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Wednesday, January 2, 2013


by John Palen


I had my own newspaper for a while, a one-man monthly in a small town halfway between Detroit and the Mackinac Bridge. I exposed racial discrimination in rental housing and the diversion of a third of a million dollars from a local non-profit. I wrote about conversion of landfill gas to electricity, and about a golf course that should have paid its way but didn't. Once I wrote about a school superintendent who used a district truck to move furniture from his house. I wrote a couple thousand stories over 10 years, and then I folded the paper and moved away.


“You must not have a very interesting personal life,” the city engineer commented pityingly one winter evening in the paper's early days. Others were less sympathetic. “I don't want to see that in the paper,” a board member snapped after saying something controversial in a public meeting. “Sorry, Frank,” I told him. “It's too late.” School board members reddened when I walked into a planning retreat in the Mandarin Room of the country club. Legally they couldn't throw me out, so they offered to feed me. I said no, took notes and wrote a story. In ensuing years they never got all the way to transparency, but at least they stopped meeting in the Mandarin Room.


A couple hundred people paid $35 a year to get the 24-page, digest-size paper in the mail each month. There were no ads. I made about $3.25 an hour. But I was able to share fresh accomplishments and frustrations with my college journalism students, and I kept current with how public schools and cities were governed and financed. At the time I started the paper, I had not written a news story for 16 years.


The genesis lay in a rash decision by a popular children's librarian to mail a sarcastic card to her boss. The boss always initialed memos with a squiggle resembling a fish hook, so the librarian taped a hook to the card—a No. 8 or 10 short shank, I believe. She covered the barb safely with tape, but the city manager saw a threatened assault and fired her. The local paper, a daily hollowed out by years of Hearst ownership, did little with the story, so I started researching a letter to the editor. Hours of digging unearthed a sad situation—steady decline in the library's services and circulation, and an angry exodus of trained librarians. I began to wonder why I was doing the local paper's job.  


The first issue of my paper went in the mail in December 1999. Page one described a program to build modest homes for low-income families. An inside page reported the library's problems, with a sidebar dashed off after a hugger-mugger board meeting: The boss whose initials resembled a fishhook had resigned! The local daily carried nothing on either story. From that day until it folded, my little paper ran in the black. 


The ricky-ticks were the best, the zoning board, park board, housing commission. I learned at aviation board meetings of ballooning subsidies for an airport used by only a few hobbyists. I learned at a neighborhood association gathering of plans to replace low-income housing with a fancy parking lot. Late one night around a table piled with stale pizza, I heard a planning commissioner propose rezoning for property he himself owned. 


It was artisanal journalism, and I loved it. Working alone on self-imposed deadlines, I could make the extra phone call, interview the additional source, polish the story until it shone. The only limits were my skill and energy. I scooped the local daily, whose editor knew more about The Book of Revelation than about the city budget, with a regularity that surprised even me. 


But I also got under some people's skin, and they didn't like that. Sometimes they reacted with anger; more often they simply pretended I didn't exist. Some of my best stories—about evidence of racial discrimination in rental housing, for example—were largely ignored. 


There were other downsides. The paper required a lot of work, often at night after a day of teaching. As time went on, with no one to answer to but myself, I didn’t always go the second mile—sometimes barely the first. My skill and energy had limits. So did my hearing. As it worsened I made mistakes and relied more on written reports, background papers and news releases. With less of the salt and pepper of real speech, my writing lost some of its savor.    


Toward the end, the school district hired a search firm to find a new superintendent. The process had a clubby feel, and I mentioned one day that all the finalists were white. “In a community like this,” the head hunter said, “we wouldn't have brought in anyone who didn't fit that profile.” It was a casual, one-on-one response in a hallway, but I could have gone after it. A few years earlier I would have. But I rationalized that I was tired and getting old and nothing would change. I let the story drop.


I kept the paper going a while longer, and then I sought a buyer, for a dollar. “I'm flattered,” one young journalist told me, “but you know, I just don't want to work that hard.” So I refunded outstanding subscriptions, said my goodbyes and shut the paper down. For three months I suffered pounding rebound headaches from self-medication for bruxism. Eventually my teeth stopped aching. I moved 400 miles away, to a larger city that was closer to grandchildren and vibrant with music and literature. 


I meant to attend local government meetings in the new place, just to be a good citizen. But I haven't, not a single one. Journalists say you're only as good as your last story. In my case, a story I no longer had the fire to write told me it was time to quit, time to seek that more interesting life in places other than City Hall.


John Palen’s poems have been published in little magazines and journals for more than 40 years. Mayapple Press brought out his Open Communion: New and Selected Poems in 2005 and his first collection of short fiction, Small Economies, in 2012. A retired journalist and journalism educator, he lives in Central Illinois.

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