Still Making Headlines

Still Making HeadlinesThe DeFuniak Herald – Walton County’s Oldest Business – has Enjoyed 12 Decades of Success by Staying ‘Strictly Local’

By Jennifer Walker-Journey  |  Photo courtesy The Defuniak Herald

Long before people got their news from the television and the Internet, the people of Walton County turned to the DeFuniak Herald for the latest happenings around town.

Drenched with news about neighbors and hometown businesses, it was where locals turned to read about the new sheriff in town or the latest from the garden club.

Not much has changed for the weekly community newspaper.

This year, the DeFuniak Herald, which has published continuously since 1888, celebrates its 120th anniversary, earning the distinction of Walton County’s oldest business. The Herald, which covers northern Walton County, is published with a sister publication, the Bay Breeze, which gathers news from southern Walton County. The two are distributed as one paper, but the front page differs depending on where it is sent.

In an age when daily newspapers are losing readers by the thousands, the Herald has seen its circulation grow over the years, says editor Ron Kelley – a phenomenon that Kelley describes as a charm only weekly newspapers can offer. News in the Herald is strictly local, he says. Only stories about Walton County residents or happenings that affect them make it in.

Kelley, a history buff who grew up in DeFuniak Springs reading the paper he now oversees, has studied the paper’s early beginnings. The first newspaper in Walton County was the Signal, founded in 1884 by W.B. Saunders. Shortly after the purchase, Saunders passed away and his wife took over the business until it became too much for her to handle. She sold it to a Dr. Henry, who in turn sold the paper to a stock company. In 1888, Larkin Cleveland purchased the Signal and renamed it the DeFuniak Herald.

In the early 1890s, Royal Storrs started another paper in town, the Breeze, which he later sold to J.B. Allen. Allen sold it to Storrs’ brother, Howard C. Storrs. In the early 1970s, Howard C. Storrs sold the paper to Larry and Merle Woodham. The Woodhams also purchased several other papers in the area, including the Herald. The Herald and the Breeze were later combined, and today, the Woodhams’ son Gary serves as publisher.

A few of the earliest copies of the Herald, slightly tattered and laminated for safekeeping, now are in the possession of the county. Papers printed between 1910 and 1969 were bound – either as originals or photocopies – in large volumes and are housed at the Walton County Courthouse, where anyone can go and view them. Newspapers from 1970 to the present are kept at the Herald office in DeFuniak Springs.

Much has changed about the Herald over the years. Decades ago, articles were written in a more formal style, Kelley says. Content from the early days now would be considered politically incorrect or even slanderous, with comments in stories such as “He got what he had coming to him” and name-calling like “He acts the role of a scoundrel.”

“Stuff that would make us cringe now,” Kelley says.

The newspaper also has changed its format over the years, adding new features, running color photography, and providing a Web site (defuniakherald.com). The one constant is the newspaper’s focus on Walton County and its residents, Kelley says.

“With a weekly paper, we probably won’t always get the scoop,” he adds. “Rather than competing with radio news or daily newspapers, our strength is that we have more time to double-check facts and get the whole story.”

The residents of Walton County seem to appreciate the niche the Herald fills, as year after year its reader base continues to grow.

“I don’t anticipate a reversal of that trend,” Kelley says. “So we’re just going to keep moving forward for the next 120 years.”

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