Rantoul Press to cease publication

Bob Shelton, production director for The News-Gazette, uses a forklift to move the final piece of web press at the Rantoul Press building on Harmon Drive in 2016. The Press had occupied that building since the 1950s. Later in 2016, the Press moved to a new home on East Sangamon Avenue. The Press will cease publication with its Sept. 30 edition.

RANTOUL -- After 145 years, the Rantoul Press is ceasing publication with the Sept. 30 issue. 

Champaign Multimedia Group Publisher/Executive Vice President Paul Barrett said the decision was strictly a business one.

"All of us in the newspaper business hate to see any newspaper close," Barrett said. "The fact of the matter is in order for a newspaper to survive these days it has to have the support of the community it serves.

"The previous owners tried for years to make it viable, and we saw first hand in November of last year just what a challenge they faced. With less than 600 subscribers, the Press was not going to survive. We have been able to keep it open for almost a year, but the losses just continued to mount.

"We can serve the people of Rantoul six days a week with our new County Section that now appears in The News-Gazette every day. The Press' own Dave Hinton will become the editor of that section to give Rantoul a leg up in coverage on a daily, rather than a weekly basis."

Community Media Group purchased the newspaper last year. Starting in the late '50s, it was distributed as a free newspaper that went to every area household until recently. Local residents were not obligated to pay their news carriers, but many of them did.

The new company opted to shift to a subscription plan. Subscription totals began to slowly increase, but retail advertising -- the lifeblood of any newspaper -- waned, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Established in 1875, the newspaper has called several buildings home. During its hey-day, it operated on East Harmon Drive with a full print shop. During the newspaper's centennial year, the Press boasted a staff of nearly 60 people. During recent years, the staff size dwindled to just a handful, and the newspaper moved to its new location in the 200 block of East Sangamon Avenue -- just about a block from its original home.

The Press was originally known as The Rantoul News, started in 1874 or 1875 by Abram Davis Cross and Harvey E. Bullock and was the new town's first newspaper. The village has been home to four newspapers -- The Rantoul Weekly Press, Rantoul Weekly News, The Rantoulian and The Rantoul Journal.

The Press survived two major downtown fires in 1899 and 1901.

When Cross and Bullock began to publish the newspaper, Rantoul, with a population of 827, had been incorporated for just five years. The land was fertile, swampy and level.

Not much is known about Bullock. He was a supporter of the Havana, Rantoul and Eastern Railroad. Cross was an active citizen of the community. Born in 1828 in Danville, Pa., his father fought in the Texas war for independence and the Mexican war, where he lost his life.

After migrating to South America and later helping to build a bridge over the Chagres River in Panama in 1851, he moved to Rantoul two years later. An ardent Democrat, he campaigned for James K. Polk for president. He ran for the legislature in 1885 but lost. He was appointed Rantoul postmaster in 1885 by Grover Cleveland. Cross was a charter member of Rantoul Lodge A.F. and A.M. He died at age 78 and was the second-oldest continuous member of Rantoul.

There are conflicting reports of when The Press was formed. One account said

C.W. Gulick and Frank E. Pinkerton later bought The News and consolidated it with The Journal in either 1877 or '78. The new paper was called The Rantoulian and a short time later changed to the Rantoul Weekly Press. Pinkerton served as editor and publisher. It was published every Saturday.

Pinkerton's stated editorial policy read: "The Rantoul Weekly Press -- unfettered by party, unbiased by creed, unknown by power and unbribed by greed."

Another account indicated it wasn't until 1919 when Charles and Willard Gray sold The News to F.E. Ryker of the Press and the two papers merged.

The newspaper has known its share of bad times.

At 8 a.m. Monday, Feb. 13, 1899, the fire whistle sounded the alarm of a blaze that quickly destroyed a major part of downtown, including the Press and The News offices. With the temperature of 15-below zero, area citizens fought the fire by feeding a barrel with a hand brigade of water buckets while the Paxton Fire Co. pumped water.

J.C. Weir and J.M. Collison bought the Press after the fire of 1899. The Press was again a victim of fire two years later.

News coverage was much different then.

Students of today would have been appalled at the practices of the period from 1874-1901 when one of the regular features of the newspaper was to publish all students' attendance and grades.

