The Country Editor of to-Day
EULOGIES and laudatory paragraphs, alternating with sneers, ridicule, and deprecations, long have been the lot of the country editor. Pictured in the comic papers as an egotistic clown, exalted by the politicians as a mighty “moulder of public opinion,” occasionally chastised by angry patrons, and sometimes remembered by delighted subscribers, he has put his errors where they could be read of all men and has modestly sought a fair credit for his merits.
At times he has rebelled — not at treatment from his constituency but at patronizing remarks of the city journalist who sits at a mahogany desk and dictates able articles for the eighteen-page daily, instead of writing local items at a pine table in the office of a four-page weekly. Thus did one voice his protest: “When you consider that the country weekly is owned by its editor and that the man who writes the funny things about country papers in the city journals is owned by the corporation for which he writes, it does n’t seem so sad. When you see an item in the city papers poking fun at the country editor for printing news about John Jones’ new barn, you laugh and laugh,— for you know that on one of the pages of that same city daily is a twocolumn story in regard to the trimmings on the gowns of the Duchess of Wheelbarrow. And it is all the more amusing because you know the duchess does not even know of the existence of the aforesaid city paper, while John Jones and many of his neighbors take and pay for the paper which mentioned his new barn. Don’t waste your pity on the country newspaper worker. He will get along.”
Little money is needed to start a country paper. There be those who claim that it. does not require any money,
— that it can be done on nerve alone, — and they produce evidence to support the statement. True, some of the editors who have the least money and the poorest plants are most successful in their efforts to live up to the conception developed by the professional humorist; but it is not fair to judge the country editor by these
— any more than it would be fair to judge the workers on the great city dailies by the publishers of back-street fake sheets that exist merely to rob advertisers; or to judge the editors of reputable magazines by the promoters of nauseous monthlies whose stock in trade is a weird and sickening collection of mail-order bargains and quack medicine advertisements.
The country editor of to-day is far removed from his prototype of two or three decades ago. It would be strange if an age that gives to the farmer his improved self-binder, to the physician his X-ray machine, and to the merchant his loose-leaf ledger, had done nothing for the town’s best medium of publicity. The perfection of stereotype plate manufacture by which a page of telegraph news may be delivered ready for printing at a cost of approximately twenty cents a column, and the elaboration of the “ready print,” or “patent inside,” by which half the paper is printed before delivery, yet at practically no expense over the unprinted sheets, have been the two great labor-savers for the country editor. Thereby he is relieved, if he desire, of the tedious and expensive task of setting much type in order to give the world’s general news, and the miscellaneous matter that “fills up” the paper. His energies then may be devoted to reporting the happenings of his locality and to giving his opinions on public affairs. By his doing of these, and by his relations toward the public interests, is he to be judged.
After all, no one man in the community has so large an opportunity to assist the town in advancement as the editor. It is not because he is smarter than others, not because he is wealthy, — but because he is the spokesman to the outside world.
He is eager to print all the news in his own paper. Does he do it ? Hardly. “This would be a very newsy paper,” explained a frank country editor to his subscribers, “were it not for the fact that each of the four men who work on it has many friends. By the time all the items that might injure some of their friends are omitted, very little is left.”
“I wish you would print a piece about our schoolteacher,” said a farmer’s wife to me one afternoon. “Say that she is the best teacher in the county.”
“But I can’t do that — two hundred other teachers would be angry. You write the piece, sign it, and I’ll print it.”
“What, are you running a newspaper for if you can’t please your subscribers ? ” she demanded — and canceled her subscription.
So the country editor leaves out certain good things and certain bad things for the very simple reason that the persons most interested are close at hand and can find the individual responsible for the statements. He becomes wise in his generation and avoids chastisements and libel suits. He finds that there is no lasting regard in a sneer, no satisfaction in gratifying the impulse to say things that bring tears to women’s eyes, nothing to gloat, over in opening a wound in a man’s heart. If he does not learn this as he grows older in the service, he is a poor country editor.
