The paper is still downtown, an old building that stretches back to the block behind it. The Stoneburner family started the paper back in the late 1800s, publishing twice a week. The Exeter Ledger was one of three papers in the town at the time, and soon ended up as the only one. The paper moved to this building in 1903, with a special two-story room in the back of the first floor for the printing press operation. The paper does Scout troop tours several times a year, and the printing press is always one of the highlights.
The troops come in at night, when several of the offices are dark. But the newsroom is still full, and the police scanner keeps it from ever getting too quiet. The Scouts used to see reporters at work on stories, calling sources and writing from notes. Now they’re more often out on the scene of whatever they’re covering, sending information and stories back. The copy desk still is busy, though, and Scouts often get to watch as a copy editor starts to build a page for the next day’s paper, drawing boxes and then placing stories and photos.
The tours usually are Thursday nights because some of the Sunday features sections print that evening. They start downstairs in the press room, then move up to the newsroom where they can see the fresh papers — damp off the press, not hot, according to one copy editor — come up a dumbwaiter for the editors to check one final time. Those first copies always look a little fuzzy until the pressmen get the color plates lined up, and sometimes one of the copy editors will say it’s the 3D version, just to see how many kids will believe him. After that, they go back to the composing room to watch the giant negatives of the pages print out as learn how the file on the computer becomes a negative. Then it’s back downstairs to watch the pressmen burning plates for the next day’s paper from those negatives in one room while the Sunday section runs on the press in another, copies sliding down a rolling ramp overhead through the wall into the mailroom to be stuffed with ads and bundled until Saturday night.
The Ledger prints on site, though the press has changed over the years. Now it’s a technical behemoth that prints several area weeklies on a contract basis, one way the paper has been able to stay independent. The last of the Stoneburner family was set to sell the paper in the mid-1990s when a new company was picking up small papers all over the state to form a chain. A group of local residents, led by Riordan Boyle, banded together to form a foundation and raise enough money to buy the newspaper from Stoneburner. The building hadn’t belonged to the Stoneburner family in almost 50 years at that point, and owner Steve Donaghue agreed to donate the building to the foundation.
The paper is run by a board of directors as a nonprofit, and any money raised goes to grants for organizations throughout the community. Editor Carl “CJ” Jenkins has been at the paper almost 25 years, and he says the challenges between local ownership and the nonprofit setup are similar.
“Back when I first started, there were some stories I couldn’t touch because Old Man Stoneburner wouldn’t let us. And it wasn’t unusual for him to come walking through the newsroom demanding we cover some rinky-dink check-passing or something else because one of his buddies was involved.” Jenkins shrugs. “At least with the board, they’re not walking through the newsroom. And they’re pretty good about staying out of my way on stories. Every so often, one board member might try to push our coverage one way or another, but it’s a diverse enough group that it’s rare for everybody to agree on something coverage-related.”
Jenkins’ office is part of the second-floor newsroom, which overlooks downtown Exeter. Papers are stacked all over the place, and framed front pages hang along the walls. More recent ones are from big news events, but older ones feature stories Jenkins wrote as a reporter. Next to the window is the Sept. 12, 2001, paper.
“That was a crazy day. It was a Tuesday morning, and a lot of the towns around here have selectmen’s meetings on Monday nights, so the newsroom was pretty empty. The TV was on and they broke in with the announcement.” Jenkins pauses to look across the newsroom, which is far from empty today. “One other reporter and I started calling people, telling them to get their asses in here. Nobody really knew what was going on, but since two of the planes had left out of Logan, people started leaving Boston. One of the reporter went down to the train station to talk to commuters getting off the train, and we had others trying to figure out if anybody from here was on either of the flights.” He turns to look out the window. “Will O’Meara was on one of the planes that hit the Trade Center. That family’s seen more than its share of tragedy over the years.” Walking across his office, he stops under another front page, this time with a police honor guard carrying a casket as the main photo. “His father’s funeral was the first one I ever covered. Every time I cover one, I hope it will be the last.”