Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Laurels

On Thursday, the Laurel Leader-Call in Mississippi -- a four-day-a-week newspaper for the last few months, which still qualified it as a daily -- suddenly announced, We're done. This is it. Goodbye. Doubtless the death-of-print people will hail this as another example of the triumphs of the digital world.

But -- Laurel, Miss.? This is even weirder an epicenter than lower Michigan.

It seems to be in large part a different story, one that's been seen before. Community Newspaper Holdings owned the Leader-Call, and had people in the community write local columns. One of them was Jim Cegielski, who moved to Laurel in 1996, possibly -- it's hard to track some of this stuff -- from right here in Burlington County, N.J. (He may be the same Jim Cegielski who wrote a fan book about Howard Stern, or he may not.) At any rate, when the newspaper holocaust started in the mid-2000s, CNHI apparently cut off its freelance local columnists' pay, asking them to write free. (Getting this from a fuzzy copy of a front page of the ReView.) Among them were Cegielski and some other local citizens, including Mark Thornton, who became editor of the ReView, who was a local businessman. They started a competing weekly newspaper, the ReView of Jones County, which delighted in pointing out what it considered the shortcomings of the Leader-Call. It also pointed out that the Leader-Call's owners were based in Alabama. Didn't know there was an Alabama-Mississippi feud, but apparently.

This wasn't a matter of a small newspaper not having a Web presence -- the Leader-Call posted everything, while it appears that the ReView kept stuff behind a paywall. It's hard to tell, there's little online documentation. But we've seen this before in small towns. Big newspaper company lets go of publisher, editor, columnists, whoever. Publisher, editor, columnists, whoever, being the sort who have determined they plan to spend their lives in this community, get P.O.'d and start their own weekly newspaper. They defy the conventions of the newspaper business and get personal about the competitor. They often run articles with a bit more of an attitude than the competition, and go to John Q. Storekeeper and say, Now don't you want to keep your money in the community?. Local merchants put their ads in the locally owned (and cheaper) competitor. As there aren't that many local merchants, the established paper's profit margin quickly falls away.

The publisher of the upstart always says that the big, bad chain paper isn't serving the local community. And it very well may not be. However, it usually was serving the community just fine until it let him or her go. (How many upstart weeklies and websites and journalism critiques are started by people whose initial motive is revenge!) There's nothing wrong with this at all. It's old-fashioned newspaper warfare. And today, the winner doesn't feel the need to go to six days a week, because daily obits and the like can be published online. But it doesn't say very much about the future of journalism in print or online. It says a lot more about, don't piss off the wanna-be opinion makers in a small town. If Jim Cegielski indeed was the guy who wrote a book about Howard Stern, CNHI should have known that he was going to take having his pay cut as 1) the Evil Empire against the Little Guy and 2) don't be bound by the conventions of propriety.

At my first job, in Richmond, Ind., we had a weekly paper, the Graphic, run by a man named Vic Jose. Our paper had no classified base because the Graphic basically gave away the ads. It merely needed enough money to enable Vic Jose to opine every week on what was wrong with Richmond and the world. (Full disclosure: His son lived next door to my mother and I went to grade school with his nephew. In the small world of the North Side, Vic Jose was a childhood friend of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose uncles owned the Vonnegut Hardware Co. where my grandfather and grandmother worked.)  Vic was often attacking the Pal-Item. The Pal-Item rarely even deigned to notice Jose. In part, Vic was running an alt-weekly without the counterculture gloss. Vic was a hard-working, often crusading journalist tilting against the windmills of the power structure and the Way Things Are, who cared deeply about his community, his country, freedom of the press, and the role of the small-weekly, mad-as-hell type newspaperman. But because the Graphic very clearly was the voice of  Vic Jose, it could say things that the Pal-Item -- both when it was owned by a prominent local family and when it was owned by Gannett -- thought it could not do. The Pal-Item saw itself as part of the civic leadership of the community. It felt it needed to reflect a balanced opinion. It was in the same civic sphere as the Second National Bank and Knollenberg's. Vic Jose saw himself as Vic Jose. He was a leader in the chamber of commerce, he was a contributor to civic causes, but the newspaper reflected him and not "responsible opinion." I expect the Laurel Leader-Call saw itself the same way as the Pal-Item. The ReView doubtless saw itself as a guerrilla band of local journalists saying what the Leader-Call wouldn't say, couldn't say. All well and good. But if the Leader-Call had kept paying those community columnists, they would have seen it as a perfectly fine newspaper. The lesson to take from this is: The people who want to be community journalists are not doing it because they care about your newspaper. They care about what they want to say. They can turn on you in a second. Deal with them at your peril.

CNHI wasted no time in shutting off the Leader-Call's server. That paper is just gone. You can only see some cached pages. That says to me, boy, this was personal. Someone in CNHI, I'd say, just got tired of dealing with the problem in Laurel. The question now is: What does the ReView of Jones County become? Does it reach out to all the people who liked the Leader-Call? In doing so, does it become more of a typical newspaper? Time will tell.


Anonymous said...

Incredibly insightful considering that the author was many states removed from the action. You should know that the ReView has not only purchased the Leader-Call name, they have become the Leader-Call. In the meantime, another corporate newspaper has moved into town to compete with them. We need a reality show in Laurel, MS....."Newspaper Wars".

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