Let’s set the scene. In 1978, Watergate was still in the air, mortgage rates reached 24 percent, Jimmy Carter was looking like the weakest and most ineffective president since Ulysses Grant, and you couldn’t buy a mixed drink anywhere in North Carolina. On the surface H.L. Mencken was right. The South was the Sahara of the Bozart. I didn’t think so.
My job as I saw it was to provide an alternative to the existing media view of the region by recognizing that Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill were going to be seen as one unified community, whether they liked it or not. And mostly they didn’t like it as their past histories demonstrate. Raleigh was the mostly white-collar, government and professional, neighborhood-oriented suburban state capital. Durham was a former manufacturing and civic-minded business town with class strata right out of a sociology textbook–the very rich, unionized factory workers, a proud and large black community and a professional upper middle class associated with Duke University. Chapel Hill was, well Chapel Hill, a charming academic oasis on the verge of being drawn into an urban identity it didn’t desire.
What these disparate communities had in common was the stealthy existence of the Research Triangle Park superimposed by state leaders to stop what was then called the “brain drain.” The issue was that North Carolina was the home of many top colleges and universities but the jobs they sought were in new technology centers such as Boston and California that had sprung up after World War II to develop new industries in computers, aerospace and Cold War defense techniques. The concept of the park was first postulated by Greensboro engineering executive Rome Guest who, upon returning to his alma mater MIT for a visit, noticed that the new technology firms popping up on Route 128 outside Boston drew heavily upon access to the area’s universities for research libraries and the availability of scientists. Guest envisioned creating a campus for new technology in North Carolina by taking advantage of the close proximity of N.C. State in Raleigh, UNC in Chapel Hill and Duke in Durham.
This was the early 1950s. By 1958 there were the basic elements of a research park, but things were not going well. Not until the mid-1960s, when former Gov. Luther Hodges, secretary of commerce in the Kennedy administration, convinced Tom Watson of IBM to build a facility in the park did things start to take off. Yet, by the late 1970s, our mass media did not recognize that we really had something here that was transforming and uniting the host university cities. Due to a requirement in the charter of RTP that prohibited residential, commercial and retail development in order to avoid the creation of an aloof and separate redoubt, the adjoining communities were to be home to the new tech workers. Durham, with its civic mind-set, ran water-sewer to the one-half portion of the park in Durham County, while Raleigh remained uninterested and only completed running lines out to the Wake County portion of RTP in the late 1990s.
Most of the new park employees chose Raleigh, irritating the hell out of Durham and adding another level of hostility between the two towns. But the rising tide of RTP was raising all ships, and we had something new here. That’s when Spectator stepped in and invented a format that would fit the needs of this new megalopolis. We realized that the three newly and begrudgingly united cities would not care about each other’s local political issues so we concentrated on the ties that bind, the scientific, cultural and business critical mass appearing on the horizon. And the rest, as they say, is history.
And what a history we made by providing the medium for the latent creative talent literally pulsating underneath the dreary façade perpetuated by the existing media. Godfrey Cheshire, Kim Devins-Weiss, Hal Crowther, Noel Yancey, Michael McFee, Phylis Tyler, Fred Benton, Rubel Romero, Joe Vanderford, John Lambert–dozens of talented writers walked in the door, along with sales people and art directors and administrative talent that had been ignored by the existing media. I was sure that if the writers were there, the readers would be, too. After the first year we reached daily paper readership numbers and the new Triangle community had its own voice, a non-condescending one that recognized and celebrated who we really were. It was a truly breathtaking era, one that will never occur again.
Spectator then, and our business weekly, Triangle Business Journal, rode the bucking tiger of the birth of the Research Triangle as one market for a good 20 years until about 1992, when things changed. For one thing, the economy was in the toilet. The New York Times, The News & Observer and the Spectator saw revenues erode by as much 40 percent for four long years. Then, in early 1995, the newsprint cartels, upset that their revenue had been affected by smaller sized newsprint products, jacked up their prices by as much as 100 percent for small weeklies and nearly 50 percent for dailies. And where else but in this highly educated market would dozens of new weeklies start up. Although Spectator had fought off over 100 competitors in the 1980s, these new folk were different. One was The Independent, which shifted from a statewide monthly to an exact copy of the Spectator–same distribution pattern and press run, same magazine/calendar /review format, but very different advertising rates, one-tenth of ours.
But that was OK. Life is tough in publishing and The Independent was actually not the main issue. Over at the Durham Herald-Sun, a former Knight-Ridder hotshot was hired who convinced the owners to buy a new press and spout out new newspapers with predatory-priced ad rates. In the teeth of the recession, there appeared the Chapel Hill Herald, the Durham Extra, the North Raleigh Extra, the Cary Extra and another one I can’t remember. Later, the Durham paper closed them all down (except for the Chapel Hill Herald) admitting they had blown $8.5 million in just four years.
There were others, including two or three put out by The N&O in Raleigh and other independently owned periodicals. By 1996 when the dust settled from the storm created by the recession, the newsprint scandal and the wild increase in competition, Spectator was weakened but viable. Our readership numbers were steady and ahead of the pack but the fun was gone. The golden days of the rise of the Triangle were now past. In 1997, Spectator merged with the Creative Loafing chain of weeklies as the communities that Spectator wove together reverted back to backbiting and, frankly, in an ironic twist, they didn’t need each other any more to feel metropolitan. In the 1980s retailers, restaurants, subscription cultural series and the like relied on traffic from the other cities to exist. As the Triangle vision became truer and truer, Triangleness became less and less necessary. Today, cooperation among Triangle cities is at an all time low. It’s time for another view.
And that’s exactly what I am doing now with Raleigh Metro Magazine. Spectator helped change a pattern of readership away from an emphasis on eastern North Carolina at The N&O to the more sophisticated Triangle metropolitan concept. By 1994, even The N&O went Triangle and cut its historical ties to the East. But things change and the data show that the East is booming and their demographics are rising almost equal to the Triangle. And despite all the Triangle propaganda, it is those folks from the East who continue to fill Raleigh and Triangle shopping centers, cultural events and restaurants.
The Triangle is not exactly dead but the new vision in Metro recognizes that the future is the new megalopolis stretching from the Raleigh/Triangle region to the coast, reconnecting the historical natural order of things in the wake of the rise and fall of the Triangle concept, a concept I am proud to have served.
My best wishes to The Independent and a fond farewell to the Spectator. Now the history of that great weekly can be sealed off, its writers celebrated and Spectator‘s signal contribution to the identity of the region examined in the fullness of time. Wistfully, our revels now are ended.