His relations to his subscribers are intimate. There is little mystery possible about the making of the paper; it is as if he stood in the market-place and told his story. Of course, the demands upon him are many and some of them preposterous. Men with grafts seek to use the paper, people with schemes ask free publicity. The country editor is criticised for charging for certain items that no city paper prints free. The churches and lodges want free notices of entertainments by which they hope to make money; semi-public entertainments prepared under the management of a traveling promoter ask free advertising “for the good of the cause.” Usually they get it, and when the promoter passes on, the editor is found to be the only one in town who received nothing for his labor.
It is characteristic of the country town to engage in community quarrels. These absorb the attention of the citizens, and feeling becomes bitter. The cause may be trifling: the location of a schoolhouse, the building of a bridge, the selection of a justice of the peace, or some similar matter, is enough. To the newspaper office hurry the partisans, asking for ex parte reports of the conditions. One leader is, perhaps, a liberal advertiser; to offend him means loss of business. Another is a personal friend; to anger him means the loss of friendship. The editor of the only paper in the town must be a diplomat if he is to guide safely through the channel. In former times he tried to please both sides and succeeded in making enemies of every one interested. Now the well-equipped editor takes the position that he is a business man like the others, that he has rights as do they, and he states the facts as he sees them, regardless of partisanship, letting the public do the rest. If there be another paper in town, the problem is easy, for the other faction also has an “organ.”
Out of the public’s disagreement may come a newspaper quarrel — though this is a much rarer thing than formerly. The old-time country newspaper abuse of “our loathed but esteemed contemporary” is passing away, it being understood that such a quarrel, with personalities entangled in the recriminations, is both undignified and ungentlemanly. “But people will read it,” says the man who by gossip encourages these attacks. So will people listen to a coarse street controversy carried on in a loud and angry tone, — but little is their respect for the principals engaged. Country editors of the better class now treat other editors as gentlemen, and the paper that stoops to personal attacks is seldom found. Many a town has gone for years without other than kindly mention in any paper of the editors of the other papers, and in such towns you will generally find peace and courtesy among the citizens.
Of course, there are politics and political arguments, but few are the editors so lacking in the instincts of a gentleman as to bring into these the opposing editor’s personal and family affairs. It has come to be understood that such action is a reflection on the one who does it, not on the object of his attack. This is another way of saying that more real gentlemen are running country newspapers to-day than ever before. This broadening of character has broadened influence. The country paper is effecting greater things in legislation than are the county conventions.
“The power of the country press in Washington surprises me,” said a middle West congressman last winter. “During my two terms I have been impressed with it constantly. I doubt if there is a single calm utterance in any paper in the United States that does not carry some weight in Washington among the members of Congress. You might think that what some little country editor says does not amount to anything, but it means a great deal more than most people realize. When the country editor, who is looking after nothing but the county printing, gives expression to some rational idea about a national question, the man off here in Congress knows that it comes from the grass-roots. The lobby, the big railroad lawyers, and that class of people, realize the power of the press, but they hate it. I have heard them talk about it and shake their heads and say, ‘Too much power there!’ The press is more powerful than money.”
This was not said in flattery, but because he had seen on congressmen’s desks the heaps of country weeklies, and he knew how closely they were read. The smallest editorial paragraph tells the politician of the condition in that paper’s community, for he knows that it is put there because the editor has gathered the idea from some one whom he trusts as a leader, — and the politician knows approximately who that leader is. So the country editor often exerts a power of which he knows little.
But politics is only a part of the country editor’s life. The social affairs of the community are nearest to him. The proud father who brings in a cigar with a notice of the seventh baby’s arrival (why cigars and babies should be associated in men’s minds I never understood), the fruit farmer who presents some fine Ben Davis apples in the expectation that he will get a notice, are but types. The editor may have some doubts concerning the need of a seventh child in the family of the proud father, and he may not be particularly fond of Ben Davis apples; but he gives generous notices because he knows that the gifts were prompted by kind hearts and that the givers are his friends.
When joy comes to the household, it is but the working of the heart’s best impulses to desire that all should share it. The news that the princess of the family has, after many years of waiting, wedded a prosperous merchant of the neighboring county, brings the family into prominence in the home paper. Seldom in these busy times does the editor get a piece of wedding-cake, but nevertheless he fails not to say that the bride is “one of our loveliest young ladies and the groom is worthy of the prize he has won.” The city paper does not do that. Here and there a country editor tries to put on city airs and give the bare facts of “social functions,” without a personal touch to the lines. But unfrequently does he succeed in reaching the hearts of his readers, and somehow he finds that his contemporary across the street, badly printed, sprinkled with typographical errors and halting in its grammar, but profuse in its laudations, is getting an unusual number of new subscribers. Even you, though you may pretend to be unmindful, are not displeased when on the day after your party you read that the guests “went home feeling that a good time had been had.”
