Once Upon a Weekly Newspaper
I don’t know what I was thinking exactly. Perhaps thinking isn’t the right word. Forty years ago friends and I set out to start a newspaper from scratch. We were in our early 20s and for five whole months I had honed my craft as the ad salesman/editor of the Pittsfield News, a New Hampshire weekly whose imminent demise would be little mourned.
I resigned the $100-a-week job and made a beeline for former haunts in Connecticut, to Old Lyme, which already was served by a weekly publication, part of a robust chain of shoreline papers. My father was appalled at this “business plan,” and very soon so, too, was the only person in our fledgling enterprise with spare cash. He split.
The Gazette was in debt from day one and we survived by house-sitting, kiting checks, divvying up newsstand receipts, and on loans and care packages from home. We had reporters who were even younger than we were who worked for free. Most important, our printer took pity on us and slashed his fee; I think he found our frenetic gyrations amusing.
Somehow the paper came out week after week. We covered what hard news there was in our bucolic burg: drowsy school board meetings, donnybrooks over septic lagoons, political machinations, the environment, and, most importantly, the police blotter. If a man fell out of bed and the cops were called to deposit him back in the sack, we reported that. We really did.
We illuminated unofficial nooks and crannies as well. The town boasted a strip club on its lone honky-tonk street, and that required team coverage. We featured Flippo on the front page, with a large photo of him doing handstands on people’s tables for the bills they would tuck into nether-nether land. The ladies often missed their mark so the dingy floor was festooned with the faces of stern statesmen.
Town fathers and mothers were appalled — as were local grammarians at our erratic prose. The Gazette’s maiden front page had a misspelled headline (Demonstation). We once implicated the garden club in “prooning and wedding” in the memorial cemetery. Our “Social Notes” transformed a prominent scion’s career from banking to baking.
We published a cartoon by an aspiring local artist: titled Bob Blob, it wasn’t offensive so much as inscrutable. Jon would bring his creation in each week and we’d all gather around nodding our heads in feigned appreciation; after he left we’d crack up. Jon graduated to a distinguished career as a children’s book author and illustrator. The Gazette spawned many such worthy alumni.
To be properly outraged, or mystified, townspeople had to buy the paper. The enterprise limped along, and we gained new “investors” periodically, contemporaries looking for adventure. Investor isn’t the best word since their infusions of cash soon disappeared into the black hole of country journalism. But they wanted to work, too, and slowly we advanced toward respectable impecuniousness.
It was one part frat house, one part journalism. We’d party at establishments that hadn’t paid their advertising bill. There were food fights and office romances. People got together and broke up. My current bride was our photographer. We smoked other people’s cigarettes and drank quantities of beer. Some of our best ideas were hatched at the Silo Inn. The trick was to remember what they were the next morning. We worked most Saturdays, and when we had a special issue to put out we ripped straight through the weekend. No one ever took a Monday holiday: that was deadline day. Press day stretched into the wee hours.
It was intoxicating and riotously unhealthy. It wasn’t for anyone who had a spouse, a hobby or a goldfish — or wanted to acquire any of these. It was an extreme journalistic marathon, more than eight years, grinding away with no finish line in sight. When I wasn’t at the office I felt like I should be. We eventually waxed solvent, hired more people (there were more than three dozen at the end), won awards, and bought another weekly paper. We became pillars of the community almost. It was time to go.
Selling out was heartbreaking and liberating. The new corporate owners said they weren’t going to change a thing, of course. They would change everything, of course. Their business plan was worse than ours. Within a few years both of our newspapers vanished into thin air. They live on in the stacks of the Old Lyme library and in the heads of some 60-somethings who used to be 20-something. I have the first and last issues somewhere.
The day of the sale I took a long walk with my dog, Snodgrass. I remember looking up and being mesmerized by the clouds parading across the September sky. I hadn’t looked up in eight years, it seemed.