Mark one up for this young, idealistic editor

Tony Bender

I received a call from a lady who hadn’t received last week’s paper. The reality is, we send out thousands of newspapers each month and they don’t all get where they’re supposed to go. That’s just reality.

We’d love to bat 1.000. We’d love the post office to bat 1.000, but a call like that has an upside. It gives me a chance to talk with a reader, to make sure their subscription is current, the address is right — we have a lot of snowbirds. The most gratifying part of the conversation is hearing how much they miss the paper when it’s not there. I get that. When I lived in Alaska, the Brown County News from Frederick, South Dakota, was a lifeline. There’s comfort in knowing how the home team is doing and who had coffee with whom.

One of the features of my radio program in Juneau was “The Sins of Sitka,” as gleaned from the police report of the Sitka Sentinel. Whoever wrote the police report was an absolute comedian. They’d make a big deal about a lone shoe found in the street or a bear cub trapped in a dumpster, and I’d document these “crimes” backed by dramatic soap opera music.

As a young, idealistic editor, I immediately challenged the city council to resume publishing minutes in the paper. They’d used a legal loophole, since closed, to avoid a critical aspect of transparency. They told me to stuff it. Democracy was too expensive. Punk.

So it began. I put a framed blank spot in subsequent papers noting in small print inside the minutes had last run there at a cost of $38 or so. I ran ads noting the cost to the local citizens was less than 25 cents annually, and in one snide editorial, I encouraged citizens to give city council members their dimes and nickles. And they did. The turning point was when a county commissioner stopped the mayor on the sidewalk and gave him a quarter.

We could see the post office from our office. After the papers arrived, you’d see a rush to get the latest issue just to read the latest patriotic snark. I remember folks standing on the steps, reading the paper.

This cheeky assault continued for a month until the next meeting. I still remember the motion from Bette Sanger, a bare-knuckled battleax who I came to adore. “I suppose we should grease the squeaky wheel,” she said.

You can’t really run a good newspaper without confronting reality and challenging power as necessary, but you’ll find that these same newspapers are their communities’ biggest boosters. We love good news. We appreciate our neighbors. We live here for a reason.

After I shut down my computer last week, I dropped off the paper at the lady’s home, just a few blocks up the street. She called out from the basement, and although I said I could leave the paper in the entry to save her the trip, she climbed the steps to greet me despite a recent fall that had slowed her up.

She reiterated that she’d missed her paper, and I told her this was a pretty good issue. One of the featured stories in our ag special section was about a dorky bottle lamb that had become a family pet. A pleasant distraction from a challenging year in agriculture. A little sugar to sweeten the season’s bitter medicine.

As I walked back to my pickup, I remembered the Grit paper route I’d had as a kid, how old folks would invite me in for cookies and a chat and even Chinese checkers. In the winter, they’d dry my boots by the stove. It took me two days to deliver 32 papers. It’s always been about the human connection.

Decades later, some things haven’t changed. I’m still delivering papers, and I still love it.

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