The time has not yet come for the country paper to assume city airs; nor is it likely to arrive for many years. The reason is a psychological one. The city journal is the paper of the masses; the country weekly or small daily is the paper of the neighborhood. One is general and impersonal; the other, direct and intimate. One is the market-place; the other, the home. The distinction is not soon to be wiped out.
And when sorrow comes! Into the home of a city friend of mine death entered, taking the wife and mother. The family had been prominent in social circles, and columns were printed in the city papers, columns of cold, biographical facts —born, married, died. But the news went back to the small country town where in their early married life the husband and wife had spent many happy years, and in the little country weekly was quite another sort of story. It told how much her friends loved her, how saddened they were by her passing away, how sweet and womanly had been her character. The husband did not send the city papers to distant acquaintances; he sent copy after copy of the little country weekly, the only place where, despite his prominence in the world, appeared a sympathetic relation of the loss that had come to him.
Week after week the country paper does this. From issue after issue clippings are stowed away in bureau drawers or pasted in family Bibles, because they picture the loved one gone. It may not be a very high mission; but no part of the country editor’s work has in it more of satisfaction and recompense.
After the funeral comes the real test of the editor’s good-nature. Long resolutions adopted by lodges and church organizations are handed in for publication, each bristling with the forms of ritual or creed, and each signed with the names of the committee members upon whom devolved the task of composition. A few country editors are brave enough to demand payment at advertising rates for these publications; generally they are printed without charge.
Nor is there a halt at this step in the proceeding. One day a sad-faced farmer, with a heavy band of crape around his battered soft hat, accompanied by a woman whose heavy veil and black dress are sufficient insignia of woe, comes to the office.
“We would like to put in a ‘card of thanks,’” begins the man, “and we wish you would write it for us. We ain’t very good at writing pieces, and you know how.” Does the editor tell them how bad is the taste that indulges the stereotyped card of thanks ? Does he haughtily refuse to be a party to such violation of form’s canons ? Scarcely. He knows the formula by heart, and “the kind friends and neighbors who assisted us in our late bereavement,” comes to him as easily as the opening words of a mayor’s proclamation.
Occasionally there is literary talent in the family, and the “card” is prepared without the editor’s assistance. Here is one verbatim as it came to the desk: —
“We extend our thanks to the good people who assisted us in the sickness and death of our wife and daughter: The doctor who was so faithful in attendance and effort to bring her back to health, the pastor who visited and prayed with her and us, the students who watched with us and waited on her, the neighbors who did all they could in helping care for her, the dormitory students, the faculty, the literary societies and the A.O.U.W. who furnished such beautiful flowers, we thank them all. Then the undertaker who was so kind, the liveryman and other friends who furnished carriages for us to go to the cemetery — yes, we thank you all.”
Doubtless he feels that he should do something toward conserving the best taste in social usage, and that the “card of thanks” should be ruthlessly frowned down; but he sees also the other side. It is unquestionably prompted by a spirit of sincere gratitude and survives as a concession to a supposed public opinion. Like other things that are self-perpetuating, this continues — and the country editor out of the goodness of his heart assists in its longevity. In no path is the progress of the reformer so difficult as in that of social custom; and this is as true on the village street as on the city boulevard.
The past half-decade has brought to the country editor a new problem and a new rival, — the rural delivery route. Until this innovation came, few farmers took daily papers. The country weekly, or the weekly from the city, furnished the news.
Out in the Middle West the other morning, a dozen miles from town, a farmer rode on a sulky plough turning over brown furrows for the new crop. “I see by to-day’s Kansas City papers,” he began, as a visitor came alongside, “that there is trouble in Russia again.” “What do you know about what is in to-day’s Kansas City papers ? ” “ Oh,
we got them from the carrier an hour ago.”
It was not yet noon, but he was in touch with the world’s news up to one o’clock that morning—and this twelve miles from a railroad and two hundred miles west of the Missouri River! In that county every farmhouse has rural delivery of mail; and one carrier makes his round in an automobile, covering the thirty miles in four hours or less.
