— As part of its 40th anniversary celebration
The Daily Observer, Liberia’s first independent daily, will on Tuesday, February 16, 2021, celebrate its 40th anniversary with the unveiling of its Digital Newspaper Archive in the Stanton B. Peabody Memorial Library, located at ELWA Junction, City of Paynesville.
The digitization of the Observer’s extensive Liberian newspaper archives is made possible by a gift from Mr. Alexander B. Cummings, political leader of the Alternative National Congress (ANC). Following an interview one day at the Observer headquarters in Paynesville in 2016, Mr. Cummings, impressed by the Observer‘s efforts to preserve the hard copies of its own and other newspapers published in Liberia over the years, offered to support the Observer‘s vision of digitizing its archives. Following another visit to the library in 2019, Mr. Cummings informed the Observer that he was ready to make good on his commitment.
In 2011, the Daily Observer renamed its library, which includes the newspaper archive, in memory of the late Stanton B. Peabody, the Observer’s Editor-in-Chief from 1983 to 1990.
Prior to joining the Observer, Peabody was the celebrated editor-in-chief of another newspaper, the Liberian Age, and whose imprisonment in 1964 led to the formation of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). In 2005, when Peabody learned that the Observer had resumed publication, he bought himself a one-way ticket from Minnesota, USA, to Monrovia, Liberia and resumed work with the newspaper, contributing powerful and thought-provoking editorials. Peabody answered to his eternal summons on April 12, 2011, his 81st year, following a brief illness.
The digitization project, which should have begun in 2020, was stalled due to the global effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, which affected the procurement of equipment and development of systems needed to go-live. Assembled by Dynamic Global Technologies, led by Mr. Curtis Jackson, the digital archive project comprises large-format scanning equipment and an online repository where researchers can access the archives from anywhere in the world.
Observer @ 40
The Observer’s 40th-anniversary celebration, which will be held under the theme: “Observer @ 40: This Is Our Story.”
The Liberian Observer Corporation (LOC), publisher of the Daily Observer, was established in January 1980 was founded by Kenneth and Mae Gene Best and the newspaper’s maiden edition was published on February 16, 1981.
The LOC’s first chairman was the legendary Liberian constitutional analyst and pamphleteer, Albert Porte, a maternal uncle of the Bests.
This year’s celebration will begin with an intercessory and thanksgiving service, held at Christ Episcopal Church, Crozierville, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, February 14, 2021.
During the 40th Anniversary week and beyond, the Observer will publish a series of articles written by Observer alumni, staff and friends about the impact of “our journalism on their own lives and on the communities we have served together over the years.”
In 2018, the Daily Observer became the nation’s oldest surviving newspaper, surpassing Liberia’s first and longest-surviving newspaper, the Liberian Herald, which lasted for 36 in 1862, when it folded.
Daily Observer’s predecessors
The Herald was founded in 1826 by John B. Russwurm, a Methodist missionary, who arrived in Liberia in 1825 and brought along with him a printing press. With that, he started his newspaper the following year and it became the periodical of the Colony of Liberia. Its first editor was Charles L. Force.
According to the Historical Dictionary of Liberia, editorial successors to Force included John B. Russwurm, Hilary Teage, Hilary Richard Wright Johnson and Edward Wilmot Blyden.
The Herald, which launched Liberian journalism, became Africa’s fifth press.
According to Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes’ Press and Politics in Liberia, 1830-1970, the Herald came after the French-language periodicals published in Egypt during the Napoleonic occupation of 1797; the Cape Town Gazette of South Africa, 1800, and the Royal Gazette and Sierra Leone Advertiser, 1801, and the Royal Gold Coast Gazette, 1822.
As mentioned earlier, the Herald lasted until 1862 when it folded. The Herald was followed by several other newspapers, including Africa’s Luminary.
The more recent Liberian newspapers included the Liberian Age, founded in 1946 by Jacob Henry Browne, and later taken over by the True Whig Party as its mouthpiece. It lasted until 1980 when it went out following the April 12 coup d’état.
Next came the Daily Listener, founded in 1950 by Charles C. Dennis and subsidized by the True Whig Party. Next was the Liberian Star, founded in 1964 by a consortium between the Liberian government and Lord Thomson of Fleet Street, London.
It lasted, like the Daily Listener, until 1978 when both folded. The Listener was 28 and The Star, 14 years old.
Nothing short of miraculous
Coming less than a year following the bloody 1980 coup d’état that overthrew the government of President W.R. Tolbert, Jr., the Daily Observer suffered great persecution from the military regime that staged the coup.
The newspaper suffered five closures, including one that lasted nearly two years; several imprisonments of its staff, including Mr. Best and his wife; and three government-contrived arson attacks, the third of which totally destroyed the newspaper and the Charles C. Dennis homestead on Broad Street, Crown Hill, Monrovia, the first headquarters of the Daily Observer.
The newspaper and the LOC lost everything. By the time that last arson attack occurred, the Best family was already in The Gambia, in exile from the Liberian civil war, where they were preparing to launch that country’s first professional newspaper and first daily.
The Observer’s recovery of its own archive collection from 1981 onwards, which were consumed in the third and most vicious arson attack against the company, has been nothing short of miraculous. Since the newspaper resumed publication in 2005, a stranger came to our office, bearing rice bags full of old Observer editions, claiming that when his father was running for his life during the Liberian civil war, he made sure he did not leave behind his copies Daily Observer. The son of the old man, who himself miraculously survived the Lutheran Church massacre in 1990, delivered to the Observer six rice bags of its lost editions from the decade of the 1980s.
In another instance, John Gordon, a Reuters Correspondent who was based in Liberia for many years and befriended the Observer’s co-founder, Kenneth Y. Best, telephoned Mr. Best one evening from London to announce that, upon his (Gordon’s) death, he had bequeathed his entire collection of newspapers, photographs, books and other documents on Liberia to Mr. Best.
Needless to say, the newspaper archive digitization project has its work cut out to ensure that Liberian newspapers — the first draft of the nation’s history — and other key documents are preserved for posterity, without fear or fire.