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Tonawanda News closes, after a storied run, with sadness – and memories

In old-time newspaper lingo, “– 30 – ” meant “the end.” A news story is finished. There’s no more to come.

Today, that symbol belongs to the Tonawanda News.

The paper – which has chronicled life in the Tonawandas since 15 years after the end of the Civil War and started countless journalism careers – has published its last edition.

As the paper’s run came to an end, those who knew the Tonawanda News over the decades reflected on what sort of a place the small newspaper was, and what it meant in the communities it covered.

“The Tonawanda News was our hometown paper,” said Jenna Koch, a member of the Tonawanda City Council who has lived her whole life in the city. “That was our paper.”

The News was a place where young reporters could begin, in an atmosphere that could be part family, part classroom. It was a place where a singular woman – Ruth Hewitt – could take on a position of leadership in 1947, a time when that did not happen in any industry, let alone newspapers. Her obituary in The Buffalo News in 1992 noted that “Ruby” Hewitt was “the first woman to actively head a daily newspaper in New York State.”

And, it was a place where friendships could form – some of them long-term – and staffers could become attuned to the pulse of communities, including the City of Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda, Kenmore and beyond.

“It was a very tight-knit group,” said former reporter Mary Field Carson, who started at age 13 with a Tonawanda News paper route. “It was like a family.”

At one point, back in the 1960s and 1970s, according to an old edition of the paper, the daily’s circulation climbed to 25,000.

There were many moments of change along those 135 years. New faces, changed printing schedules, a different building – a facility on River Road in North Tonawanda, after a stint on Webster Street in the city, in a vintage building that could be cramped and vaguely Dickensian. Most recently, the paper came out Wednesdays to Sundays.

The circulation shifted over the years, too, as the Tonawanda News fell victim to the same changes in reading habits and technology that have dramatically affected all print media. Executives at Community Newspaper Holdings of Alabama, which owns the Tonawanda News and Niagara Gazette, said in a statement when the closing was announced in October that the decision was made for business reasons – advertising and circulation among them.

Chris Voccio, named as publisher in August, called the paper’s continuing an “impossible goal” at the time of the announcement. At the time, the paper put its circulation at 3,500. When contacted by The Buffalo News this week, Voccio said he had nothing more to say about the closure of the paper.

Others had plenty to say, most of it good. Some said they felt saddened by the closing of the Tonawanda News, which was started by George Hobbie in the spring of 1880.

Former employees said it was a good place to be young and to learn how to be a journalist. One of them was Lou Michel, a staff reporter at The Buffalo News who spent the first 15 years of his career at the Tonawanda News. He said the job was a training ground, allowing him to cover government, crime, even explosions – a huge variety of subjects for a young reporter.

“It was a real newsroom,” Michel said of his time there. “There were layers of cigarette smoke.”

But, said Michel, co-author of the bestselling book “American Terrorist”: “This was serious journalism.”

Others also said it was a place to learn, despite its flaws.

“It was quite small and quite young, as far as the newsroom,” said Dan Miner, a former Tonawanda News reporter who started in 2006. “I was 25 or 26, I might have been one of the oldest people in the newsroom at the time.”

Miner now works at Business First. Looking back at the Tonawanda News, he said, “As a beat reporter, it was tremendously informative.”

Kevin Noonan, who studied English in college, worked at the paper for years in roles including reporter and city editor.

“It was a place to start,” said Noonan, who now works in the sports department of The Buffalo News. “I learned from some people that really knew their business.

“I don’t think that happens today,” he said. “I don’t know if that opportunity is there for people.”

The Tonawanda News was owned for decades by the Hewitt family. Ruby Hewitt was “a petite little woman,” said Michel, who met her. “You could see she really cared about the paper.”

The paper later was owned by newspaper groups.

Lynn Hemmings, a Clarence resident who worked for the paper for more than two decades, said it was made up of “a lot of really good, bright, earnest professional people.”

“We worked well together,” she said.

The paper’s closing will have an impact on the communities around it, said Koch, the city councilwoman. She said that what a small community newspaper can cover is all the details of small-town life, from weddings to athletic news.

One loyal reader of the newspaper was her grandmother, Anastasia Holtz, who died at 97, Koch said. Her grandmother read the Tonawanda News “till she was legally blind,” she said. After that, she said, “we had to read it to her.”

Ed Adamczyk, historian for the village of Kenmore and Town of Tonawanda, who has written columns for the paper, said: “There are so many warm memories attached to this paper. It has a presence.” Adamczyk said there are not many things in Western New York that go back to the 1800s.

Barbara Tucker, who has worked for the newspaper since 1978, including as a columnist, wrote for the Tonawanda News until the final issue of the paper.

“I loved the paper. I still do,” said Tucker, who was community news editor. “It’s like getting paid to have fun.”

“There’s been tons of interesting people over the years.”

Carson, now working as a state trooper based in Horseheads, said “It’s so sad to me that they’re closing.”

She left journalism after stints at a few local newspapers, and has had a 30-year career with the state police. But, Carson said, she still remembers her time at the Tonawanda News as being fascinating and wonderful.

News of its closing took her back to those times.

“It brought back a flood of memories.”