“A deputy checked the area and also notified the Washington State Patrol and Darwin Award officials.”

How big is your town? Big enough to support it’s own weekly newspaper? If not, you’re missing out. As witness, from the Concrete Herald (Washington state) police blotter:

January 9 (2010): People caused a traffic hazard on State Route 20 near Marblemount because they were standing in the road, taking pictures of eagles. (That’s right: IN the road). A deputy checked the area and also notified the Washington State Patrol and Darwin Award Officials.

It’s a hundred entertaining pages more before we even get to the loose emus and where the name “Egnar” came from. This is one of the more delightful books I’ve read lately, a thorough accounting of the present state of weekly newspapers from Tennessee to Alabama to Colorado and California, written by someone who does and teaches, a professor at the Annenberg School as well as a correspondent for ABC, CBS, PBS and NPR. She knows whereof she writes, and she’s a pretty good writer, too.

The conflict central to publishing a hometown newspaper is that you live next door to the people you’re writing about.

One night in 1961, in the small town of Canadian, Texas, nine-year-old Laurie Ezzell awoke to the sound of a rock crashing through her bedroom window. It left a hole in the screen and shattered the glass. She was startled but not surprised. “Dad’s written another editorial,” she thought.

And he had, and Laurie, now succeeded to her father’s job, is writing editorials of her own.

…while the mainstream media may have to worry about libel suits, they do not have to worry about living next door to the folks they cover. “I take some comfort,” says Laurie, “that I have to live with the consequences of my stories. I have to look this person in the eye. I have to know I have written the right thing.”

Sometimes it is small comfort, as other editors of other newspapers succeed to greater or lesser degrees in the often-mutually exclusive goals of honest reporting and getting along with their neighbors (not to mention keeping their advertising). The most enthralling, hilarious and sobering story is of the Big Horn Country News in Hardin, Montana. The city of Hardin went out on a $27-million dollar limb to build a prison, without securing a contract to house prisoners first.

And into this landscape of hidden ambushes rode Mike Dillin, the wordslinger from out of town…

Hardin, mostly white and the entity that perpetrated the contractless prison, is looking desperately for ways to fill it and the Big Horn Country News is doing everything it can to help. The Crow Tribe, just up the road, wants to take the prison over, and starts their own newspaper, the Apsaalooke Nation, to say so, among other things. In the meantime, The Original Briefs “looks like it was printed in someone’s garage on 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper folded in half,” contains gossip, inuendo, the police blotter and ads, is dubbed the “National Enquirer of Hardin,” and has more circulation than both of the other newspapers combined.

By hidden ambushes Muller means exactly that. This is the land of Custer’s Last Stand, and

Every year at the same time, the community of Hardin and the Crow Tribe stage competing reenactments of the Custer battle.

It’s a wonderful metaphor. The wordslinger, Dillin, is fired three days after Muller interviews him for editing a story by the other reporter on the paper, one who has been there a lot longer than he has and who is a lot more Montanan that this johnny-come-lately big city guy from Florida who insists on reporting like a, well, professional journalist. Imagine.

In a postscript, Muller says

…the Big Horn Country News has yet another new editor…”It’s a pretty exciting place,” he tells me. “It feels like the Wild West. It’s a place where you can use what you learned in journalism school…” Given the fate of those who have gone before, we wish him luck. This territory claims a lot of casualties.

There are great chapters on the police blotter

Oh sure, you may have to read between the lines, but these little snippets from the police dispatcher and sheriff’s logs are the haikus of Main Street, USA.

the obits

When Lende finally turned in her obituary for Tom Ward, it ran two pages long, and her editor roared, “Jesus, Heather! The guy was a woodcutter, not the governor.” And then he put it on the front page.

and high school sports

There is no such thing as understatement on the sports page of a small-town newspaper.

This is where the rubber of American journalism meets the road. Highly recommended.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. My all-time favorite from our small Texas town paper was the reported roll-over accident involving a truck leaving the local food-packing plant. The main highway through town was closed for hours as a Haz-Mat team cleared frozen burritos off the road. I wonder if they needed gas masks?

  2. Reading this brought back memories from my years working on weekly newspapers 20 years ago. The local papers provided validation of the local identity for many of the small towns that dotted both sides of the Mississippi downstream of the Twin Cities. We still used film cameras and waxed the printouts onto boards which were driven to a printer 40 miles away. The news was usually the height of the river, the student of the week, county meetings and the local car vs. deer reports.

  3. In my small town our weekly ‘Clitheroe Advertiser’ ran a sidebar detailing an unforgettable evening for a local young man. Upon hearing that a certain young lady had been entrusted with house sitting whilst her parents had flown to warmer climates, said young man hatched a plan. After a tipple or 10 (for courage..) he ‘borrowed’ his father’s Mercedes convertible..stark naked. Then comes the clever part of his careful plot. Rather than drive under the influence down our narrow country lanes, he drove straight through the fields to his young beau’ s back garden. Hitting the hedge at high speed he was thrown through the dense rambles, causing damage to his, ehem, undercarriage and breaking his collarbone. Not to be put off he crawled to meet his lady on the back porch who rallied to his rescue. The police found him, shortly thereafter, sitting in a hot tub, drinking champagne, his naked blushing companion massaging his bruised ego. I love, LOVE, local news!! Every town should have one, even if it’s one sheet long. Fabulous!!

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