TAKOMA ARCHIVES • BY DIANA KOHN
In many of my historical accounts for this column, newspapers have provided a major source of detail and understanding of past events. This month its time for the newspaper editors to take individual bows.
In the early days Takoma Park was small enough for everyone to be connected by word of mouth.
The Gosorn family did make three short-lived attempts to start a paper: Takoma Park Tidings (1894), the Takoma Localizer (1907) revamped as the Takoma Gazette (1909), and the Record (1920). These weekly papers took note of whatever comings and goings and meetings residents submitted — much as Facebook does today.
John W. Coffman was the first to get the formula right. An editor under Gosorn, he started the Takoma News when the Record folded in 1923. He called his four-page full size paper “a community paper with character.” In one form or another, Coffman papers would appear through 1960.
For the staff of four–Coffman as writer and editor, along with a pressman, printer and adman—the idea was simple: fill the paper with names of citizens (weddings, illnesses, travels), members of the plethora of clubs, schools, businesses—so everyone could see their name in print. The rest of the paper was political news about city and county affairs and random advice.
Editorials often focused on Coffman’s nemesis: E. Brooke Lee, the Democratic head of the Parks and Planning Commission and the most powerful force in the county. Coffman, an avowed Republican (along with most of the registered voters in Takoma Park), took every occasion to rail against the actions of “The Boss,” such as building Sligo Creek Parkway.
Ironically both Coffman and Lee were newspaper men — Lee was editor-in-chief of Maryland News, which covered the entire county. For a brief period (from August 1927 to April 1928), they joined forces at the larger paper, but sparks ensued and within two years Coffman was back in Takoma Park.
Coffman’s new Takoma Journal looked like the old Takoma News, with more noticeably partisan condemnations of the “distinguished dictator of the Maryland News.” Even in the Depression decades of the 1930s and 1940s, the Journal editions varied from 4 to 16 pages,
This period also supported a second news journal — the Takoma Enterprise, published twice a year by Frank Skinner, owner of Pioneer Press. Distributed free, it promoted the town and its merchants with long profiles of businesses, churches, hospitals and civic organizations (to the delight of future historians). There was little current news, but the ads from local merchants attest to its value to the community.
Following World War II, Coffman’s son John, Jr. took over the Journal, bringing increased professionalism to the paper by hiring reporters and instituting journalistic standards.
Nonetheless, by 1954 he was forced to close the paper as he no longer “possessed the physical endurance necessary to produce a paper to merit the support of citizens,” or, as his wife put it, because of “too much competition for advertising from D.C. dailies.”
Six years later, in the absence of any local news source, John, Jr. offered to edit a four-page municipal newsletter. Subsidized by city funds, there was no need to round up advertisers.
The Takoma Park Newsletter delivered month reports from city departments. When then-Mayor Sam Abbott took over as editor in the early 1980s, he stretched the parameters. A power struggle ensued and four Council members forced Abbott out.
In the aftermath, it was clear the community was interested in more news than was allowed in the newsletter. In December 1987, local activists Lou deSabla, Mary Chor and Dan Robinson launched the Takoma Voice to fill the vacuum.
The first issue had 40 pages, with staffers like ex-councilmembers Lynne Bradley and Rino Aldrighetti critiquing city policies in articles that were part opinion and part investigative. Letters to the Editor appeared on page two, assuring community input. Profiles of local organizations and people ran on multiple pages.
Unlike all the other earlier generations of newspaper editors, none of the three were printers by trade — and printing costs would remain a financial issue up to the current day.
What did make it possible however, was the computer age. New layout software, PageMaker, was used to typeset the articles. Once printed out and pasted on boards, a professional printer turned the pages into a real newspaper.
Writers volunteered to write about issues that interested them: housing, gay rights, schools, the long-running debate over Silver Spring development. Bill Brown’s Citizen Bill helped Takoma Park laugh at its own foibles. Merchants joined in with full page ads and there were five pages of resource listings (like a local yellow pages).
By 1992, the paper had moved away from the extended multi-page stories to a more newspaper look. News stories were shorter. There were columns on gardening, and finance, as well as the arts. Travelers like Mike Tidwell reported from exotic locales around the world. Activists on local committees provided updates.
Chor and Robinson left, but others joined, including Charles Votaw who brought a “photographic” Voice to the paper. When deSabla himself moved on to other projects in 1994, a successor was waiting in the wings.
Eric Bond took over as editor, with an particular eye for covering Takoma Park’s hometown vibe. Nancy O’Donnell helped shape a new image with Talk of Takoma — quick takes on people and events. O’Donnell also adopted a more investigative approach to the city political scene, scrutinizing the police, the budget and finally City Administrator Bev Habada.
A more systematic format evolved: Abby Bardi’s essays appeared as Sin of the Month. Sections highlighted Health & Fitness, House & Garden, Arts & Entertainment. And the number of color pages was expanded to feature more photo spreads under the direction of Julie Wiatt.
Bond also began broader coverage of regional politics, teaming up with Capital News Service (CNS), a news bureau staffed by Maryland journalism students.
Well before 2000, the Internet was a factor. The Voice printed its email address, then added a website address to its front cover in the mid-1990s. But no one imagined the social media revolution on the horizon.
At the turn of the 21st century layout was speeded up using Adobe InDesign and PDFs with finished pages delivered to the printer online. Silver Spring redevelopment prompted the launch of the Silver Spring Voice. Then the boom years of real estate and commerce gave way to recession.
This month, faced with a changing media landscape, the Voice had made the decision to curtail print costs by going quarterly but opening the way to greater web presence.
With information overload threatening to swamp our culture, it becomes critical for forums like the Voice to offer solutions for navigating through the fog. Finding creative ways to archive the constantly changing website will ensure that future historians have material to sift through when they seek to understand this decade.
Special thanks goes to Carollyn James for her 1991 study of Takoma Park newspapers.
Diana Kohn is co-author of Takoma Park (Arcadia Publishing) and president of Historic Takoma, Inc. The group’s 39th annual House & Garden Tour will be held on Sunday, May 6 from 1-5 p.m. Details at historictakoma.org.