For years, newspapers relied on two-line local items such as "Mrs. Emma Brown is quite ill" or "Willis Holder wields the birch at Spring Lake."

Since 1919, only one paper, The Press, has been published in Rantoul. Glenn Hansen bought the paper in 1953 from Sid Morgan and oversaw its greatest period of growth.

Said Hansen: "I (bought) the Rantoul Press at a time when the printing industry was soon to face a tech revolution. Worst of all, I was totally unprepared for the events to follow in the next year of so."

When he bought The Press, it was headquartered on Sangamon Avenue in the heart of downtown Rantoul and, despite the town booming with the construction of new schools and new public utilities, the Press was nearly bankrupt.

"To get to our office, we had a 20-foot dark hallway which led to a room about 14 feet by 18 feet," Hansen wrote in the 1975 centennial edition of the paper. "Here, four of us worked in close harmony. The shop itself was about 30 feet deep to the rear of the building and took the whole rear of the building, measuring about 50 feet."

In Hansen's early days of ownership, the Press held a subscription drive by sponsoring a contest in which each new subscriber was entered with a chance to win the grand prize, a new Chevrolet Belair from Rogers Chevrolet (list price $2,100).

"We couldn't have had (the drawing) if Mr. Earnest Rogers had not graciously agreed to furnish the car and take payment in the form of advertising over several years," Hansen said.

Mrs. Marian Milbrandt won the car, while Mrs. Beatrice Apke won the second prize of $500.

The Press added nearly 1,200 subscribers, giving it almost as many in town as The Champaign News-Gazette.

"We could now offer our businessmen an effective avenue of advertising," Hansen said.

The decision to build a new facility on Harmon Drive in east Rantoul came in 1957. The company bought 2 acres, and thereon built a 6,000-square-foot building.

Just as big a decision was the one in which the Press stopped selling subscriptions to the paper except for those out of the area and delivering the paper free to every household in Rantoul, Chanute Air Force Base, Ludlow, Thomasboro, Penfield, Gifford, Dewey and Fisher.

"This decision was somewhat revolutionary, and we became, I believe, the only downstate free newspaper at this time," Hansen said.

Two years later, at the insistence of merchants, the Press began publishing twice a week -- on Mondays and Saturdays. The arrangement, which was in effect for a year and a half, was a fiasco, and the newspaper lost about $6,000. The Press then began publishing on a weekly basis again, on Wednesdays.

In the 1960s, the Press went to offset printing.

Typesetting and printing changed dramatically over the life of the Press. When newspapers first started, all typesetting was done by hand. Each letter was an individual piece of type that had to be placed in position, one by one. Later, the Linotype was developed that made typesetting much easier. It ushered in a revolution in printing. News compositors could type onto a keyboard, and solid lines of lead type would be cast in lead slugs.

In 1969, the newspaper bought its first photo typesetter -- "an electronic marvel," Hansen said.

"The new machine could set 25 lines of type a minute and had the capability of deciding itself where a hyphen was needed at the end of a line. The typist could intermix three different type faces. It had nine lenses we could use to give type sizes from 6 point to 18 point."

Hansen called the cost of the new equipment "staggering and frightening." It cost $23,000 -- more than four times the total worth of the equipment in the shop only 16 years earlier. Three years later, however, the equipment was obsolete and was worth only $4,000.

By contrast, with the advent of personal computers, the days of the typesetter are long gone. All news copy is not only set on these much-smaller machines by the reporters who cover the news, newspaper pages are also designed on them.

In January 1971, the company won the contract to print the University of Illinois' Daily Illini. It printed the paper -- one of the largest university papers in the country with an average of 28 tab-size pages and a circulation of more than 10,000 -- for many years. Two years later the company won the contract to print the Chanute paper, which necessitated another addition to the Harmon Drive building.

By 1975, the circulation of the Press had reached nearly 13,000. It reached almost every home in a 400-square-mile area.

News from area towns had colorful names such as Fisher Findings, Penfield Prattle, Harwood Howls, Gifford Gossip, Thomasboro Topics, Champaign Cream and Ludlow Locals.

It is believed Hansen owned the Press the longest -- 22 years -- with Arthur Morgan close behind at 21 years.

In 1975, Hansen sold the paper to John P. McGoff through the Sacramento Union newspaper. The News-Gazette bought the paper in 2004.

news@rantoulpress.com