In 1959, Rockville resident Earle Hightower rolled the first 1,000 Gaithersburg Gazettes off the presses. Just four pages thick with a distribution of "as many houses as we could find," Hightower said the first edition - filled with Christmas ads from local merchants - managed to eke out a buck.
He dreamed up the twice-a-month tabloid when he and his wife were transferred to the rural part of Montgomery County in 1959. They couldn't find a newspaper with Gaithersburg real estate listings.
"My wife said, 'We should start a newspaper and you should call it the Gazette,'" he recalls. He built the paper up to 16 pages and expanded the circulation to about 7,000 copies.
A year after starting the paper, Hightower turned it over to business partner Nat Blum, a Gaithersburg native who died in the 1990s. Blum moved the operation from Summit Avenue in Olde Towne Gaithersburg to a hotel he owned on S. Frederick Avenue near what is now Interstate 370. He nearly doubled The Gazette's size, then sold it in 1966 for a reported $250,000.
The buyer was John Panagos, a media-savvy advertising veteran of the now-defunct Washington Daily News.
"I studied the marketplace and decided Gaithersburg was where it was going," said Panagos. "The demographics showed the biggest growth was going up I-270. The advertising was going to be here. I figured this was the market I wanted to be in."
He increased the circulation to about 38,000 papers, which were home-delivered by second-class mail or dropped on newsstands in government buildings. The paper cost 10 cents.
As communities grew, The Gazette made a visible effort to emphasize local news. While retaining the Gaithersburg Gazette masthead, Panagos devoted inside sections to the communities where the papers landed: Rockville, Potomac, Poolesville, Damascus.
Meanwhile, Panagos' Gazette was collecting as much as $700 for full-page ads and 50 cents a line on smaller ads - that's on top of the 10-cent cover price. Collectively, it was more than enough to pay 25 staffers and a dozen part-time stringers.
"We were making money," said Panagos. "It was a profitable business. Very profitable, because I did 10 jobs."
He burned out in 1979.
"I was getting older and I was tired," he said. "Davis Kennedy approached me and threw a price out."
On Dec. 27, 1979, Panagos sealed the deal with Davis L. Kennedy, who would run The Gazette from 1979 until 1993. Soon after taking the helm, Kennedy bought a string of weeklies known as the Couriers in Damascus, Olney and Mount Airy.
From 1982 to 1988, Kennedy also created distinct Gazette editions in Rockville, Germantown, Potomac, Bethesda and Chevy Chase. He moved the operation out of Blum's old, cramped motel to a building at 18705 N. Frederick Ave. near the Gaithersburg-Germantown line.
His focus was simple: "Very, very local news," Kennedy said.
Kennedy also revolutionized how the paper was marketed. Instead of charging 10 cents, he followed a national trend among community newspapers and made it free for the reader. The circulation grew from about 38,000 to 200,000.
By establishing total market coverage in communities across nearly the entire county, the newspapers got fatter.
In March 1992, he sold an 80-percent stake in The Gazette to The Washington Post Co. for an undisclosed sum. The cash infusion gave Kennedy a handy way to extend the paper's reach to Silver Spring, where The Gazette bought out The Record newspapers, and to Burtonsville.
In June 1993, the Post bought Kennedy out outright and accepted his resignation.
'We listened to the market'
Like its predecessors, the Post saw The Gazette's potential.
Community news is a portion of the newspaper pie that has steadily grown, even as large daily papers massage atrophied subscriptions.
The Post hired a new president, Chuck Lyons, an editor-turned-publisher with 25 years' experience in the newspaper business.
The Gazette, Lyons said, was coming out of a national recession and a period of heavy investments in expansion. It needed new technologies, re-engineered systems and a strategic plan to grow the revenue and build readership in the next cycle of its life.
It invested heavily in newsroom and printing technology, which led to cleaner-looking pages and the advent in April 1994 of color pictures on the front pages of all editions. The same year, The Gazette launched The Montgomery Gazette - now known as The Gazette of Politics and Business - with a 13,000 circulation targeted at the county's business and political establishment. Today, the circulation is 20,000.
In 1996, the Business Gazette was born. It was a monthly magazine aimed at capitalizing financially and editorially on the Montgomery's 30,000 businesses. It expanded in to a weekly magazine targeting Frederick and Prince George's counties as well, and was inserted in to The Gazette's weekend edition.
"I think all of us were surprised with how quickly we grew," Lyons said.
Growth didn't stop there. In August 2003, the weekend edition was relauched as The Gazette of Politics and Business, with the Business Gazette becoming one of two pivotal news sections in this must-read broadsheet.
