A while back my pal Barb Westerfield told me about an episode of the Independent Lens series on PBS called Storm Lake that I should watch. Barb knows I spent most of my working years publishing small town newspapers, and she said this one was right up my alley. To be honest, I forgot about it for a while, but then I remembered, and last week Terry and I watched it. What a trip down memory lane!
The show tells the story of the Storm Lake Times, a family-run newspaper that has served a small Iowa community for 40 years, and the changes to the newspaper business and the town over time as big agriculture replaced the small family farms and big box stores destroyed the small business community. As we watched, I can’t tell you how many times Terry and I both said something like “Oh yeah, I remember those days” as editor Art Cullen wore a dozen hats, doing everything from writing editorials to covering town council meetings, selling ads, and delivering bundles of the latest issue of the newspaper to local stores.
Unfortunately, small town newspapers, as well as those in big cities, are disappearing. Every year more and more of them fold as people get their news from cable television and online, and all too often know nothing more about what’s going on in their town or their country than what they see on Facebook or YouTube.
That’s a shame because only the small town newspaper is going to tell you the things that affect your everyday life. The small town weekly or biweekly newspaper is the one that’s going to tell you the stories of your friends and neighbors, the people you work with, the people having dinner at the table next to you at the restaurant, and the small business owners who are the very lifeblood of your community.
I consider myself very fortunate to have spent so much of my life in small town journalism. The hours were always long, and the profits were often short, but I loved every minute of it. Everything from the sounds of the pressroom to the smell of the ink and newsprint as each new issue rolled off, the conversations of people as they crowded around a wire rack in a store to grab a copy off the press, and yes, even the all too frequent times when someone told me I was an idiot because whatever I wrote that week went against whatever they believed at the moment. But through it all, I always felt like putting out each weekly issue was an accomplishment
Sure, there were frustrations along the way. I occasionally lost friends and advertisers who didn’t like the things I had to say, I got a death threat or two along the way, and there’s a reason I don’t breathe well through my nose. More than once, somebody took it upon themselves to adjust it for me when they were enraged about something I had written.
But then there were the times when we knew we were making a difference. Such as when the high school principal was busted for selling drugs on campus and the good old boy network tried to cover it up, or when that same good old boy network tried to keep a favorite judge in office even after he lost an election. (Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?) And there were the times when someone shook my hand and said, “Well done. Somebody needed to say that.” Or the business owner who once said, “I only agree with what you write about half the time, but there’s never been a day I didn’t respect you for standing up for what you believe and putting it out there, come hell or high water.”
But my favorite stories were always the ones about the people. The young father with no medical training who delivered his own baby when their car got stuck in a snowbank on the way to the hospital during a blizzard. The couple who had taken in over 50 foster children throughout their marriage, some of them staying for only a few weeks, others for years, and the 17 they adopted. Or the quiet small town hero who came home from the war with a chest full of medals and a body covered with scars and never told anybody about it, his story only coming out when his granddaughter was cleaning out his house after his funeral and found an old footlocker with his medals and decorations in the back of a closet.
There were so many stories like that that I was privileged to share with our readers, and they always made up for the times when I worked around the clock getting an issue out and to the printer or when I had to make the decision to pay the electric bill and live on canned pork and beans for another day or two during the early days. Those stories made it all seem worthwhile. I never got rich being a small town newspaperman, if you count wealth in terms of dollars and cents, but trust me, knowing I made a difference in my little small corner of the world always made me feel like I was the richest man in town.
Thought For The Day – Happiness is an inside job.