Newspapers are transient, but books about newspapers are more permanent, if sometimes forgettable.
The most famous books about newspapers tend to be about the most famous newspapers Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power is a grandiose a tale as its name implies, dealing with great national dramas such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Power, Privilege and the Post, about the Graham family and its stewardship of the Washington Post, tells about Katherine Graham and the Watergate Scandal.
The Hard Way: The Odyssey of a Weekly Newspaper Editor is a humbler story, set not in New York or Washington but in Kennebunk, Maine. The paper in question isn't an influential national daily with a staff of thousands and a news room the size of an airplane hangar, but a small weekly struggling to survive. The issues aren't Watergate or the Vietnam war, but whether the town should build a water tower behind a local church, and whether the school bus should change its route in order to pick up Herman Cohen's children.
In astronomy, size and intensity both contribute to a star's magnitude. For the York County Coast Star, an abundance of intensity makes up for the lack of size. The newspaper and its editor became personally embroiled in a number of fights, including a bitter battle with the town government which eventually resulted in a Star-backed ouster of the town manager.
Alexander B. Brook, editor, publisher and owner of the Star, is the author of The Hard Way. He tells a detailed story of what really is a hard life--working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., reporting, managing and running the presses, eating standing up on the job and all the time staying just a step ahead of bankruptcy.
In picking and choosing which parts of a 20 year career to share with the reader, Brook is more willing to dwell on the details of town politics, printing equipment and circulation figures than he is ready to bare the details of his private thoughts, his family life, his divorce and remarriage.
By so doing, he runs the risk of leaving the reader cold, but the intensity of his career as editor and publisher, as recounted in the book, have the effect of humanizing Brook and making him quite a sympathetic character.
"Weekly owner-editor-publishers are a dying breed that became fewer when I left," Brook writes.
If that is indeed so, one might be tempted to dismiss the story of Brook's career as just so much irrelevant nostalgia. That, however, would be a mistake. Brook's tale of small-town weekly newspapering has lessons for everyone--from the grandest of metropolitan daily editors to the lowliest of small-town weekly readers.
Sum up the lessons in maxims, and the ideas seem simple. All news is local. An inoffensive newspaper is not fulfilling its true responsibilities. A newspaper should try to lead its readers to improve the community. A newspaper should have the courage to be critical.
The reader, and the good of the community, come first, before the needs of the advertiser or the profit of the owner. The hard way's the best (the initials should sometimes stand for the hell with the bastards). Local ownership is better and more accountable than chain ownership Increasing capital costs associated with technology make local ownership rarer and more difficult.
These lessons are repeated time and time again in journalism classes and reviews and at speeches and conferences at the Kennedy School of Government, the Nieman Foundation and even The Harvard Crimson. But reading Brook's book, and following along as he runs his award-winning paper the hard way, show the truth of these ideas in a far more convincing way than any recitation of principles.
By the end of the book, Brook has the reader believing that the hard way really is the best--and wishing that more newspapers tried to do it the hard way more often.
The hard way's the best (the initials should sometimes stand for to hell with the bastards). Local ownership is better and more accountable than chain ownership.