Adventures in rural ink

Back in June 2009, I was driving somewhere through a rural area. And for some reason, I had a flashback to two experiences in my career about that time of year many years ago.

In 1988, eight days after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I started work at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster as a — well, the — reporter. Four years after that, on my 27th birthday, I purchased, with a business partner, the Tri-County Press in Cuba City, my first business venture. Both were experiences about which Wisconsin author Michael Perry might write.

I thought about all this after reading a novel, The Deadline, written by a former newspaper editor and publisher. (Now who would write a novel about a weekly newspaper?) As a former newspaper owner, I picked at some of it — why finance a newspaper purchase through the bank if the seller is willing to finance it? Because the mean bank lender is a plot point! — and it is much more interesting than reality, but it is very well written, with a nicely twisting plot, and quite entertaining, again more so than reality.

There is something about that first job out of college that makes you remember it perhaps more fondly than how you experienced it — the younger version of yourself learning to do your life’s vocation. I remember individual stories that were, and are, favorites of mine more so than the brain-deadening experience, for instance, of writing stories well past midnight on Tuesdays, the night before the papers went to bed. I remember people calling me to complain about certain things in stories that I got wrong, or their differences with their interpretation of what I wrote. (In one case, I was accused of religious bias for mentioning not a church, and not a church’s cemetery, but the name of the road on which the church’s cemetery was located. I also once got a non-fan letter signed by 19 people, which seems like more of an accomplishment.)

My training to be a newspaper editor began with my years as a small-town newspaper reporter. My work at the Herald Independent included writing about schools, police and courts, plus feature stories, sports, unsigned opinion columns, photography, layout, headline-writing and even a cooking column. My weeks were busy, and my social life was pretty nonexistent (or so it seemed at the time), until I did the second of two stories about a local woman who had just returned from 2½ years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. (But that’s another story.)

I had two reporter experiences that aren’t really supposed to happen. I was assigned to cover a school district whose relationship between the school board and the school district administrator was, to say the least, fractious. I discovered how fractious one night during a disciplinary hearing for a teacher, ordinarily held in closed session, but requested to be held in open session by the teacher. The meeting was held in the high school gymnasium, with tables for the school board set up in front of the bleachers, which seated more than 200 people.

When the board went off into an opposite corner of the gym to discuss something, this struck me as really wrong, if not illegal according to the state Open Meetings Law. The second time they started to get up, I stood up and (as the Wisconsin Newspaper Association instructed print journalists) identified myself as a reporter and told them they were violating the state Open Meetings Law by not conducting all of their meeting in front of the public. (I didn’t know if going into the corner was their idea of “executive session,” since neither I nor anyone else knew what they were discussing. If it was, they were not adjourning into executive session properly under state law.)

The school board president, a grandmotherly type but, as I was about to discover, with a temper, said, “If you want to hear us why don’t you stand right here!”, slamming her hand on the table for emphasis. So I got up and stood right in front of her, getting — to my embarrassment, because even someone with an ego my size knows that the reporter is not supposed to be the story — a round of applause from the crowd.

About a week later, the local radio station’s news director told me that she had gotten a phone call suggesting that I should be careful driving in that area, lest I be — paraphrasing — run off the road and beaten up. This was about the time I started carrying a baseball bat in my car.

I covered one murder trial from start to finish, for the shooting of a sheriff’s deputy. (A police officer’s funeral is one of the most impressive sights you’ll ever see, with dozens of police cars and officers in their dress uniforms from all over the area attending.) The defendant’s attorneys sought, instead of a conviction for first-degree intentional homicide, a conviction for first-degree reckless homicide, claiming the defendant didn’t actually intend to kill the deputy.

The prosecution methodically went through the entire evening leading up to the deputy’s shooting and capture, by a Dane County sheriff’s K-9 dog. (The arresting dog pulled the defendant out the haymow in which he was hiding by his face.) The defense then put the defendant on the stand, where he testified that he was afraid that his shooting the lights of a billboard was the reason he was pulled over, and since he had had one previous jail experience, he didn’t want to go back, which is why he freaked out and shot the deputy.

