The Leader celebrates 130 years, thanks to its readers and founders

Posted 11/27/19

“In entering the field of journalism at Port Townsend, the Morning Leader does not come with a flourish of trumpets and the broad declaration that its mission is to fill a long felt-want. We come to stay.”

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The Leader celebrates 130 years, thanks to its readers and founders


“In entering the field of journalism at Port Townsend, the Morning Leader does not come with a flourish of trumpets and the broad declaration that its mission is to fill a long felt-want. We come to stay.”

One hundred and thirty years after W.L. Jones, the publisher of the early editions of the Port Townsend Leader, wrote that statement on the front page of the first edition, The Leader is still here.

The very first publication of The Leader dates back to Oct. 2, 1889, according to records at the Jefferson County Historical Society.

And while it was not the very first paper on the North Olympic Peninsula (at the time, the competition was hot—nearly nine papers existed in Port Townsend prior to The Leader, according to historian Bill Lindstrum), it is the Peninsula’s longest continuously-operating newspaper.

Today, in the age of digital news, a lasting weekly newspaper is unusual.

“It’s a strong community that makes a strong newspaper,” said Leader Publisher Lloyd Mullen. “It’s a testament to the people of Jefferson County that we’ve been able to flourish for so long, and will continue to do so.

“The Wilsons (the family from whom the Mullens bought The Leader) seemed focused on passing the paper on to another family with ink in its veins,” Mullen said of the negotiations he and his business partner, brother Louis Mullen, carried out to buy The Leader in 2016.

The Mullens grew up on deadline, working in all aspects of the Wyoming newspapers operated by their father, Tom, who now owns and operates the Shelton-Mason County Journal. “What made The Leader attractive was that the paper’s involvement in community work was expected, and that’s good.”

In many corners of the U.S., local news is in crisis, as debt-burdened investors have demolished newsrooms to save money.

“The Leader is a remarkably relevant and strong community newspaper in the current environment,” said Scott Wilson, the last publisher before Mullen. “There are not very many communities that have as strong and vibrant a paper as The Leader.”

There are two hypotheses for The Leader’s longevity.

The first is a history of caring and capable owners. From 1889 to 1906, The Leader had as many as ten different owners/publishers, writes Lindstrum in his book, “Strait Press.”

But for the last 100 years, The Leader has only had five owners.

Winslow McCurdy, followed by his son Dick McCurdy, owned the paper from 1906 to 1967, with help from others who came and went.

“When I joined the staff in September 1945, Ray O. Scott was publisher, office manager and part-time linotype operator,” said Tom Camfield, who worked at The Leader for 40 years. “The linotype was Ray’s first love. He was locally born and grown and apprenticed at The Leader, leaving in 1912 to work as a typesetter in Astoria and Anchorage.”

Today, on the walls of the Leader building (which is located at 226 Adams Street in one of the oldest stone buildings in town), is a photo of Ray Scott sitting at the Linotype machine, with printers Fred Willoughby, Claude Mitton and managing editor Dick McCurdy in the background.

“In 1945, Dick was off in the Army and the news staff was temporary editor Jack Hirtz. Claude Mitton already was handling all of the printing and I became his assistant,” Camfield said. “We, of course, had the old hand-fed Babcock newspaper press and general type-high printing (linotype, some hand-picked larger type; cast metal, etc.) until the advent of offset printing about 1969.”

In those days, the paper hit the streets on Thursday mornings, Camfield said. As a printer devil, he made 40 cents an hour, working on the paper Monday through Wednesday, and working on other printing jobs on Thursdays through the weekend.

Dick McCurdy, who returned from the Army and ran the newspaper until 1967, was a well-known figure around town, winning “Man of the Year” in 1956.

There were big shoes to fill for Frank Garred, when he bought the paper, becoming the new publisher in 1967.

“Dick and I had talked about the transition for several years,” Garred said. “He was anxious about the new technology. We were going from ink off lead to offset printing.”

Over the years Garred owned the paper, from 1967 to 2002, the technology with which the paper was created changed multiple times, from the old lead type-setting to offset printing and to eventually become the first newspaper in the state to become computerized.

“In retrospect, it was a challenge,” Garred said. “I had a focus on the future. I had to if we were going to survive.”

Garred, despite initially focusing on the technology switchover, also had a background in journalism. Like Dick McCurdy before him, Garred wanted The Leader’s reporters to delve deep into stories.

“I wanted The Leader to be a leader,” he said. “And I didn’t want it to isolate itself from its community.”

Garred passed this tradition along to Scott Wilson, who started at The Leader as a news intern, then later joined as a reporter, working his way up to becoming the editor and then finally owning the paper in 2002.

“Look back on the last three publishers,” Wilson said. “We were all journalists. That’s really rare.”

McCurdy, Garred and Wilson were all journalists who helped their reporters feel supported in covering important local issues.

But it wasn’t just the technology or the long-lasting publishers, who made The Leader successful over the years, Garred said.

“People related to The Leader as a very prominent, dominant part of their life,” he said. “That’s what I really thought was impressive about it; how it related, interacted. It was always available to the community.”

Without dedicated readership, the paper would not have fulfilled W.L. Jones’ mission: to stay.

“We have a remarkably engaged and involved community,” Wilson said. “The readership is to thank. We still have a genuine community with local interests.”

Without readers, The Leader would have ended many years ago. And it is the engaged community members who write letters to the editor, call in news tips, and give healthy criticisms of the paper that spur the reporters to hold up the 130-year-long legacy of writing important, timely, and complicated local stories.

Mullen said his family continues to invest in community newspapers: his brother Louis recently purchased the Omak paper, a clear signal the Mullens are bullish on local news.

“In retrospect, 130 years is a long time,” Garred said. “In reality, it’s one week at a time.”


1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Marge Samuelson

Just wanted to let people know that at the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center the Port Townsend Leaders have been indexed from Nov of 1889 to 2008. We stopped in 2009 when the leader went online. But as their search doesn't work so well I have begun indexing from 2008 to present time. You can visit the RC and check out the index if your looking for something and don't remember the date you will probably find it. You can do research for free if you are a member of the JCHS or the Jefferson County Genealogical Society JCGS. Otherwise it costs a small fee of $6 for under 65 or $5 if you are over 65. There is also a JCHS yearly membership of $20 just for entrance to the RC, if you plan to do a lot of research. JCHS has all of the bound copies of the Leader from 1889 to 2018. We are both, JCHS & JCGS non-profits so your fees & membership help keep us open. Also JCGS provides two volunteers a day, 5 days a week to help researchers. So, during these cold winter months come on in and see what else we have. Thank you Port Townsend Leader for a great newspaper!

Friday, November 29, 2019