Our J-School friend Snow recently changed jobs and was cleaning out his office. As part of the process, he wanted to recycle a literal page of Columbus history — a framed copy of the last front page of the Columbus Citizen-Journal. Rather than putting it into a box in the basement that never would be seen again, he asked if I wanted it, and I said sure.
Columbus used to be a two-newspaper town. There was the Columbus Dispatch, of course, and the Columbus Citizen-Journal. The Dispatch was the established afternoon newspaper, in the days when many newspapers were delivered around 4 p.m. so people coming home from work could catch up on the news before dinner, and the C-J was the morning option. The Dispatch, owned by a prominent local family, was a dominant force, and its articles could shake the political foundations in downtown Columbus. The C-J, a part of the Scripps-Howard chain, tried to be the lighter, spunky competitor.
But reading tastes changed, and when it became clear that afternoon newspapers were going the way of the dodo, the Dispatch decided it needed to become a morning paper to survive. An agreement under which the Dispatch printed the C-J was due to expire, and after much hand-wringing the agreement was allowed to lapse. In those pre-internet days, becoming an on-line newspaper was not an option, and with no way to print itself the C-J was inevitably doomed. The Columbus Citizen-Journal therefore printed its last edition, shown above, on December 31, 1985, and Columbus officially became a one-newspaper town the next day.
At the time, that seemed like a very bad thing. I marched in the “Save the C-J Brigade” during the 1985 Doo-Dah Parade, and thought that if Columbus wanted to be a big city it needed to have a second newspaper that could provide an alternative perspective. And, of course, having two newspapers promotes competition and better reporting. But it turned out that Columbus was just on the leading edge of a trend that has seen many newspapers turn off their presses and many big cities become one-newspaper towns. In the digital age, newspapers struggle to compete with online news sources that deliver the news instantaneously and around the clock, and the online sources have rushed in to fill the content void that was created by the closure of so many daily newspapers. Even the Dispatch, once so dominant, has seen its pages and circulation shrink.
Thirty-four years later, how many people in Columbus remember the C-J, or even know that at one time there was a second newspaper in town? It’s important, of course, to hear alternative viewpoints — particularly in these politically divided days — but maybe daily print newspapers are not the best way, technologically and culturally, to supply those viewpoints. In reality, for all of the dire predictions, Columbus has done pretty well as a one-newspaper town.