Friday, March 12, 2010

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She put WHAT into her casserole:
The Saga of Small Town Newspapers

From the Parkville Luminary

Where can you learn about the local boy who made the honor roll at the community college, about Bessie Mae’s cousin bringing green bean casserole to a pot luck dinner, or about the latest goings-on at the senior center? You sure as heck won’t get tasty tidbits like these online. Nope, the only place where you can get real, meaty community news is in a real-life small town newspaper.

I’ve been a fan of such newspapers for years, and always strive to pick one up whenever I’m traveling. I’ve been reading one small town newspaper, The Index from Hermitage, Missouri, off and on for about 20 years now, thanks to my father in law. He grew up in that general area, and even though he’s lived in KC for years, he never gave up his local newspaper. I get The Index when he’s done reading it, and it never ceases to fascinate and enlighten me.

In a recent edition, one headline immediately caught my eye. It read, “Lions buy snowflakes.” I showed this to my son, who was as tickled as I was. He asked me to read the story, and I did, more or less: “Three African lions sauntered into the co-op in Hermitage today, and in loud, growly voices, demanded to buy snowflakes,” I read, or pretended to. “It seems the lions, never having seen snowflakes, wanted to buy some, put them in a cooler, and take them back to the African savanna, where they would show them off to their wild friends before leading a snowball fight.” My son, knowing that my sarcasm knows no bounds, read the real story (concerning the Lion’s Club and the purchase of lighted snowflakes for a holiday display) over my shoulder as I prattled on.

Had I missed this issue, not only would I have been bereft of snowflake news, but I would have missed out on other breaking news like the Weaubleau math team finishing third in a math tournament, or a dinner held to celebrate the 90th birthday of a spry looking Juanita Jenkins (congratulations!), or the theft of fencing materials from the local MFA co-op.

I am not making fun of these news items, which is more than I can say for some family members who visited me years ago when I was reporting in Rolla, Missouri. My relatives happened to catch my radio newscast where the lead story was a theft of $15 and a bushel of fruit from a fruit stand, and they’ve never let me forget it since. My response to them, and to anyone now who pokes undue fun at stories like these, is that this sort of seeming minutiae is actually more newsworthy than 90% of the junk you hear or read or see in bigger city media. These are real people and real stories about one’s real neighbors, and are thus more relevant, more newsworthy, than, for example, the daily crime blather served up under the guise of news by our local TV journalists.

My favorite pieces in The Index are the community reports, small, weekly columns lovingly crafted by “correspondents”, mostly little old ladies who know the comings and goings of everyone in town, a term which I use loosely since many of the communities from which these reports originate are little more than a gas station, a few houses, and a couple of angry dogs. In Cross Timbers last week, for example, two local residents want to Sedalia (!) to see two movies. Several other residents went to a high school ballgame on a Tuesday night. Information was also given about the death of one Cross Timbers resident, and about the hip surgery of another resident. He was visited in the hospital by three relatives, incidentally. Meanwhile, in Preston, three lucky residents shopped in Camdenton (!) Wednesday, and had lunch there. I wonder if there are any good Ethiopian joints in Camdenton?

The heart of every small town paper is the editor, who usually writes a cantankerous column and an editorial or two each week. The Index’s editor/publisher, Don Ginnings, has been telling it like it is for years. In a recent edition, his column is titled “Intended to offend everyone” and contains stories and jokes poking fun at almost everyone. In a more politically correct environment, he might get ridden out of town on a rail. But since Hermitage is already out of town, I suppose he can get away with it. When he isn’t being contrary, Ginnings is being thoughtful. In an editorial entitled, “Haiti should be a wake up call”, Ginnings writes, “That catastrophe should make every American appreciate what we have, should prompt everyone to help overcome that devastation, and should be a reminder that a similar natural event could occur here.”

The New York Times couldn’t have said it any better.

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