Friday, February 5, 2016

February 5, 2016: The South Belt Paper Turns 40

The South Belt Press became reality on this day, February 5, 1976.

The first photo to ever run in the paper was young Chris Alan Robberts, the 1000th sign up for baseball season that year. A companion piece on the front page says main registration closed with 1005 registrants, including 150 girls playing softball in the second year it was offered. There was also late registration being set up since more kids were wanting to get in on the fun. 

In fact, it appeared most of that first paper was concerned with the emerging Little League baseball program and the community effort involved in creating a new place for the kids to play. 

I think my favorite parts was "The turning point came on March 15 of last year, when, with the aid of Seabees and over 120 local men, 54 light poles were set between sun up and sun set. While the  men labored, women kept them fed. Even coffee proved to be a problem as there was no electricity." The horror.

The photo on the second page in full:

(Gulf Freeway signs visible in back)

And the second photo that ran on the front page of that edition:

The Pasadena Police 'Copter lands in the Frazier parking lot

And the final scan I grabbed from the first issue is the note from co-creators Bobby & Marie:

Note the pledge to do all they could to make this paper "our community's own special publication."

I think I can safely say, they most certainly did. 

By 1979 they'd graduated from kitchen tables and home offices to their own office space.

And within the year, they'd outgrown that space and had to lease larger offices! This photo ran on February 6, 1980, the day after their fourth anniversary:

In 1985 they moved into their own building, where they remain:

a few photos of its earliest days:

In 1986, they celebrated their tenth birthday

"This is the newspaper that the community built."

Such is the explanation from South Belt Leader publishers Bobby Griffin and Marie Flickinger as to how it is that the community newspaper, which began modestly as a six-page publication on Feb. 5, 1976, will celebrate a decade of service to the South Belt Community.

Feb. 5, 1986 will see the publication of the 512th Leader, completing a full 10 years of local coverage. Over 6,500,000 copies have been distributed in the community during that time.

While community support was the impetus for the formation of the newspaper and continues to be its thread of life, the two publishers, looking back on the conception and evolution of the paper this week did acknowledge a combined role as the paper's backbone. 

And backbone, guts, and a "little knowledge" was what propelled the ambitious duo into entrepreneurship. Still, without community support, the endeavor would have never succeeded, the women say today.

"The people here believed in us and had faith that we would succeed," said Bobby, who recalls selling her first advertisement before realizing that the two hadn't even come up with a name for the newspaper they were starting. 

The enterprise began with $500 in capital and the talent of the two women for writing, photography, typesetting, paste-up, selling and even delivering the papers. And there was also the study in Marie's home which served as an office for the paper until 1979, and her 1968 Plymouth which made an efficient delivery vehicle.

The two, who has worked together for The News, a Friendswood-based newspaper, had decided that the time had come to take their skills more seriously.

"I wanted to do everything -- writing, selling, layout -- but I had no education and people thought I was crazy. I knew that if we were going to do it, we had to do it ourselves," Marie recalls.

The deciding factor came for her one day as she was riding down Bellfort and looked up to see a sign at McCarver Realty that read, "If you think you can, you can."

Bobby's affinity for starting a newspaper wasn't as strong as Marie's in the beginning, but Marie's persistence with her soon-to-be partner, paid off.

"For the first six months I cried a lot," Bobby recalls. "But I soon leaned that we couldn't make everybody happy."

Marie's attitude was more relaxed. "If we messed up, we tried to make it right," she says, "but when the South Belt Leader messes up everybody knows about it,"

One such "messup" saw an advertisement for a home which was supposed to read "invite your friends for a party in a massive kitchen" read "invite your friends for a party in a massive bedroom."

The first paper (the first page of which is reproduced on this page) was six pages and the printing bill was $136. Circulation was 3,000 copies. That circulation has grown to 12,500. The paper averages 18 to 22 pages.

 "In the earlier years, we'd be so thrilled to sit in a restaurant and watch people pick up the paper and read it," Bobby remembers. "So many things have given us a high."

When an elderly lady told Marie that the Leader was one of the three things in life that she enjoyed, the co-owner called her other half and said, "I don't care if we don't ever get a pay check,"

In fact, those first pay checks were slim and far between. Putting in 110 to 120 hours a week between the two of them, they were pleased when after three months they were able to draw an income from the paper. Their first monthly checked were $35 each.

As proud as the pair was of the first evidence of survival, if not success, they are most proud of a sense of unity they feel the newspaper has been instrumental in providing the South Belt area of the years.

A log kept of unusual phone calls received over the years bears out the paper's uncanny status amont the community.

Residents call the office for legal advice as well as an array of other things. A man who found a horse in a parking lot once phoned the Leader to see if the Leader could keep the horse until its owner came forward.

On a more serious level, people inquire as to where to turn for food and clothing. As a result, the Leader has become a receptacle at Thanksgiving and Christmas each year for such items and distributes these to the needy in the community.

Although the paper has undergone several changes (including a name change in 1978 from the South Belt Press to its current name) the friendship of Bobby Griffin and Marie Flickinger has remained the same.

"We love the paper," comments Marie, "but our friendship always came first, and I think that's why we've succeeded, Neither of us could have or would have done this alone. We've been best friends for over 16 years and being in business together hasn't changed that."

Bobby continues that the difference in their personalities has been a benefit to the company. "Marie can't be bogged down so I take care of the insurance, payroll, advertising and such. She takes care of all the political stuff," she adds jokingly.

Another asset the couple have going for them is their husbands, David Flickinger and Kenneth Griffin.

"Our husbands have very strongly supported us," Marie says. "They've put up with a lot," including frozen dinners (or no dinners), having strangers knock on their doors at all hours of the night and taking on additional family responsibilities.

The two recall the early years with pride, Marie laughing at all the risks which were preceded by Bobby's hesitant, "Oh Marieeeee" or followed by "Oh, my God!"

Such risks included the paper's leasing of office space in the Gerlands's shopping center. When they moved in to the office, Bobby insisted on keeping partitioned off part of the space in case subleasing would be necessary to finance their operation. Within nine months, however, the office was too small, so the paper leased a larger office in the same shopping center.

A major milestone in the newspaper's history came with the purchase last year of land and the construction of the 8,200-square-foot office building which they now occupy with 17 employees.

Among other offices, including that of the South Belt-Ellington Chamber of Commerce, the guiding also houses a printing company the pair started in 1981 which employs four.

One asset the paper is extremely proud of, agree the owners, is its employees. "For the most part, we have former housewives and mothers working for us," Marie states. "They're not here because they have to be, so they take pride in the paper and stand up for it. They don't just put in their hours and go home. They really care. They have made our job much easier."

The plan, if indeed the two had formal plans ("It was a tiger we had by the tail," Marie comments) was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the paper, throw a big party, close the doors and sell the business.

"Now," says Marie, "Our lives are too wrapped up in the business. I, personally, would be lost without it. However, if it ever becomes a job, I'm through. As long as it's fun, I want to keep going. Are we going to celebrate our 20th anniversary? Let's ask Bobby,"

"Oh Marieeeeeeee . . . !"

some other photos of Old School printing from the files:

In 1996, on the month of the 20th anniversary, the Leader showcased its tireless staff:


I haven't scanned into the stacks to reach 2006 yet, and here we are at the 40th anniversary, with the paper chugging right along, covering the next generation of South Belt-ians with the same spirit they started with.

Happiest of Anniversaries to the little paper that could!

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