[Eberle’s introduction to this new series continues!]
When I started writing for the newspaper in 1998, I had no thoughts about its rural nature or its relationship to the community. I walked into the office to see if Tim Hohs, the editor, could give me a ride home while my car was being repaired. He knew I was a writer and he needed a reporter; I was facing a large car repair bill and needed cash— within minutes, he had driven me over to my first assignment at the county courthouse. I walked into a room where two dozen furious citizens were confronting the county commissioners about their decision to have a large privately run prison built in the county. I was immediately hooked. The layers of tensions, personal relationships, and community dynamics underlying this passionate encounter fascinated me. As I continued to cover community meetings, I would often experience the eerie feeling that I was actually inside an on-going novel. However, it was not until I started reading newspaper material from the past hundred years that I came to have a deeper understanding of the community’s relationship to the newspaper as particularly defined by their shared rural context.
I’ve come to appreciate the fact that a rural newspaper differs from an urban newspaper not only in scale, but in more complex ways that reflect basic differences between rural and urban communities. A rural context, in fact, transforms the nature of the newspaper medium because of the relationships that exist between the newsmakers, the writers, and the readers. In a town of several hundred people, no aspect of the newspaper can be abstracted very far away from the personal. People know the editor, the reporters, and the individuals at the meetings that are covered, they know the letter-writers and the local advertisers; people will stop you on the street to comment on an article or call you at home to make suggestions.
A rural newspaper acts out a very particular kind of drama, one that takes place mostly on the local, community level. Whereas mass media seems to function through anonymity, and through the dynamics around authority that anonymity creates, the Adams County newspaper is scaled to individual dynamics within the community, and the uniquely local history created by those dynamics. Viewing the newspaper as a record of the past involves seeing a subjective community history—a record of relationships as well as of events. When people write letters to the editor, for instance, they exhibit aspects of their perceived relationship to local authority by the tone and voice they choose in order to give their claims weight and legitimacy. The newspaper itself can make fun of this fact, as when an editor started putting headlines to a published debate between two posturing local men that poked fun at the studied politeness of their anger: “Mr. York Loves Mr. Thorpe, So He Says—If Affection Is Reciprocated, Why Not Kiss And Make Up.” The relentless return to the personal is an element that fascinates me—over time, it creates history on a scale small enough to include the individual as a recognizable unit.
Advertisements offer an example of the difference that an individual rather than institutionalized voice can make in the experience of reading a newspaper. Especially in the early days of the Adams County paper, local merchants wrote their own advertisements in narrative form (or, in the case of lather and shingler Ira A. Brown in 1913, in poem form.) National ads for products from Wrigley’s Gum to Ford automobiles also appear, bringing with them the whole language of advertising that universalizes the product and distances the individuality of the seller in the way we have all grown used to.
In contrast, when Council merchant Fred Weed advertises his product in the paper in 1920 by saying: “Meats - Fresh and Cured - at prices somewhat lower than conditions may seem to warrant,” there is no losing sight of the individual—even across the decades I get a sense of his character, I wonder about his extreme caution in committing himself and what this has led to in his life—there is very definitely a person there in the words. Similarly, when I read: “B.F. Shannon the shoemaker is still here,” and: “Remember the shoe shop isn’t out of town yet,” I am struck by his choice of tone, and wonder what particular meaning it conveyed to county residents who knew him. The lugubrious tone could easily be a response to or a comment on the way that people knew him in the community. In a small town, personal knowledge or speculation (i.e., gossip) informs how people write to and read the newspaper. Knowing that your readers know you, know of you, or may do so at any time—this changes the act of writing and the act of reading as well. There’s no escaping the fact, under these circumstances, that words exist in a web of interconnections, that “information” is never really neutral.
The rural newspaper can be used to deliver specific moral messages to individuals, as when young Harry is exhorted to change his ways in 1914: “You are on the right track now, Harry, and have a future before you by sticking to your manly resolution. Do not under any circumstances betray the confidence your friends have placed in you, and all will lend you their moral support to make a man of yourself.” At times, the populace at large can be scolded in an attempt to organize, for instance, a town clean-up day or a road repair crew. Rumor control is another function of the paper, and specific rumors are addressed: a denial of rumors about the nature Frank Haworth’s injuries in a French hospital during World War I, a denial of rumors about local cases of infantile paralysis in 1932. The paper continues through the century to perform this function. On July 3, 1986, a resident writes to the paper that she is not at this time or in the near future leaving her husband; she goes on to clarify other details of her life. She closes by asking that if people have more questions about what she is doing would they please write her and enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope for a reply.
The lack of anonymity in Adams County communities has a definite effect on how people relate to the newspaper, and what they say to each other through it. By directing what they say in the paper to known neighbors, local writers actively create voices that play a part in defining the newspaper’s character. In 2003: “To the person who sent roses to me at the bank. You know who you are – I don’t – so now I have to be nice to everyone. Many thanks.” In 1977: “Please change the population sign to 897, we don't want to be part of the town.” In 1974: “As you may or may not know, the city board is looking for a dog-catcher. The word around Council is that I have taken the job. As yet, they have not given me the job. I would appreciate if the citizens of Council would not call my residence at 3 a.m. about dog problems….” The local populace is small enough that the newspaper can publish the activities and words of a much larger proportion of the whole than would ever be possible in an urban newspaper—whether it’s to describe the color scheme of the refreshments at a meeting of the Indian Valley Improvement League, or to comment on the fact that the Lappin family sat up late Saturday night listening to the radio. While the differences between a rural and urban paper might have their origins in the smaller rural population, the effects are more complex and far-reaching, creating the newspaper’s community identity.
The idea of a community of readers can be, in the present age, an extremely ethereal entity. People who have never met can be a “community” through chat rooms. What is remarkable about the nature of a rural community is its physical basis—everybody eventually runs into each other—meaning that controlled separation of one group from another is hard to achieve. Ironically, a larger population base can mean that people separate more easily into homogeneously-defined groups in terms of where they live, work, or go for recreation: the community of the workplace can be completely separate from the domestic community, and economic segregation into neighborhoods can create gated communities as effectively as physical walls. Several years ago, I had a visitor from New York City who expressed some astonishment after his five-day rural immersion. It struck him as remarkable that he would be having a beer in the evening with the woman who stamped his package at the post office in the morning, that the city official speaking on the fourth of July rang up his groceries the day before at the store. He commented, “It’s like you are all acting in a play together as well as seeing each other back stage."
All the pics are of Council, Idaho, & all but the first were taken in February 2009. The top pic of the Historic Adams County was taken in February 2010