Mount Dora hasn’t always been a local news desert. Until 2006, the Mount Dora Topic was the sixth-oldest weekly newspaper in the state. This story unfolds some of the chapters in its almost 100-year legacy. This week: Mount Dora booms with a newspaper to suit.
In September 1960 Mabel and Norris Reese sold the Topic to George M. Johnson and his wife Lynn. When George passed away in 1963, Lynn assumed the duties of publisher and editor.
Things went into flux in the late ‘60s with a series of publishers—William Dunnagin in 1967, Paul Paddock in 1968, Jim Waldron in 1969.
While the Topic had flourished editorially under Mabel Reese, commercial success for the little weekly newspaper began when Al Liveright bought the paper in 1970.
Liveright, who still lives in Mount Dora, had been a Pennsylvania resident working for the Commerce Department in Washington for 13 years, but had grown tired of the cold northern weather. Tooling for something new to do, he began looking into weekly newspapers in the South. He bought the Topic through a newspaper broker, and moved to Mount Dora in 1971 with his wife and two children.
The paper was in sorry shape when he took over—a tabloid with jagged rows of type, blurry pictures and scant copy. Circulation was low, around 1,300. Papers wax and wane in their history, and the paper Al Liveright inherited, much like the city itself, was ready to grow.
But another northern editor at this very southern paper? There may have been some nervousness about that in the community. Speaking in 1972 to a Mount Dora Kiwanis club, Liveright quipped, “I was talking with Sheriff McCall one time and asked him is he thought I should put more fire in my editorials. His reply was no, it should be the other way around.”
But Liveright’s mission was simply to put out a great newspaper for the community, and under his leadership the Topic reached that goal. Taking advantage of the growth in the area, advertising in the newspaper swelled, enabling Liveright to expand the paper. After a few years the paper began printing again in the larger broadsheet format and swelled to 16 pages, offering many full-page ads. He added a managing editor, sports editor, copy editor, two ad reps, a circulation manager, bookkeeper, layout artist and compositor. Liveright remained editor and publisher throughout.
“I tried to hire as many people as I could,” he says. One day when the Princess Theater closed, the projectionist walked over to the Topic’s office on 5th Avenue and asked Liveright for a job. He put him to work in back.
In a mid-1970s issue of the Topic you could find a little of everything—all of the local news, plus letters to the editor, snippets from the newspaper from 20 to 50 years before, prep sports, photos of citizens giving their view on various topics—even a crossword and an editorial cartoon.
Liveright told me recently,
“I felt my challenge was to follow ALL the developments in Mount Dora and to make them something worth reading, beginning with the basics: ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’ (births, marriages and deaths). Sure, there were some more substantive topics, which we tried to cover like the sun covers the Earth. Communicating was slower back then and there wasn’t the pressure to be the first to break the news. Of course, that was much less a factor in weekly newspapering. Reporting today is more subject to error because of this pressure.”
Circulation increased to 3,000 a week, and in 1975 the Topic was selected the best weekly newspaper in Florida for its circulation by the Florida Press association.
Of course, the Topic’s bigger daily newspaper rivals were growing, too, and both eyed the lucrative opportunities in and around Mount Dora. The New York Times purchased Leesburg’s Daily Commerical in 1971. Tribune Company has bought Orlando’s daily Morning Sentinel and Evening Star newspapers, merging them in 1972. In the mid-70’s the Sentinel-Star expanded its outlying Little Sentinel strategy, greatly expanding its Lake County bureau in Tavares.
How can a weekly newspaper compete against two dailies? “You have only one day a week to beat the daily (newspaper) on timeliness,” wrote the editor and publisher Bruce M. Kennedy in his 1974 book, Community Journalism. But “weeklies can add a personal touch,” he added. “There’s license to ‘visit’ more. You have time and space to be a small-town citizen talking with another about your community.” Liveright was well aware of that and made sure the Topic was, shall we say, Mount Dora-topical at its core.
Production was still old-school, with page composition by hand and headline type applied from sheets of film. The paper printed on Wednesdays, first by a commercial printer in Ocala and eventually on a press in Maitland.
In another speech to the community early in his tenure, Liveright touched on the real-time challenges of newspaper production:
“I could tell you about midnight rides to Ocala to get the paper when we printed there last summer, and the times when people were getting out of bed about the time we finally got the paper put to bed early on a Wednesday morning. And about yesterday, when our car broke down and we had to borrow a station wagon to get to the printer, only to be confronted by a power failure in Maitland. But let me add hastily that this week’s issue is out—or at least it got to the post office last night.”
To run such a big paper for a small town, advertising was crucial. “I never could find a good ad salesman,” Liveright says, “so I had to go out and sell.” At the small weekly newspaper, people wear a lot of hats. The Topic’s publisher and editor in the ‘70s also was ad director and lead salesman. Winn-Dixie ads were bread-and-butter for the Topic, but the real boon for the paper came when Publix began running double-truck (two-page spread) ads.
Mindful of the difficulties former editor Mabel Reese had with the business community over her editorial positions, Liveright kept an even keel. “I was always careful not to rock any boats.” But he also was zealous about accuracy in the paper’s coverage. “I prided myself on error-proof copy in the Topic. Townspeople made a game of seeing if they could find errors … They rarely did. Accuracy is the measure of credibility, without which we should not be in newspapering.”
Liveright’s fondest memories of the Topic were the “pink issues” printed in 1980 while the stinker Honky Tonk Freeway was being filmed in Mount Dora. The whole downtown had been painted pink. Locals were abuzz with all of the Hollywood celebrities shopping on Donnelly, and one of the main daily attractions was watching Bubbles the elephant practice water-skiing on 21-foot skis. Circulation of the Topic swelled to over 4,000 a week for those issues.
In 1981 Liveright felt he had given the Topic a good decade and decided it was time to do something else. He sold the paper to Citrus Belt Publications but went on to serve on the city’s Chamber of Commerce for the next five years.
Asked what he was most proud of in his years as editor and publisher of the Mount Dora Topic, he says, “Residents referred to the newspaper as, ‘my Topic.’ What more recognition could you want than that?”
What more could Mount Dora citizens have wanted than to know that their city was vital and growing as reported every week on the pages of their Topic?
In the final post of this series, a newspaper fades and then disappears, leaving us to wonder at what cost.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)