Glory days of newspapers remembered: Brad Johnson

Nostalgia set in this week as I reminisced about the glory days of newspapers. The trigger was National Newspaper Week, which was observed last week.

Ink has coursed through my blood since high school when I was editor of the school paper. Later, I became editor of the University of South Dakota Volante at a time when there was no journalism program in Vermillion.

If you were editor, you were the last word on campus. USD President Charles Lien and Gov. Bill Janklow often were annoyed by The Volante.


“The Theater of the Absurd of the Journalism World” is how Janklow described us.

I did not plan a journalism career and instead chose after college graduation to move to the Colorado ski resorts with three fellow graduates to be ski bums.

Soon, I was employed by The Summit Sentinel as a reporter in Summit County, home to Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain ski resorts. Two years later I became editor.

Being editor is the best job one could have in the ski resorts. I had little money because newspaper pay was lousy, but I had access and invitations to about everything.

On a Saturday morning in December 1985, a colleague called and told me to head for Keystone Ski Resort. The Teller Lift, a new ski lift, had collapsed with a full load of skiers. Our small news staff produced great work as 49 people were injured. Five helicopters flew injured to hospitals across Colorado.

We won awards that spring at the Colorado Press Association’s annual convention in Denver. A highlight was wandering down to the Denver Post building to watch the Metro-liner presses print a couple hundred thousand newspapers.

Then in 1987, I joined the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, now just The Gazette. Newspapers were at their peak. The Gazette had a circulation of over 100,000 with about 100 people in the newsroom alone.

It was a time when newspapers had staff to do serious investigative work. An investigation into Colorado Springs city government changed the way it oversaw finances.

I soon was hired away to be editor of a six-day a week daily in Castle Rock, which was in Douglas County between Denver and Colorado Springs. It was the fastest growing county in the nation.

A car crash occurred near Parker High School and a student was killed. Our newspaper’s coverage caused the Colorado Department of Transportation to re-prioritize its highway plan and shift money into widening the dangerous two-lane road near the high school into a safer four-lane road.

For that we won the press association's top Community Service Award.

Soon, the Gazette-Telegraph would hire me back as a deputy city editor to help oversee the 20-reporter city staff.

On a Sunday morning, a United Airline jet on final approach into the Colorado Springs airport crashed nose-first into a city park killing all 23 on board. Our staff learned the names and authored stories about everyone killed.

That evening, an overnight fire swept through a nursing home, killing 15 residents. The two biggest tragedies in the city’s history hit in 24 hours. The entire newsroom engaged in covering the events.

On top of that, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about a father and two young children who were burned severely when their furnace blew up as the father tried to light the pilot flame.

The internet was not widely in use yet, but the writing was on the wall. Soon, newspaper design began to take precedence over content. Good news stories were being cut because they didn’t fit the design.

For an old-school journalist like me, a career change was ahead.

Still, the ink continues to flow in my blood, and for the past 15 years I’ve been writing a weekly opinion column that has appeared regularly in the Watertown Public Opinion and now more regularly in the American News.

It’s sad to see the downward evolution of newspapers, but the eternal optimist in me believes there will be a rebirth of good news coverage. Perhaps I’ll be a part of it.

Brad Johnson is a Watertown businessman and journalist who is active in state and local affairs

This article originally appeared on Watertown Public Opinion: Columnist Brad Johnson recalls the heyday of the newspaper industry