If You Ran A Small-town Weekly

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It was three in the morning, two days after St. Patrick’s Day, 1958, when I disembarked from a Greyhound bus and stepped into the snowdrifts at the entrance to the Kennebunk Inn, in Kennebunk, Maine. A startled night clerk called the police; he could conjure no other service that might help me go the final mile of my trip in a snowstorm. My journey ended when I said good night to patrolman Frank Stevens, slammed the cruiser door, and entered the cottage where Sandy Brook waited for his new partner.

Together we were embarking on the most popular dream in American journalism: running a small, country weekly. And like so many who have sought to live that dream, we came from cities and we arrived without experience as publishers or editors or small businessmen. About all we brought with us was desire.

Left behind was an odd and surprising occupational mix. Sandy’s most recent employ had been on Wall Street, where he worked in a sugar-brokerage office. He had earlier spent a winter in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where he went to try to write a book and worked instead as a free-lance reporter for the Sag Harbor Express . Before that he had been a jute buyer in India, and throughout his career he frequented racetracks, where he developed his never-perfected system for making a killing on the horses.

I had come from Dayton, Ohio, where I had been an assistant to the vice-president for advertising and public relations at the Fyr-Fyter Company, manufacturer of extinguishers, but had spent much of my company time writing free-lance articles for the Kettering-Oakwood Times , a suburban weekly started by some friends who encouraged my work. In preparation for that stab at journalism, I had worked as a full-time commercial fisherman for seven years before I quit cold turkey and emigrated to Ohio. My stay there had lasted just a year. My yearning to see water again and to get away from Midwestern landscapes and back to a Yankee coast was excruciating. I had written just about everyone I knew, including Sandy—an old friend from Long Island whom I’d seen now and then during my fishing years.

I told him the only work I enjoyed was the part-time reporting for the K-O Times; he told me the only occasions on which he’d felt exhilarated were when he won a racing wager or saw his copy in the Sag Harbor weekly. The horses, he said, had not come in often enough to keep him animated.

As for newspaper work, he had a thought. As a boy he’d spent summers in Ogunquit, Maine, a small, graceful village at the southern end of the state’s convoluted and dramatic three-hundred-mile coast. He’d always wanted to go back. He’d heard from an Ogunquit artist friend that the Kennebunk Star was for sale. Did I, Sandy asked, when he called in response to my desperate letter from Dayton, want to follow him to Maine and try newspapering again, this time as the Star ’s editor?

I’d never been to Maine, never edited a paper of any kind, but I said yes with alacrity and began selling furniture to finance the trip.

Sandy, using the creative wheeling and dealing he had learned on the Street, signed a contract to buy the Star for a thousand dollars down. My share of the payments that the bank demanded every month were to be deducted in advance of any salary. In retrospect, remembering that both Sandy and I were married and had two young children, the gamble we took made horses look like a sure thing.

But I felt only excitement, not a shred of anxiety, when I opened the door to the Star to begin my first working day, just a few hours after my snowy arrival. At Sandy’s suggestion and with my agreement, I was titled the “editor” and Sandy the “publisher,” although neither of us was quite certain about the range of duties each classification entailed. I did know, however, that publishers dealt with business and financial matters, and even I would never have granted myself those responsibilities. I couldn’t balance my own checkbook.

Yet I could take a great deal of pleasure in contemplating my new career. I can still remember that first early morning, as the sun reflected from the snow blanketing the town’s main street—a thoroughfare I could see most of from my office window. The scene was so typical of a coastal community of some five thousand souls, so purely New England, that it would have been quite enough to delight and reassure me. But there was more. The former owners of the Star had sold us everything on the premises, including an antique rolltop desk, and a Remington typewriter that looked as battered as any I’d ever seen in movies like The Front Page .

I looked at that typewriter, and fantasized about the editorials I would write, the ideas I would conjure, the public good I would generate. I did that from eight until eight-thirty. Then Sandy arrived to brief me on the realities of our situation. My happiest moments as a country editor had ended.

The Star , which was the community weekly for Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells, Ogunquit, and Arundel (combined population about twenty thousand), had been sold with the promise that it had a circulation of almost three thousand and a solid subscription list of at least two thousand. Sandy, who had been in Kennebunk for two weeks before my arrival, had already been through the files and had been able to produce about nine hundred living subscribers.

We were in trouble before we started. Payments to the bank on the elaborate and convoluted hundred-thousanddollar mortgage loan that Sandy had engineered had to be made every month. Part of those payments depended on subscription income, a rather steady element in the cash-flow system that was supposed to come in regularly as readers renewed their expired subscriptions. With more than half that estimated money apparently among the missing, Sandy and I had to increase circulation fast and cultivate immediate advertising revenue in conservative country communities where we both were newcomers.

It would have been a tough assignment for professional, experienced weekly journalists. Sandy and I were neither. We were two idealists who wanted to be the champions of virtue, sculptors of good government, improvers of the public schools, defenders of the consumer, arbiters of taste, supporters of the arts, and above all, creators of the well-turned phrase. These virtues, we thought, would ensure the Star ’s success and our continued solvency.

On that first day, we communicated as much to the staff of five we had inherited from the previous owners. The employees were stunned by our innocence, by our brave talk about style and quality. It was almost incredible that two strangers should step in from afar and pick up the reins without as much as a nod in humility’s direction. But the staff could accept arrogance. What they could not abide was total inexperience. They looked at us with the same alarm that would be seen in the eyes of nurses who discover that the surgeons they are assisting are really short-order cooks.

The entire staff walked off the job that first day before the noon whistle blew at the shoe factory just across Garden Street from the Star . Sandy and I were left alone, staring dumbly at a room full of senile machinery.

That was a shock. Neither of us had ever seen a typesetting device like the Star ’s cranky Linotype. We had never run a press, never composed a newspaper page, never set a headline, never cast a mat, processed a photograph, packed papers for delivery to the post office, run a folder, or become involved with an addressing machine.

We spent the next three months learning. After lunch that first day, two of the discouraged staff returned. They had, over their morning beers, discovered a compassion that prevented them from standing by while two fellow humans perished in the Star ’s low-ceilinged, smoke-stained jungle of a shop where machines a half-century old awaited their living prey like giant, lurking crocodiles.

The staff walked off the job that first day, leaving us staring dumbly at a room full of senile machinery.

For one hundred dollars a week Sandy and I spent seven days a week in that jungle, working sixteen to twenty hours a day, often sleeping on blankets pushed into a corner of the shop. We survived molten lead squirted from the maws of the Lino and the Ludlow. We discovered the appetite of the flatbed printing press that consumed sheets of blank paper as casually as carp swallow doughballs. And we began to understand how items of community information could move from the marble grave marker (face down) on top of the office safe to the eight-page newspaper that somehow made it to Main Street’s stores every Thursday afternoon.

That headstone on the safe (there were a bunch more in the composing room) was like a bar in a tavern. Visitors to the Star found it directly in front of them when they opened the door; they had to wait there for either Sandy or me to come from the shop, lean across the marble, and learn what service we could render or what outrage we had sponsored.

There was no end of outrage. As the person identified as editor on the Star ’s prominent masthead (boldly designed by Sandy and myself before we realized how vulnerable it made us), I was the individual most often sought. I was a compelling curiosity, a fellow “from away” who had been blown into a quiet Maine community to tell them each week how to do what they had done all their lives. Often the Star door would open, one or two natives would enter, stand, survey, stare, and leave. They had seen the editor and they could say so that evening at the lodge supper.

Once, when I came from the shop to the counter, I saw across the marble an austere platoon of pale and earnest men: the town’s funeral directors.

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.

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.