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THE LAUREL CHRONICLES

Laurel Leader: The End of an Era

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By Kevin Leonard  |  This article oiginally appeared in Voices of Laurel Fall 2021

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MELANIE DZWONCHYK

This homemade poster once hung on the office wall of former Laurel Leader editor, Melanie Dzwonchyk. Created by Leader staff in the 1990s under then-editor Joe Murchison, she says it "defines what citizens deserve from a local newspaper, and what they will lose when those papers go away."

As we reported in our last issue (Voices of Laurel, Summer 2021) the Laurel Leader will continue to be published (for now) with content from the Baltimore Sun and other local papers owned by its parent company, Tribune Publishing, but with no particular emphasis on Laurel. It’s the end of an extraordinary era that lasted 124 years. The Leader transcended generations, and its name has become forever synonymous with our town.

For its first 100 years, the Leader enjoyed remarkable stability in ownership and editorial staff. James Curley, an attorney and member of the Maryland House of Delegates, started the paper in 1897. During the Curley years, the paper mostly reported national and international news, with only two pages usually devoted to local news and advertising. He owned and edited the Leader for 41 years, until he sold it to G. Bowie McCeney, a Laurel attorney, in 1938.

After editing the paper himself for six months, McCeney turned over the editor’s job to his former secretary, Gertrude Poe, who had just graduated from law school. Poe remained as editor for the next 42 years, and eventually became co-owner with McCeney. Poe reversed the newspaper’s focus, reporting only local news. In 1946, the Leader merged with two other McCeney-owned newspapers, the Bowie Register and the College Park News, and renamed itself the News Leader. When Poe retired in 1980, she sold the newspaper to Patuxent Publishing Company.

 

When Patuxent Publishing took over, the paper reverted back to its original name, the Leader. It was also the end of an astonishing 83-year period that saw only three owners and two editors (not counting McCeney’s six-months).

After 1980, the role of editor changed more frequently but always promoted from within. Karen Yengich, who was the assistant editor under Poe for eight years, was promoted to editor. Yengich’s career with the Leader started off inauspiciously in 1972. Her first assignment was to cover Presidential candidate George Wallace’s campaign rally at the Laurel Shopping Center on May 15, 1972. Wallace was shot by Arthur Bremer, making Laurel the center of national news for days.

Patuxent Publishing was headquartered in Columbia and the company also published the Howard County Times, Columbia Flier, Arbutus Times, and Catonsville Times, among others.

Yengich left the Leader in 1990 and was replaced by Joe Murchison, who had worked at the paper for five years. Under his leadership, the paper covered the local angle of the 9/11 hijackers who, it was learned later, spent some time in Laurel while preparing for the attack. Murchison retired after 17 years as editor in 2007. Also during Murchison’s tenure, ownership of the Leader changed hands numerous times. First in 1997, when Patuxent Publishing was purchased by the Baltimore Sun, which was owned by Times Mirror Corp., and again in 2000, when Tribune Publishing purchased Times Mirror and acquired a number of newspapers, including the Sun and its subsidiaries.

Pete Pichaske replaced Murchison for one year, and then moved on to become the news editor of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier.

In 2008, Melanie Dzwonchyk, who was a columnist and freelance writer for the Leader and joined the paper’s staff in 1995, was named the new editor. Just a few months later, the Leader’s offices were moved from Main Street in Laurel, where they had been for over 100 years, to the Patuxent Publishing Co. headquarters at the Columbia Flier building in Columbia, and in December 2012 the Leader moved again, this time to the Baltimore Sun headquarters in Baltimore. In 2014, Dzwonchyk was appointed news editor of the Howard County Times and the Columbia Flier, while continuing as editor of the Leader.

Tribune Publishing’s gutting of operations had picked up steam in 2009. In April of that year, Tribune fired 18 senior editors and newsroom managers at the Baltimore Sun without warning. Many of the editors and managers were led out of the building by security guards. A day later, 40 newsroom employees, or 20 percent of the staff, received layoff notices. Between 1999, when Tribune acquired the Sun, and the end of 2009, the newsroom staff was cut by more than 60 percent.

Upon Dzwonchyk’s retirement in late 2017, Katie McClelland, an arts and features editor on Dzwonchyk’s staff of the Howard County Times, became the new editor of the Leader.

The big kick in the pants for the Leader came this past May, when Tribune Publishing was purchased by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is now the second-largest newspaper publisher in America, behind only Gannett. Alden’s well-deserved reputation is to lay off large segments of a company’s workforce and sell off any unit they can. Within weeks of the deal, the writing was on the wall.

Like so many other small-town newspapers throughout the country, the Leader saw its local operations gutted after a remarkable 124-year history. Currently, the Leader continues to be published, but with no dedicated staff and no locally generated content. Instead, it is filled with stories produced by the Sun and its other community newspapers, and McClelland was reassigned as a staff writer for the Howard County Times.

What is lost?

In the book, Saving Community Journalism, author Penelope Abernathy defines the hallmarks of a strong news organization, with an eye toward small community newspapers:

1. Set the agenda for public debate

2. Encourage economic growth in the area

3. Foster geographic identity

There is no doubt the Leader accomplished all this for the Laurel area. Without a weekly community newspaper, there is no driving force for any of this.

Community Newspapers Matter

Ray Mosby, editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, hit the nail on the head about why community papers matter:

“Local newspapers play an important, irreplaceable role in our lives. Local newspapers cover high school and community sports. They keep track of events at schools and weekend gatherings that are what make communities great. They tell you what’s coming in entertainment.

They cover what’s happening and serve as watchdogs of local agencies. Do you want to go to every city council or school board meeting and keep track of the happenings? If not, do you want someone to do it for you? Local newspapers do that. When a local newspaper goes away, local agencies can go crazy, because no one is watching.”

What the Leader Provided

In interviews with Dzwonchyk and Yengich, they both lamented the Leader’s current status and what it will mean to the community.

“The whole idea,” said Yengich, “is that a community newspaper provides local news.” She recalled the philosophy of her old boss, Gertrude Poe, who thought that “anything that moved in Laurel” should be reported in the paper.

Dzwonchyk talked about her realization that “people relied on information from the Leader” and her frustration with the geographically challenged powers that be with Patuxent Publishing. When she protested that the Leader office was moving to Columbia, the company replied, “But Laurel is in Howard County. Why do you need your own office?” in Laurel.

She also shared a homemade poster with me that she hung on the wall of her office. Dzwonchyk said the mission statement and list of values was created by Leader staff in the 1990s under then-editor Murchison, and it “defines what citizens deserve from a local newspaper, and what they will lose when those papers go away.”

Mission Statement

To celebrate Laurel’s victories,

Illuminate its problems

And bolster efforts to make it better

Key Values

To write articles and commentary that are incisive, thorough, lively, accurate, and fair

To maintain a lively dialogue with our readers

To seek out stories on all segments of the community

To treat all with courtesy and consideration

In Gertrude Poe’s last article on June 26, 1980, she wrote: “Changes are inevitable, and they will be progressive ones. One thing will not change: the dedication to provide a community oriented newspaper which has been the trademark of The News Leader.”

Apparently, no one at Tribune Publishing or Alden Global Capital read that.