says O’Brien, who by then was teaching journalism at Drury University. “And, the proof of that is, I haven’t been able to do it since I did stop.”
Regardless of how information is presented, change touches more than the news itself: It’s also affected the way it’s gathered. “As a reporter today, you could not be hired if you weren’t comfortable shooting photos with your iPhone, or a camera if you have one,” says Hocklander of the diversification of roles that she’s witnessed. “You have to have so many more skills today than writing — than even just 16 years ago.”
In today’s extremely visual world, an increasing amount of food-for-eye elements are also required to satisfy the public’s appetite — something that’s measured by metrics, another concept no one ever thought about in the past.
Those tools — ones that allow journalists to see how people utilize content — have helped show what kind of stories the reading public wants most, says Hocklander. “And it has shaped how the paper has changed,” she says.
Such changes can be painful, but sometimes they’re simply necessary. After all, “newspapers have to survive,” says Hocklander. “So if you have to change with the industry — with the way people consume their news — or fold, you change.”
2009 and onward
Even though O’Dell planned to be a reporter until “they pulled my bony fingers off the keyboard,” she decided to leave the business in 2009 to become Community Relations Director for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.
Three years later, Linder decided to follow suit. “You know, things had just changed so much that it didn’t mean as much to me as it used to,” he says from his office at Missouri State University, where he now works as Director of Photographic Services.
Kennell, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave the paper: His departure in 2011 was chosen for him, after Gannett began laying people off from its newspapers nationwide. After 34 years with the paper, “I felt nominally safe,” says Kennell. “But I knew it could happen. And one day it did.”
Today, he teaches journalism at Missouri State University: After a 30-plus year detour, he got the job he originally wanted. He still looks back fondly at his time at the paper — especially the people, many who made a lasting impression. “I worked with some great people there,” he says. “That was the best thing about it.”
One of those people was Hocklander, who spent many of her News-Leader years alongside those three journalists. She, too, wrapped up a 16-year run with the News-Leader in October 2015. Right now, she’s working on launching her own business — one that utilizes her unique storytelling abilities.
Hank Billings in January 2016. His advice to new reporters: “Be accurate. Be truthful. Don’t embellish things. Don’t exaggerate…And get the facts! Get the facts straight.”
While all four note that the paper changed throughout their tenure, not everything is different. “The thing that’s remained is trying to tell good stories and trying to get at the heart of things,” says Hocklander. “The people in the newsroom absolutely all live here, all work locally, all want to participate in the community conversation. And they’re hugely talented.”
Billings is one of those writers, but he’s not in the newsroom these days. Despite his longevity with the newspaper, age hasn’t spared him completely. It’s been years since he’s driven a car, and his wife of 62 years passed away in 2015. It’s evident that time, yet generous, can also be unkind.
And these days, instead of typing, he dictates what he wants to say in his weekly column over the phone.
“And usually it takes me 15 minutes to do the column,” says Billings. “That’s pretty short. But I’ve been running over it in my head. And that robs me of some sleep because I’m thinking ‘Well, this is what I’m going to use for the lede, this is what I’m going to use for the final.’ For the kicker, as we used to call it.”
Time, not by a clock, is marked on his walls. In the living room, a painting commemorating year 45 in journalism hangs over the couch. A few feet away, a tear sheet celebrating his 55th year with the newspaper — the year Springfield’s mayor designated a day in his honor — decorates the wall.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and yet still he writes.
It’s 11:30 p.m. when giant, ton-sized spools of soon-to-be newsprint prepare to feed the press. Buttons and beeping and whirring warn it’s time just before things begins to spin; faster and faster in a wind-like motion one can barely see.
The paper screams through the throbbing machine: Seemingly so powerful, the paper is still gentle enough to touch. Silky smooth, it dances on fingers as it flies — its presence only proven by smudged skin. After all, cold-pressed ink never really dries.
As they’re done, out they come: One by one, conveyor-style before going single file to the mailroom. “It’s quite a process, ain’t it?” says one of the pressmen. He’s been putting out these papers for 17 years, a long-timer just as several others hidden in the back seem to be.
He remembers when, years ago, things were different. Back when even more papers flew out the door. Back when he could crank the press up to its full capacity of 35,000 papers an hour.
But tonight’s newspapers don’t know that. They keep coming, just like every night: Their contents telling a story, and their presence continuing a tradition.
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