In August 1995, The Gazette settled into new quarters on Quince Orchard Boulevard in Gaithersburg. The move consolidated several newsrooms into the 20,000-square-foot headquarters.
In February 1996, The Gazette went a step farther and purchased Comprint, a printing company off Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg, and rounded out its coverage of Montgomery by launching editions in Wheaton, Kensington and Takoma Park.
In the beginning, Comprint was $1 million in the red. Gazette management cut ties to 150 printing jobs and filled up the time slots with customers requiring larger press runs.
Today, Comprint Printing is now headquartered in Laurel and operates a state-of-the-art Mitsubishi press that began rolling in early 2007.
Along with the printing plant, The Gazette acquired Comprint Military Publications, publisher of military newspapers and base guides.
The division has a combined circulation of over 230,000, with publications delivered to 11 military bases in the area. The news is written and edited by base employees, while Comprint's staff sells the advertisements. Comprint then prints the papers. The newspapers are produced under contract with each of the bases.
Crossing the border
On Oct. 3, 1996, The Gazette crossed the border into Frederick County with four separate weekly editions covering seven communities, including the City of Frederick, where the main office is located. All 70,000 papers are delivered on Thursday.
The new Gazette had to win over the community, particularly the more established folks who had grown comfortable living in a one-paper town with a daily that has been around for over 100 years.
"There was the usual, 'Who's this new guy in town?'" said then-editor Vivian Laxton. She said it was the 20,000 or so transplants from Montgomery that gave the papers their first toehold. Beyond that, sheer persistence, she said, has made The Gazette a more dominant presence - one that she believes has improved coverage by all the local media.
Expansion was not limited to Montgomery's northern neighbor. In 1997, The Gazette stretched east into Prince George's County, introducing 110,000 community papers into many neighborhoods where before there was no local newspaper. Today, with nameplates that include The Star, the newspaper has a circulation of over 200,000 in Prince George's County.
With papers in Montgomery, Frederick, and Prince George's counties, The Gazette today has a mid-week circulation of about 550,000.
Then heading south
In 2001, The Gazette acquired Southern Maryland Newspapers, completing its penetration into the economically dynamic corridor that surrounds Washington, D.C. These seven papers, serving communities in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, were a natural for The Gazette, as they had already been covering community news for over 100 years. They have a circulation over 190,000. With the purchase of these papers, The Gazette also acquired a second printing plant, located in Waldorf, Md., which it incorporated into Comprint Printing in Laurel in 2008.
In 2003, under the newly organized parent company Post-Newsweek Media, Inc., a division of The Washington Post Company, The Gazette launched the Sykesville/Eldersburg edition, delivered to 15,000 homes in southern Carroll County. The first edition of the newspaper was delivered March 6, 2003.
January 2007 heralded the dawn of a new era for the company's printing division as copies of The Gazette rolled of a brand new, multi-million dollar Mitsubishi press, the first of its kind in America. As a result, color was introduced throughout the papers.In addition to Post-Newsweek's own newspapers and commercial printing clients, the new press attracted nationally-recognized clients such as The Onion, a satirical newspaper. The new press was housed in a new, state-of-art facility in Laurel, MD, and it Prince George's news bureau was moved to this location.
Beyond the printed word
In addition to newspapers and commercial printing, Post-Newsweek Media's Community Newspaper group operates three community web sites: Gazette.Net, SoMdNews.com and dcmilitary.com.On January 31, 2007, Gazette.Net, first launched in the mid 1990s, was revamped with a new look and interactive features, garnering national recogition: it took first place as Best Community Web Site from Suburban Newspapers of America. Today the site has more than 310,000 unique users.
Today, our mission, according to Lyons, who is now CEO: to provide the community with great journalism; to practice community service.
"We try never to say no to community groups when they ask for our help," Lyons said.
The Gazette works with more than 65 community organizations every year. In addition to tens of thousands of dollars in financial contributions, The Gazette provides over $1.5 million in annual advertising at no cost to nonprofit agencies.
Editorially, the paper has earned recognition in national and regional competitions. Since 1997, it has earned nearly a dozen in the Suburban Newspapers of America General Excellence Awards for best all-around community newspaper in the nation.
Still, the paper's basic mission hasn't changed in 48 years. It has just been refined.
Hightower's instincts on growth were right. Panagos' advertising model is still churning away. Kennedy's "very, very local" mantra still fits.
"We've gotten to a place that matters," Lyons said. "We're in the community. We're the ones who stay close to every community we serve. As long as we do that well, there will be a need for us to exist."