GUEST

Essay: From Gates-Chili News to Monroe Post West, a history

John Robortella

I was sorry to read in the Canandaigua Daily Messenger (Sept. 3, 2021) that its parent company will cease to publish a number of community weekly newspapers in Monroe, Ontario and Wayne counties, including the Monroe Post West. 

The Monroe Post West was originally the Gates-Chili Post and before that the Gates-Chili News, where I worked from the time when I was a Gates Chili High School freshman in 1965 until 1983. It’s sad that hyper-local community journalism — and coverage of the news that never makes the city dailies or the modern social media platforms — will be gone. 

The Gates-Chili News was sold in 1999 by the family of Samuel J. Smith, its founder, to George W. Ewing Jr., then the president and publisher of Messenger-Post Newspapers. A few years earlier, Mr. Ewing had purchased the Wolfe Post Newspapers, including the Brighton-Pittsford Post, the gold standard of community weekly newspapers in its day. 

Sam Smith, circa 1962.

Soon after, Mr. Ewing sold Messenger Post Newspapers to GateHouse Media, which merged with Gannett in November 2019. They say that local community newspapers could not compete with the internet and the digital media of the 21st century. The media companies could have continued the strong tradition of community journalism if they only had retained reporters and photographers to exploit what they had — a monopoly on local news: the town boards, the school boards, the Scout troops, service organizations, and the local police and ambulance blotters. But that’s another story for another day. 

The end of what was the Gates-Chili News and the Wolfe Post Newspapers will be the week of Oct. 24, 2021. A lot of people won’t even know they’re gone. They sure don’t know the kind of journalism that they’re missing. The news coverage of today isn’t even close. 

When Mr. Ewing purchased the Gates-Chili News in 1999, I wrote to him about the newspaper that he bought. Here’s the long letter that I wrote to him.  

“Dear Mr. Ewing: 

“I read with much more than passing interest news of the sale of the Gates-Chili News to the Messenger-Post Newspaper Group of Canandaigua, N.Y. (my new hometown as of this past May). 

“You bought a very special newspaper, a unique publication because it has been independently owned and operated for the past 41 years by the Smith family. You bought a newspaper with tradition and history, both of which are far deeper than you could have learned in your negotiations to purchase it — a tradition of hard work and impeccable journalism, and a history of direct community service. These are now passed to you by Mrs. Patricia M. Smith, which she received from the newspaper's founder, her husband Samuel J. Smith. 

“From 1958 to this day, Mr. and Mrs. Smith used their press to spark a number of community endeavors. Both resisted abuse of their influence in Gates and Chili and both made a conscious effort to encourage positive change in the towns — true grassroots journalism at its best. With all due respect, Mr. Ewing, you have a hard act to follow. But with the tremendous history of your newspaper group going back to the Ontario Gazette, founded on November 24, 1796, and your high standards and professionalism, we have no doubt in your ability to assume stewardship and take this wonderful newspaper into the 21st century. 

“Now that the paper has changed hands, here are some notes on its history which may be of interest to you and your staff, and some reminders of my 15 years on the staff — from my first meeting with Mr. Smith in 1965 when I was a freshman at Gates Chili High School until 1983. These were the growth years in the towns of Gates and Chili, and of the Gates-Chili News, as well, linked together as every good newspaper is linked to the people and events it reports. 

“‘Literature under pressure’ was Mr. Smith’s description of newspaper writing. We certainly never thought for a moment that what we were writing was literature, but there were constant deadlines and it was news for which Mr. Smith’s subscribers were paying good money to read. 

“The S.J. Smith Company was founded in 1958, but not to publish a newspaper. Mr. Smith had started a “shopper,” appropriately named the Gates-Chili Shopping Dollar, with offices at 548 Chili Ave. in Rochester. Four years later, he changed the shopper’s format to a newspaper. On March 29, 1962, the Gates-Chili Shopping Dollar News was published; circulation: 5,000, distributed free of charge by mail to homes in Gates and Chili. 

“His change to a newspaper started with suggestions from town leaders that Gates and Chili ‘would appreciate a newspaper which would be published regularly, one that would limit its news to local interest,’ Mr. Smith wrote in his first editorial, printed on page one. ‘One leader, Gates Supervisor Frank Kipers, saw fit to introduce a resolution making this paper an official town newspaper, enabling it to publish legal notices, our first encouragement to become a newspaper.’ 

