If You Ran A Small-town Weekly

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There were, for instance, endless evenings in attendance at school board meetings, town board meetings, industrial-development meetings, improvement-society meetings, school plays, church suppers, poetry readings, and every so often a crisis session called to determine what should be done about the news that Dowdy’s Drugstore sold magazines featuring photos of toplessness.

And when such sessions were not being covered, I had to make certain that I sold at least five hundred column inches of display advertising to local merchants. Success at this often pivoted on what the Star had reported in its previous issue. If I had omitted the news that Helen Dowdy had contributed the covered dish to the Ladies of Penzance silent auction, then I would get no nod from Ben Dowdy to go ahead with the special on trusses that he had said last week he might run if I stopped by again.

Given the realities of these kinds of situations—and there was one for every establishment on Main Street—tensions between my role as the editor and my survival duties as the ad salesman became agonizing. Every line of stunning prose that had danced in my fancies went unrealized. I was reduced to checking the spelling of names, to piecing together accounts of meetings run without agendas. My grand designs for the greater improvement of Kennebunk were never unfurled.

 

This was not what I had come for. This was not the weekly newspaper dream I had dreamt. There was too much work and too little money and too much outrage. And so I departed the Star .

I moved fifty miles east along the Maine coast, to Brunswick, to become the editor of a larger, more established, more successful weekly. With a circulation of nearly ten thousand in a cosmopolitan town of nearly twenty thousand that is the home of Bowdoin College and a bustling naval air station, Brunswick is the kind of community that seemed large enough to allow me to escape outrage. There was just too much going on, I believed, for citizens to be able to find the time to visit the editor’s desk to complain. The learning process was slower there. It took me eight years to see that only my landscape had changed—not the facts of weekly newspapering. Those stay the same, as I have spent a quarter-century learning, no matter what the locale, the setting, or the circulation figures.

I know. When I left the Brunswick Record , I did so because Peter Cox and I were about to create our own weekly, something new, a statewide publication we named Maine Times . It has the largest circulation (twenty thousand) of any weekly in the state and is one of the largest weeklies in the nation. The Times —an issues-oriented “journal of opinion”—is now in its fourteenth year.

I’ve been convinced. I’m quite certain now there is no realizable weekly dream. I think it takes about twenty-five years for that lesson to be learned. Sandy learned it. Two years ago he sold the Star and left Maine. And Peter Cox is learning it. I sold my half of the Maine Times to him seven years ago, but I still have my offices at the building. I see him almost every day, and he seldom smiles. With production costs what they are these days, I can understand why.

Yet the weeklies persist. There were thirty-nine operating in Maine when I arrived in the spring of 1958; there are forty-one here now, and from the looks of them, none is on the brink of bankruptcy. There are nearly seven thousand weeklies operating on a regular basis in the nation, and they are, in general, healthy. They are the steady, dependable, local press, certifying truths, recording data that is not believed until it’s published in “the paper.”

When I first arrived in Kennebunk, another weekly editor visited during one of those dark days in the back shop. He listened as I told him of our troubles, and then he said: “Don’t worry too much. Weeklies are like a large boulder rolling downhill. They have a great deal of momentum. It takes a great deal of effort to stop one. It’s almost impossible. Seems like no matter what happens, weeklies won’t die.”

Since then I’ve learned how right he was. Weeklies are wonderful and wondrous to behold. They help keep rural America vital. They give every country town the proper personal almanac its people need. No one who has ever worked on a weekly—whether repeatedly or only once—can dampen the dream, nor should he spend much time trying.