The country editor has viewed with alarm this changing condition. He has feared that he would be robbed of his subscribers through the familiar excuse, “ I ’m takin’ more papers than I can read.” But nothing of the kind has happened. Although the rural carriers take each morning great packages of daily papers, brought to the village by the fast mail, the people along the routes are as eager as ever for the weekly visit of the home paper. If by accident one copy is missing from the carrier’s supply on Thursday, great is the lamentation. It is doubtful if a single country paper has been injured by the rural route; in most instances the reading habit has been so stimulated as to increase the patronage.
This it has done: it has impressed on the editor the necessity of giving much attention to home news and less to the happenings afar. This is, indeed, the province of the country paper, since it is of the home and the family, not of the market-place. This feature will grow, and the country paper will become more a chronicle of home news and less a purveyor of outside happenings, for soon practically every farmer will have his daily paper with the regularity of the sunrise. On the whole, instead of being an injury this is helpful to the rural publisher; it relieves him of responsibility for a broad field of information and allows him to devote his energy to that news which gives the greatest hold on readers, — the doings of the immediate community. With this will come more generally the printing of the entire paper at home and the decline of the “patent inside,”now so common, which has served its purpose well. If it exist, it will be in a modified form, devoted chiefly to readable articles of a literary rather than of a news value.
The city daily may give the telegraph news of the world in quicker and better service, the mail-order house may occasionally undersell the home merchant, the glory of the city’s lights may dazzle; but, at the end of the week, home and home institutions are best; so only one publication gives the news we most wish to know,—the country paper. The city business man throws away his financial journal and his yellow “extra,” and tears open the pencil-addressed home paper that brings to him memories of newmown hay and fallow fields and boyhood. Regardless of its style, its grammar, or its politics, it holds its reader with a grip that the city editor may well envy.
In these times the country editor is, like the publisher of the city, a business man. Scores of offices of country weeklies within two hundred miles of the Rockies (which is about as far inland as we can get nowadays) have linotypes or typesetting machines, run the presses with an electric motor, and give the editor an income of three thousand dollars or more a year for labor that allows many a vacation day. The country editor gets a good deal out of life. He lives well; he travels much; he meets the best people of his state; and, if he be inclined, he can accomplish much for his own improvement. Added to this is the joy of rewarding the honorable, decent people of the town with good words and helpful publicity, and the satisfaction of seeing that the rascals get their dues.
— and get them they do if the editor lives and the rascals live, for in the country town the editor’s turn always comes. It may be long delayed, but it arrives. If he use his power with honesty and intelligence, he can do much good for the community.
In the opinion of some this danger threatens: the increased rapidity of transportation, the multitude of fast trains, and the facilities for placing the big city papers within a zone of one hundred miles of the office of publication, means the large representation of particular localities or even the establishment of editions devoted to them. The city paper tries to absorb the local patronage through the competent correspondent who practically edits certain columns or pages of the journal. In the thickly settled East this is more successful than in the West, where distance helps the local paper. But the zone is widening with every improvement in transportation of mails, and soon few sections of the country will be outside the possibilities of some city paper’s enterprise in this direction.
When this happens, will the local weekly go out of existence and its subscribers be attached to the big city paper whose facilities for getting news and whose enterprise in reaching the uttermost parts of the world far outstrip the slow-going weekly’s best efforts ? It is not likely. The county-seat weekly to-day, with its energetic correspondent in the town of Centreville, adds to its list in that section because it gives the new-s fully and crisply — but it does not drive out of business the Centreville Palladium, whose editor has a personal acquaintance with every subscriber and who caters to the home pride of the community. It is probable that the Palladium will be more enterprising and will devote more attention to the doings of the dwellers in Centreville in order to keep abreast with the competition; but it cannot be driven out, nor its editor forced from his position by dearth of business. The life of a forceful paper is long. One such paper was sold and its name changed eighteen years ago; yet letters and subscriptions still are addressed, to the old publication. A hold like that on a community’s life cannot be broken by competition.