The district attorney, on rebuttal, asked a few questions, including “When the officer came around to the front of the tractor, that’s when you shot him?” The defendant answered, “I shot him when I saw him.”

The district attorney immediately decided he’d asked enough questions. We media types ran to the court reporter after court was recessed to make sure we’d actually heard the Perry Mason moment correctly. The defendant was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in less than 90 minutes, including lunch for the jury and the selection of the jury foreman.

Truth be told, such dramatics don’t usually occur. The rural newspaper job is more about covering endless meetings (there is a particular circle of Hell in which meetings to consider school construction projects can be found), going to the courthouse to do court stories and then looking to take a shower afterward, too-numerous-to-count “grip and grin” photos of checks being donated, games, prom court photos and so on. I watch the publisher and the editor of the Ripon newspaper, and they seem to have a camera surgically attached to their hands.

Weekly newspaper owners (that is, those that are not newspaper group owners) tread a tightrope between doing your duty as a journalist and being a business owner and therefore civic booster. (Being a journalist requires a particular personality type as it is — someone who is assertive, sufficiently extroverted to deal with the public, yet not bothered by being an outsider.) Reporting about bad things — job layoffs, dumb acts of government bodies, crimes and so on — is every bit as much your responsibility as reporting the good things going on, even though the former can have negative repercussions for your business. It is the old tension journalism school teaches budding journalists about the difference between what readers want to read and what readers need to read. Media people also are supposed to keep distance from who or what they cover, but in a small town, where the mayor is also the hardware store owner and goes to your church, that’s difficult to do.

Cuba City has the reputed oldest continuing Bicentennial project, a series of signs on Main Street commemorating all of our presidents. My newspaper office was where a group of us — the police chief, the Hall of Fame boys basketball coach and other business owners — hatched The City of Presidents, a motto that can be found on everything from signs to police cars to the city’s water tower. (My idea to change the official name of Main Street to the Parade of Presidents died when participants pondered the cost of changing stationery and signs for city offices, businesses and residences, let alone the time writing out “301 S. Parade of Presidents” on envelopes would take.)

Weekly newspaper editors, particularly the one-man shows, earn their pay. When I was the Tri-County Press’ editor, I was, in fact, the Tri-County Press’ editorial department — the reporter, the feature writer, the photographer, the columnist, the sportswriter, and the layout person. Other than a cooking column, social writing responsibilities of the office manager (basically birth, engagement and wedding announcements and the like) and occasional stories (county board or police and courts, a former beat of mine) contributed by my business partner’s other newspapers, I wrote every non-ad word in the newspaper.

This personal contribution seemed cool on most days of the week save one — Tuesday, when the newspaper was laid out. Most nights I was up past midnight writing, while my editorial assistant, son of the newspaper’s former owner, sat chain-smoking waiting for me to finish so he could put the print, photos and ads together on a layout sheet. (We had Macintoshes and word processing and desktop publishing software, but no 11×17-paper printer. We had at least advanced that far; the layout was not manually done as it was at most other newspapers in the area. We also had no fax machine of our own — we used City Hall’s up the street — and no cellphones. Web site? That was where all the spiders in the building came from.)

Production day the first Tuesday after we bought the paper was an all-nighter. The next week was much better — I got, I believe, 90 minutes of sleep that night. Sometimes I drove the paper to the printing plant in Lancaster right after we got done with layout; other times I got up early and took it there so it could get printed. Once printed, labeled and stuffed into Postal Service-approved mailbags, I drove to several post offices throughout Grant and Lafayette counties, dropping off the right mailbags so subscribers could get their papers the next day. I’d then go back to my house with an urge to do two things — read (odd since I just got done writing the entire newspaper) and nap.

As a business experience, it wasn’t the greatest; business partner problems forced me to sell my half of the paper 1½ years into the five-year plan my wife and I had to try the newspaper ownership thing. On the other hand, as my father pointed out, I was regularly paid a salary for that year and a half, and being the editor and co-owner of a newspaper most likely got me the job as the editor of Marketplace. (Some readers may consider that a mixed blessing.)