“In that first editorial, Mr. Smith outlined the political philosophy of his newspaper, which has not changed. ‘This paper will continue to be nonpartisan,’ he wrote. ‘We carried advertising for both parties for years. We will continue this policy with an honest effort in our writings not to lean to one side or the other.’ Then he wrote the paper’s motto: We publish only the plain and simple truths dedicated to our readers with unbiased facts, wholesome opinions and malice toward none. It has appeared in every edition. ‘Our only hope is to be able to present the issues in a way to assure continuance of good government we have grown to know in the towns,’ he wrote. 

“The lead story in the first edition was notice of a public hearing called by Gates Supervisor Kipers and Chili Supervisor George Lusk to discuss the proposed jet expansion at the Rochester-Monroe County Airport. The first edition carried 12 pages of news and advertisements. 

“As the paper grew, Mr. Smith moved into larger facilities at 1269 Chili Ave. in Gates to accommodate the printing, typesetting, collating and addressing equipment. When he couldn’t afford a graphic arts camera to photograph the pages in preparation for making plates, he bought a lens and a bellows and made his own. The entire newspaper was produced under one roof and Mr. Smith knew and often did every job — writing, photography, printing, collating and addressing. 

“The supervisors of both towns who had given Mr. Smith the impetus to start the paper were given space in each edition to write weekly columns. Circulation increased to 6,000 by October 1962 when the Chili Town Board adopted a resolution, similar to the one Gates had passed, designating the Gates-Chili Shopping Dollar News an official Chili newspaper. 

“On Oct. 31, 1963, the publication’s name was changed again, this time to the Gates-Chili News, to reflect the increase in community news, letters to the editor and Mr. Smith’s editorials. Circulation also changed that year. The Gates-Chili News was now a newspaper, Mr. Smith wrote; it was no longer a free shopper’s guide with news as a sideline. A subscription campaign began: $2 for one year, $3.25 for two. William Elser took out the first subscription, which Mr. Smith sold to him at a meeting of the Gates Lions Club. Mr. Smith reported that of the people who had been receiving the paper free of charge, 92% agreed to subscribe. 

“‘We appreciate the cooperation and support of our thousands of subscribers and advertisers,’ he wrote in 1963. ‘We realize the great responsibility which is ours in reporting the activities and events of our people and organizations. We are eager to accept that challenge which gives life and meaning to the part our citizens play in the community.’ He had special thanks to the subscribers. ‘A newspaper whose circulation is made up of people requesting, and dramatically by paying for it, are readers and doers!’ 

“Mr. Smith continued as the first publisher of the Gates-Chili News. Its first editor was Jean Ann Brown. 

“His first editorial comment on a local issue was published on Dec. 5, 1963. The topic was the proposed Gates Volunteer Ambulance Service. ‘The benefits of having our own ambulance can be measured,’ he wrote. ‘Maybe the final measure will be five minutes — five minutes saved. This can mean a life saved. In any effort of this type, not everyone will feel the same. There will be those opposed to any constructive effort. Perhaps this is good. Anything come by too easily is not appreciated. Will the people of Gates “push” for their ambulance? Time will tell.’ (The people did “push” after his editorial. The Gates Volunteer Ambulance Service Inc. was formed in 1964 by a group of citizens led by Gates Police Chief William Stauber and John F. Montione, MD) 

“In 1965, with a paid circulation of over 5,000, the newspaper reached one of its first milestones. After an auditing and evaluation procedure by postal inspectors, the United States Postmaster in Washington, D.C., granted second-class postal privileges to the Gates-Chili News. The official document was signed in Rochester by local Postmaster John Bittner as Mr. Smith, joined by the Gates and Chili supervisors, looked on. ‘With the securing of the postal permit, the Gates-Chili News started out in 1965 equipped to serve the towns of Gates and Chili as two first-class towns should be served,’ he wrote. 

“He brought his newspaper into the foreground of community service by joining with local home builder Joseph Entress and the Gates-Chili Chamber of Commerce to sponsor motorcades through the towns. These gave Rochester business owners a first-hand look at the potential business climate and facilities in the then very suburban — even rural — towns of Gates and Chili. 

