Corrections or additions?

This column by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the May 9, 2001

edition of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Between the Lines: Town Topics

Hot off the presses! Read all about it! That’s the style

that a lot of newspaper publishers would employ to trumpet the news

of the sale of their newspaper after more than 54 years of successful

ownership by the same family. But that’s not how our good friends

at the Town Topics did it.

The Town Topics ran a simple little box on the front page of the May

2 edition, referring readers to a column on page 2 by the editor and

publisher, Jeb Stuart. The third paragraph laid out the reason for

the sale simply and directly: "It is not without regret, but the

time is right. When my wife, Sheila, and I began to run Town Topics

after my father’s death in April, 1981, we gave ourselves a timetable

of sorts. My father, at age 67, left his office to go to the hospital,

and was dead less than two weeks later of acute lymphomatic leukemia.

We vowed we would be out of here in time to do many of the things

we never had time for while running this newspaper."

The low-key announcement was typical of Town Topics. It is a no-frills

newspaper, delivered every Wednesday into the driveways and onto the

front porches of 12,000 or so homes in Princeton Borough and Township

and a few neighboring communities. It covers school board meetings,

zoning, planning boards, municipal government, high school sports,

recreation league softball, and the police blotter. It faithfully

reports the meetings of the garden club, and records births,

engagements,

weddings, and obituaries — beginnings and endings.

While other papers, including U.S. 1, have myriad special issues,

Town Topics simply publishes one regular issue every week, 52 weeks

a year. The one exception: The paper’s 50th anniversary issue. While

other papers, including U.S. 1, splash four-color photographs across

their cover, Town Topics never has. While many other papers (but in

this case not U.S. 1) hire a succession of graphic designers to change

their look with the seasons, Town Topics today looks pretty much like

it did 20 years ago, or 40, for that matter. While every newspaper

in the world has classified ads that are in fact classified by

category,

Town Topics classifieds are apparently thrown together randomly among

the real estate display ads in the back of the paper. The paper says

unclassified classifieds represent the "idea of finding a quarter

while looking for a dime."

In this day of dot.coms becoming dot.gones, one strange and

back-handed

compliment for the Internet and one suggestion of its future strength

is that Town Topics — even Town Topics! — has a website:

www.towntopics.com.

It includes the text of recent issues, a few photographs, and a link

to its 50th anniversary issue. But don’t expect any frills, and

certainly

no fancy bells and whistles.

We at U.S. 1 have always been partial to Town Topics. Way back in

1973 or ’74, when our editor and publisher was just starting out as

a freelance writer, Town Topics offered him a part-time job,

pinch-hitting

for people on vacation or out sick and submitting occasional feature

stories. Not only was it a steady stream of income for young Rich

Rein, but it was also an insight into the operation of a small

independent

publishing venture. Don Stuart, the founding editor and publisher

of the Topics (along with his brother-in-law Dan Coyle), was generous

with his payroll and his time. Until he met Don Stuart, Rein the

writer

had never had a meaningful conversation with any publisher.

While U.S. 1 and the Town Topics compete for some of the same

advertising

dollars, the two papers serve largely different audiences. In fact,

the idea for U.S. 1 sprang from a Town Topics editorial meeting. In

1984 Rein, still a freelance writer and occasional contributor

to the Topics, suggested a story on the competition between the Hyatt

Regency and Scanticon (now Doral Forrestal) hotels for corporate

business.

Noting that the Hyatt is located in West Windsor and Scanticon was

in Plainsboro, the Topics editors deemed that Rein’s idea was not

for them — it was not a Princeton story, it was a Route 1 story.

They were right.

By then Jeb Stuart was running Town Topics and he was as supportive

of Rein the young publisher as his father had been of the young

writer.

Some of U.S. 1’s early issues were typeset at Town Topics. U.S. 1

bought its first photo-typesetting machines from the Topics. And on

many occasions, when faced with important business decisions, U.S.

1 followed the Town Topics model.

Now we at U.S. 1 wish Jeb and Sheila Stuart a happy and healthy

retirement.

And we offer best wishes to the new owners: Lynn Smith, who has worked

in ad sales at the paper for the past three years, her husband, Ken

Smith, a teacher at Princeton Day School, and J. Robert Hillier, the

architect.

The new owners’ challenges will be many: Retaining the loyal

readership;

deciding whether and how to integrate the Internet into its publishing

operation; and of course considering whether to classify those

"unclassifieds."

Then there is the matter of graphic design. Bob Hillier, the

architect,

noted in an interview with the Princeton Packet — the paid

circulation

paper that covers Princeton and most of the other surrounding

communities

— that he has "an interest in graphics." Whether or not

that translates into a major redesign is one matter; whether such

a redesign would ruin the "hometown" feel of the paper that

has existed since Hillier’s childhood is another matter.

Here at U.S. 1, where the paper is still run by its founder, the

parent

of two elementary school-age children, the article on the Town Topics

sale brought to mind two engagement notices printed in the Topics

just a week earlier. Those notices were for the son and the daughter

of Jeb and Sheila Stuart. Either Craig Stuart, a 1992 Princeton

graduate

who worked for four years as a reporter in Thailand, or Lauren Stuart,

a 1993 University of Vermont alumna now in sales for Backroads Travel

Co., would seem to have the sense of adventure that would enable them

to become the third generation of Stuarts to run the Town Topics.

And certainly either one could have struck a most favorable deal with

their parents. But both have chosen other pursuits. All of which makes

us think: It must be an exhilarating feeling to buy a newspaper. But

it may be even more exhilarating to sell it.


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