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If You Ran A Small-town Weekly
… you could battle for clean government, champion virtue, improve the public school, defend the consumer, arbitrate taste, and write lean, telling prose. Or at least that was the author’s dream. Here’s the reality.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Why, they wanted to know, had obituaries been eliminated from the previous issue of the Star , quite left out for the first time in the paper’s seventy-six-year history? Because I needed the space, I explained. Because the very same obituaries had been published before, in the surrounding dailies, three of them, to be precise: the Portland Press Herald , the Portland Evening Express , and the Biddeford Journal . Such notice of anyone’s demise, I argued, seemed ample to me, especially when the Star had only eight pages, once a week, to report on the activities of the living.
But I was informed by my visitors that death, for all its finality, was not official until it had been reported in the local paper. The undertakers taught me a lesson, one of the most important I ever learned about community newspapers and their editing. I had discovered that there is, in the minds of most citizens of rural communities, no substitute for the hometown paper. It is an almanac of human passages, recording births, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths. From time to time—given the strenuous convictions of an editor or the personal prejudices of a publisher—the local press also takes note of arrests for drunken driving, embezzlements, peccadilloes, divorce, and trips out of town. Policies for the uniform treatment of such information are often discussed but never nailed down. As a deadline approaches, it is the sensibilities of the editor that construct the matrix for personal news. I learned, for example, that Captain Johnson and Mrs. White were not offended to read that they had been to the Green Mountains together; indeed, I would have been touched by their mild outrage if I hadn’t found snace for the item.
Editing a weekly newspaper is a job in which, sooner or later, every country editor will offend every reader.
But if I had allowed the bile of a particular correspondent to get the best of me and published the news that Mrs. Helen Blue had spent the weekend in Boston with Harold Black, then I and the Star would have been in deep trouble.
It was a difficult job, storing each bit of community information in the file of my memory—difficult, but important. Local weeklies are a kind of verification of existence, valued because they, more than any other medium, certify reality. If a company goes bankrupt, it may be “in trouble” in the minds of the townspeople who hear about it by word of mouth, or even read the bad news in out-of-town papers. But when the failure is documented with the obligatory legal advertisement and a news item in the town’s own paper, then the disaster is real. Just why this weighty significance is granted the nation’s hometown press is a mystery. The editing of weeklies is, on the average, no better and no worse than the editing of most of the dailies in the nation. The clout the community press has stems more from what it is than from what it says. It is produced within the town; the people who create it are townspeople; and every local reader assumes every other local is also a reader and a believer. Thus, whatever is said is seen by every neighbor, believed by every citizen.
I kept being instructed in these truths, over and over again. Candidates for local office were often my most strenuous teachers. I would, in the course of my role as sculptor of good government, often write and print penetrating interviews with the men and women who wanted to be school board members or selectmen. And many of them, in their innocence, would often give me less than adequate answers on community issues. And when those answers were printed, outrage would visit me. “Why did you have to print that ?” was a question I heard so many times at such high volume that I began to understand why the previous owners had practiced a gentle journalism. At times when I was weary, I found myself tempted to do the same.
Editing a weekly newspaper is a volatile and timeconsuming occupation with several constants, of which outrage, fatigue, penury, and frustration are the most prevalent. Outrage heads the list because, sooner or later, every country editor will offend every reader. The opportunities are endless. A christening photo has the infant drooling; a high school sophomore is listed on the honor roll when she earned high honors instead; the school budget is improperly reported. And so on.
Thus, during the two years and then some which I spent at the Star , women harangued me, men shook their fists, all threatened. I was so constantly deafened by these emotional explosions that I could find almost no time to write the symphonic editorials I had visualized during that first, and only, peaceful half-hour at my desk.
Yet if the shouting had stopped, that writing time would have been hard to come by anyhow, as would the considerable energy required by the act of composing a well-constructed essay. There was too much other work to do, too much that absolutely had to be done to prevent the Star from collapsing into bankruptcy.