“The paper continued to grow, both in number of pages each week, advertising revenue and subscriptions. Mr. Smith was an active publisher, with memberships in the Chamber of Commerce, Gates Lions Club and Gates-Chili Rotary Club. He encouraged students to enter the field of journalism by providing a full page each week to the Gates-Chili High School for student news and photographs called the ‘Spartan Corner.’ He published church news, Girl and Boy Scout news, and the popular ‘Know Your Neighbor' columns — news that was not published in the large, often impersonal dailies, as he once wrote. 

“On May 5, 1974, a Sunday, while dining out, Mr. Smith was suddenly stricken. He was rushed to Rochester General Hospital, where he pronounced dead on arrival. Mrs. Smith was out of town visiting family and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department could make no notifications that day. On Monday morning, we took the call from the sheriff’s investigator at the news office. 

“Even though we were an hour and a half from press deadline, everything stopped; the clattering typesetting machines were shut off and the office staff was silent as the investigator provided sketchy details by phone. He said he would notify the family. Our notification was made to the Smith family attorney at the time, Michael A. Telesca, now a federal District Court judge. His instructions to the staff were simple — ‘get the paper out; don’t miss the deadline. That’s what Sam would have wanted.’ And that’s what we did. 

“In the May 14, 1974, edition, we placed his photograph, which Craig Densmore had taken several months earlier, on the entire front page, outlined with a black border. Mary Klapp wrote the headline: ‘Our Towns Have Lost a Very Special Person.’ 

“Tributes poured in. ‘Every man is valued in this world as he shows by his conduct that he wishes to be valued,’ wrote Chili Supervisor James J. Powers. ‘So shall I remember Sam Smith — author, journalist, friend.’ Mr. Smith, the first honorary member of the Gates Volunteer Ambulance Service, was praised by ambulance officials: ‘Mr. Smith gave continuous support to our service from the first fund drive to the present,’ wrote Dr. Montione. ‘His influence in the community will be long felt and missed by the many organizations to which he has given his support through the Gates-Chili News.’ 

“The ownership of the newspaper and duties of editor and publisher then passed to Mr. Smith’s wife, Patricia. ‘This newspaper will proudly continue to serve its public in the same traditions and under the same policies which have been established,’ she wrote in her first editorial in 1974. 

“And to continue the tradition of community service, she established the Samuel J. Smith Journalism Awards, presented each year to a senior at the Gates-Chili and Churchville-Chili high schools, and led the newspaper in its coverage of every issue of the day in both towns. Mrs. Smith also continued a most important tradition: since its founding, the newspaper has never missed a publication date. 

“Tradition and history are made by people and their experiences, and in 41 years the Gates-Chili News has had terrific staff members who have worked with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. These have included Mary Klapp with her outstanding journalistic skill and high standards; Larry Stackman and Craig Densmore making halftone films of photographs on Sam’s homemade camera; Marge DiSalvo and Shirley Bullock designing advertisements; Elsa Rathmell, JoAn Stein, Peg Skinner and Nancy Reynolds setting type; Theo DeSmit arranging the page layouts; the printers, including Mr. Smith, Bob Vandermallie and Dean Milliman, printing the paper through the night; Elaine Robena Kennedy addressing each copy for mailing; Agnes Sullivan and Dorothy Wheeler, two of the paper’s bookkeepers (Mrs. Wheeler having served for more than 20 years); Noreen Hartung and Pearl Caruso at the front desk; Sadie Lockwood, Roberta  Plaksin, Phyllis Pittman and Ellen Free selling advertisements; Gerry Snyder working as subscription director; the arrival of Frank Love in 1980; and many more. 

“The newspaper will certainly change with the new owners, but no doubt Mr. Smith would approve and Mrs. Smith will approve. Remember past laurels, but just don’t rest on them, Mr. Smith would often say. And he used to quote Will Rogers, to paraphrase and with apologies: ‘Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you're just standing still.’ 

“Mrs. Smith's decision to sell the paper was right for her at this time. 

“Congratulations to you, Mr. Ewing, and hail and farewell to Mrs. Smith with profound thanks for what she and her husband have given to the towns. Oh, one more thing, Mr. Ewing — what’s on the front page this week? Any good letters to the editor? And where are last week’s sports scores? 

“That’s one thing we always remember about working on the paper. There’s always another deadline and you’re only as good as last week’s paper.” 

John Robortella is past editor of the Gates-Chili News.