|Palo Alto Centennial
A free and feisty local weekly surfacesby Nick Anderson
A small local weekly newspaper with a crusading editorial policy and free delivery to all Midpeninsula mailboxes springs up to challenge the dominant Palo Alto-based daily, holds its own and scores a few scoops. Check your history books: This is the 1940s.
From December 1946 until August 1948, a six- to 12-page tabloid called the Mail-Dispatch took on the Palo Alto Times, the Redwood City Tribune and the San Mateo Times, delivering homespun journalism to nearly 30,000 homes in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Redwood City, Mountain View, Los Altos and eventually San Carlos and Belmont.
By the '40s, free weeklies weren't a new idea, said former Mail-Dispatch editor Hugh Enochs in 1989. But they were mainly bland, all-advertising "throwaways." In a new twist, Enochs said, he and his partners wanted to transform the throwaway into "an honest-to-gosh newspaper." With a few thousand dollars in start-up capital from local publisher Joseph Best and other investors, the Mail-Dispatch was born.
The little paper churned out local news and columns from a small second-story office at 131 University Ave. in Palo Alto, above Wilson's Restaurant. It was printed in San Francisco and mailed on Thursdays. It billed itself as "the second-largest weekly newspaper in the United States."
"I didn't think it was an experiment," said Enochs, a Woodside resident. "I thought it was gung-ho journalism, and I was hoping it would succeed."
For a time, it did.
The paper's staples were stories filled with background and local names--Enochs made a point of providing seven names in each story--and regular columnists on fashion, books, pets, gardens, sports and Main Street. A certain young journalist named Alan Cranston, Stanford class of '36, wrote a column on "World Affairs."
The little paper broke the story of the March 1948 Palo Alto visit of the "Freedom Train," a ballyhooed railroad convoy that carried the nation's original founding documents across the country. Other top stories included a local water shortage and traffic and parking problems in local neighborhoods. Also, the paper followed one of the major international stories of the day: the founding and development of the United Nations.
At one point, the paper's readers were surveyed by Stanford journalism scholars who found that 85 percent of local households read the paper regularly or occasionally, and 92 percent of those had a positive opinion of it.
But in August 1948, after about 100 issues, the paper ran out of money and folded, because of high printing and mailing costs, said Enochs. The editor later went on to write extensively for the local Chamber of Commerce and was an associate editor and historian for the Palo Alto Community Book in 1952.