The evolution of the country weekly into the country daily is becoming easier as telephone and telegraph become cheaper, and transportation enables publishers to secure at remote points a daily “plate” service that includes telegraph news up to a few hours of the time of publication. The publishing of an associated press daily, which twenty years ago always attended a town’s boom and generally resulted in the suspension of a bank or two and the financial ruin of several families, has become simplified until it is within reach of modest means.
Instead of the big city journals extending their sway to crush out the country paper, it is more probable that the country papers will take on some of the city’s airs, and that, with the added touch of personal familiarity with the people and their affairs, the country editor will become a greater power than in the past. For it is recognized to-day that the publication of a paper is a business affair and not. a matter of faith or revenge. If the publication be not a financial success, it is not much of a success of any kind.
The old-time editor who prided himself on his powers of vituperation, who thundered through double-leaded columns his views on matters of world-importance and traded space for groceries and dry goods, has few representatives to-day. The wide-awake, clean-cut, well-dressed young men, paying cash for their purchases and demanding cash for advertising, alert to the business and political movements that make for progress, and taking active part in the interests of the town, precisely as though they were merchants or mechanics, asking no favors because of their occupation, are taking their places. This sort of country editor is transforming the country paper and is making of it a business enterprise in the best sense of the term, — something it seldom was under the old régime.
This eulogy is one often quoted by the country press: “Every year every local paper gives from five hundred to five thousand lines for the benefit of the community in which it is located. No other agency can or will do this. The editor, in proportion to his means, does more for his town than any other man. To-day editors do more work for less pay than any men on earth.”
Like other eulogies it has in it something of exaggeration. It assumes the country editor to be a philanthropist above his neighbors. The new type of country editor makes no such claim. To be sure, he prints many good things for the community’s benefit, — but he does it because he is a part of the community. What helps the town helps him. His neighbor, the miller, would do as much; his other neighbor, the hardware man, is as loyal and in his way works as hard for the town’s upbuilding. In other words, the country editor of to-day assumes no particular virtue because his capital is invested in printing-presses, paper, and a few thousand pieces of metal called type. He does realize that because of his avocation he is enabled to do much for good government, for progress, and for the betterment of his community. Unselfishly and freely he does this. He starts movements that bring scoundrels to terms, that place flowers where weeds grew before, that banish sorrow and add to the world’s store of joy, — but he does not presume that because of this he deserves more credit than his fellow business men. He is indeed fallen from grace who makes a merit of doing what is decent and honest and fair.
It is often remarked that the ambition of the country editor is to secure a position on a city paper. I have had many city newspapermen confide to me that their fondest hope was to save enough money to buy a country weekly in a thriving town. At first thought it would seem that the city journalist would fail in the new field, having been educated in a vastly different atmosphere and being unacquainted with the conditions under which the country editor must make friends and secure business. But two of the most successful newspapers of my acquaintance are edited by men who served their apprenticeship on city dailies, and finally realized their heart’s desire and bought country weeklies in prosperous communities. They are not only making more money than ever before, but both tell me that they have greater happiness than came in the old days of rush, hurry, and excitement.
So long as a country paper can be issued without the expenditure of more than a few hundred dollars, so long as the man with ambition and money can satisfy his desire to “edit,” the country paper will be fruitful of jocose remarks by the city journalist. There will be columns of odd reprint from the backwoods of Arkansas, and queer combinations of grammar and egotism from the Egypt of Illinois. The exchange editor will find in his rural mail much food for humorous comment, but he will not find characterizing the country editor a lack of independence, nor a lack of ability to look out for himself. The country editor is doing very well, and the trend of his business affairs is in the direction of better financial returns and wider influence, He is a greater power now than ever before in his history, and he will become more influential as the years go by. He will not be controlled by a syndicate, nor modeled after a machine-made pattern, but wall exert his individuality wherever he may be.
The country editor of to-day is coming into his own. He asks fewer favors and brings more into the store of common good. He does not ask eulogies nordoes he resent fair criticisms; he is content to be judged by what he is and what he has accomplished. As the leader of the hosts must hold his place by the consent of his followers, so must the town’s spokesman prove his worth. Closest to the people, nearest to their home life, its hopes and its aspirations, the country editor is at the foundation of journalism. Here and there is a weak and inefficient example; but in the main he measures up to as high a standard as does any class of business men in the nation, — and it is as a business man that he prefers to be classed.