|Vol. I, No. 3, Winter 1988|
by Dale Freeman
For the past few years, one of the Ozarks' lesser-known after-grits-'n-eggs, after-dinner, after-supper speakers has been making a dull little talk entitled, "Please Don't Tell My Mother I'm a Newspaper Man; Tell Her I Play Piano in a Bawdy House.'
It attempts, in a semi-humorous way, to show that newspaper people, even from their own mamas, command or deserve little respect from the general populace these days. And for a variety of reasons, some of which are legitimate.
It also attempts to point out, in a semi-serious way, that editors and publishers, save for an occasional Watergate or two, do not wield the power nor are they the force in the community (or state or nation) that they once were. If, outside their own country print shops or city newsrooms, they ever really did or were.
The good old bad guys, or the bad old good guys, the ones with the pens dipped in acid and with skin tougher than the hide on a terrapin's (turpin's) behind, are gone. The William Allen Whites, the Arthur Aulls, the Ed Howes. All gone. And not only Emporia, Lamar and Atchison should mourn their passing. They have all died and gone to wherever it is that brilliant-beloved-berated old journalists go.
It is as true in the Ozarks as it is almost everywhere else. All gone. The times they have changed. Local newspapers and local changed even more. editors probably have.
Most Ozarks editors and publishers and their products are markedly different these days. (Many will say: Thank God!). Papers are prettier; they are colored, if not colorful; they are better packaged; better marketed; better printed; probably better written; per-haps even better edited. They at least look more professional.
But they ain't got no personality. Gone, too. Many have lost the peculiar character that distinguishes them from the newspaper published in the next town or county or region or state. They have lost, or are rapidly losing, a trait that made them stand out -- their own brand of personalized journalism.
It is difficult for a reader, except in a few communities, to pick up a newspaper these days and say, "That's my paper -- I'd recognize it anywhere."They are clones -- so struck with conformity that they are all becoming look-alikes. And it is not only a cos-metic sameness; it is in content, too.
How often in recent times has a reader had an opportunity to find a front-page item like this one from the late editor John Newsman of the Harrison (Ark.) Times, who allowed as how some communities are becoming so strict that they think anybody having fun is sinning:
I remember one time in Harrison a citizen laughed aloud in public and a policeman wanted to arrest him, thinking he was drunk. so bad that the only amusement here We don't want to get is to sit at home and scratch.
Or this political comment from Arthur Aull's famous old Lamar Daily Democrat (later edited by his daughter),commenting on the election of 1950:
Some folks say the Democratic de-feat was due to poor organization. Others say the organization is all right but the party needs more zip and enthusiasm. Personally it looks to us like it needs two things, viz., some rest and a damsite more votes.
And this one from Mrs. T. J. Moor-house, who wrote the Romance (honestly) community items for the Douglas County Herald at Ava:
Marvin Pare has been unlucky as far as being attacked by rabid animals. Last spring he was bitten by a cat that had rabies and this winter while cutting brush he was attacked by a rabid fox. 'He and his neighbor's clog killed the big red fox. Now he is taking more shots. This, on top of serving as Republican committeeman for the past few years, is more than any one man should have to go through with.
Or this front-page announcement from the El Dorado Springs Sun about three decades ago: "Some three or four years ago I lent one of my good neighbors a sand bucket to clean out his well. I wish he would bring it home as I am needing it."
Many others also got right to the point, as did the Leota correspondent for the West Plains Daily Quill: "We have had the road grader down with us this week. I wish we could have an election every month instead of every two years."
Few such iconoclastic personalities remain, and much is lost in Ozarks journalism with their passing. The oldtime editors and their "foreign" (rural) correspondents reported everything that was going on -- who was getting married, who should be getting married, who "taken dinner" with whom, who grew the biggest tomatoes, how the fish were biting, how to cure the measles with sheep pellet tea.
What is bringing on this dramatic, but not sudden change? Many, many reasons. Call it The Times; call it Inevitable; call it All for the Good; call it Common Sense but No Courage.
Why are editors and their publications much less of a force in their communities, especially the rural areas? Two causes primarily: economics and the new makeup in the population of the Ozarks.
Until at least World War II, and for a few years thereafter, many Ozarks editors were native oldtimers, longtime pillars in their own communities who knew everybody and their great-granddaddies. Mom-and-Pop weeklies prevailed; family print shops abounded. But their feet were embedded in crumbling concrete.
Higher costs of production folded many, forced others into mergers. Long hours and low pay did not attract the youngsters to follow. "Come-heres" began to invade the Ozarks by the thousands. The new readers did not necessarily know everybody else in the community -- nor give a damn. The torch of leadership was being passed on to a more "worldly," perhaps a more sophisticated, segment of the local society. We, some insist, were Growing Up and Out and it was past time for us to rid ourselves of our bucolic ways, in print and every place else.
"Shoppers," those free throwaways intended to totally saturate the markets, made their appearance and cut into already severely diminished newspaper revenues. Radio and television added to the fragmentation. For everybody else, there was more leisure time, more money, more lakes, more entertainment -- and less time to read or care about who "taken dinner" with whom, via the local newspaper.
Editors, once firmly entrenched, bean to move more frequently. Their successors, schooled in the ways of modern journalism, dramatically changed format and content. The print shops closed; the Linotypes froze and went for scrap. Cost-saving computers arrived -- and an era ended.
The power and prestige of editors in the Ozarks in past years probably have been over-rated and over-stated by those of us who weep at their loss. Perhaps they never held the hand we thought they drew. Perhaps it was Aces over Eights from the start.
But imagined power or prestige of editors aside, the "personality," the individualized characteristics, of many Ozarks newspapers, big and small, good and bad, professional and unprofessional, is gone.
Who gives a big hoot? By Grab, friends and neighbors, I do.
I still want to pick up a country weekly and be informed AND entertained. I'm not laughing at them; I'm feeling for and with them, almost touching them.
I want to read items like this one in the Dixon Pilot of May 18, 1978:
Corbet Crain was over at Franks Saturday. Said he came by Orel Crain and asked Orel if he wanted to go along and he said Orel said he didn't feel good and he asked to take Orel to a doctor but he didn't want to go. And Corbet stopped by his daughters and told her to go over and see if he wanted to see a doctor. They went over and Orel was dead. Joyce came over to Franks and told Corbet. We all was upset. Everyone at Franks signed a get well card. About 65 or 70 friends of Orel. We all was sorry that Orel didn't get the get well card in time.
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