The Nation's Pulse

Newspaper Days

Twenty years in the weekly newspaper trade.

By 3.19.10

A good deal of my life has been spent toiling on weekly newspapers. That was certainly not my intention. My intention was to be an all-star centerfielder for the Oakland Athletics. But as the old proverb goes, "If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans."

It would be easy to say that weeklies, like everything else, ain't what they used to be. But I recently stopped by my old newspaper office (a trailer, actually, where the restroom doubled as the darkroom), and…well, everything was the same, including the Macintosh LC computers and the dial-up Internet connection. The ownership, however, had changed. Countless times. Once all weeklies were family-owned enterprises. Then, about twenty years ago, large corporations began buying them up on the cheap. Now nobody wants them. At least two of the weeklies I worked for no longer exist.

My first newspaper gig was at a family-owned business deep in the Ozarks. The Advertiser was founded in the 1850s, and had been handed down from father to son for several generations. Every Wednesday at 3 p.m., the townsfolk would line up at the front counter waiting for the paper to come off the press. The queue would literally run out the door and down the sidewalk. I couldn't understand it. Why would anyone line up to read front page stories headlined: "Jasper among top coon hunters in state," or to learn that Mr. and Mrs. Albert Freen had company last week from out-of-town? It turns out people are just nosey.

My first reporter job, back in 1986, paid an annual salary of $14,000. Today's weekly cub reporters might earn a lavish $21,000, which is probably less than I made in '86, given the cost of living. Journalism remains the lowest-paying of all of the so-called professions, which is something smart journalism school professors neglect to mention on the first day of class. Even rookie kindergarten teachers and social workers make double or triple the average reporter's salary. And yet, J-schools continue to turn away students.

Twenty years in the weekly newspaper trade has supplied me with more than a few cocktail party stories. There was the story we ran of country music legend and one-time death row inmate David Allan Coe when he moved onto a ranch just outside of our village, with his pet cougars and his motorcycle gang, Outlaws MC, as semi-permanent houseguests. Locals regarded DAC's presence as a mixed blessing, to say the least. Coe stayed about a year before he up and left town, long enough to open a museum of curiosities, and to give a memorable and impromptu late-night solo performance at the Hitchin' Post saloon, where he recounted a tale of teaching the young Charles Manson to play guitar. Then there was the time we ran an investigative piece charging village officials with violating the open meetings act, and the mayor ordered his employees to drive around town and collect all of that week's newspapers. We found them a day later dumped in a huge, stinking pile on the outskirts of town. They had been urinated on, too.

MEDIA EXPERTS say that struggling daily newspapers can learn smart business practices from weeklies. What they mean is that dailies should concentrate on the essentials: move the international news, crossword puzzles, comics, syndicated columnists, TV listings and movie reviews online, and limit the print edition to obituaries, sports, and lots and lots of photographs of school kids. And beef up the local news.

The problem with this, again, is that weeklies aren't doing so well either. At least not the corporate-owned weeklies. Those that are getting by are often run by laid off or semi-retired daily journalists who buy a love-starved weekly and attempt to nurse it back to financial health. Often the new owners are husband and wife teams who make up the entire staff and do everything from selling ads to writing stories to delivering papers. If this happy trend continues, we may yet see the return of the family-owned newspaper.

If not, perhaps some good will come out of the demise of local news. Curious townsfolk may be forced to attend town council and school board meetings to find out for themselves what shenanigans their elected officials are up to. We may have to turn off the big screen TV and get involved in our communities. We may have to attend a Friday night football game, rather than read "all about it" next Wednesday. Henry David Thoreau believed the town meeting would be the salvation of the republic:

When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.

If that sounds like too much work and too much investment, you might consider buying a subscription to your local weekly -- while you still can.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.