Being the editor also means you are the chief complaint-taker, either because of your own work or your hotshot (more like hot dog) reporter’s work. (Which means that your readers care enough about their newspaper to complain about it, even if some of the complaints appear to come from an alternative reality.) The day the local high school principal came to the publisher’s office to complain about the reporter’s work — not because of the quality of the work, but because the principal didn’t care for a reporter who did not see himself as the PR arm of the high school — was an interesting day. I often fielded complaints from people who had spoken at government meetings and didn’t like the fact they were quoted in the paper, including government officials who should have known better. I also fielded complaints from, shall we say, people who had personal experience in the court system who didn’t care for how what they did to get them into the court system was characterized. (To quote the theme song from “Baretta,” don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.) I knew some people didn’t like the redesign of the Tri-County Press when several called in the day after our first edition hit the mailboxes saying they hadn’t gotten their paper. I once got a rather nasty phone call because I had run a photo of a high school’s prom king and queen instead of the entire prom court.

But there are — or, in my case, were — enough of other kinds of moments to keep doing the rural newspaper job. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to mentor young journalists, whether interns or employees. In Cuba City, many people refused to subscribe to the newspaper, because then they’d get it a day late; they paid an extra 20 cents a week to get the paper the day it hit the counters of supermarkets and convenience stores. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten came from someone who passed on what his father had told him — under previous ownership, he could read the paper in the distance between his mailbox and his house, but after we took over, he had to actually sit down and read the paper. I got a Wisconsin Newspaper Association award for the most improved weekly newspaper in the state, and I’m very proud of that.

I remember an amusing conversation with the local bank president at a church luncheon, where we both got milk to go with our lunches, and he noted, “Yeah, none of my customers are coffee growers.” I once covered, at the nearby UW campus, a speech by former NBC-TV reporter and U.S. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb, who gave the greatest opening to a speech I’ve ever heard: “Thank you very much for inviting me, and other than that I have no comment.”

I interviewed the owner of two bear cubs one day. (Which, as a correspondent points out, made me the “cub reporter,” at least that day.) After a while, the cubs started to inspect the contents of my camera bag. And then after tiring of that, they came over and started gnawing on my ankles, thinking I was a 6-foot 4-inch chew toy, I guess. I got another WNA award for a sports feature story about a boxer whose title was taken away due to a failed drug test, who had relocated to southwest Wisconsin to try to resurrect his career. A friend of mine who is a small town radio station news director and I have had a 20-year-long running joke, from one of those aforementioned school construction project meetings, a public forum in which a woman wearing a jacket from a seed corn company asked, rather piercingly, “What about the farmers?” (I figured out that particular project wasn’t going to be approved by voters when, during a referendum call-in show on a radio station the night before the vote, a caller complained about the school district’s “Gestapo [pronounced “GHESH-ta-po”] tactics” in promoting the project.)

I covered a few state champion high school sports teams, which is quite an experience when you, and practically else in town, follow a team to state. One rather hectic Saturday, I went to cover postseason girls gymnastics in the morning, covered a regional final boys basketball game in another location while my wife covered a different boys game at the same time, and then we met at the site of the girls sectional final game at a different location yet. That was about a 13-hour day, but no one cared because it was where you were supposed to be and the local girls won to advance to state, adding a gold trophy to their trophy case two games later.

One of the favorite teams I ever covered was a high school baseball team that had two more losses than wins going into the postseason, but not only won three playoff games (the last using a freshman whose first varsity pitching assignment was the game before state), but won two games at state to get to the state championship game. Their shutout loss in the state title game did not diminish the feat of accomplishing the highly improbable.

I remember one other night for some reason. An old hotel building, built in the shape of a triangle because of the railroad tracks that used to come into town, had had a fire one summer Friday afternoon. Once the fire siren went off, I ran up to the hotel to get photos. After that, my rescue squad pager went off because a firefighter had gotten heat exhaustion, so I had to retrieve the ambulance to get to the fire, about a block away from the fire station.

That evening, the police chief stood watch over the building because it was considered a crime scene, since the cause of the fire wasn’t yet known. I walked over, and for close to an hour the two of us discussed our mutual affinity for one of the great car-chase movies, “Vanishing Point.” It was just a nice evening, shooting the (smoky) breeze. All it was missing was beer, but the chief was on duty, after all.


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