History can be writ large in small community newspapers. That's one reason Tom Riordan, with 37 years as a newsman --16 of them publishing weeklies in Ohio and Michigan -- set out to profile many of the country's small-town editors back in 1978. For more than 15 years, he and his wife drove their travel trailer more than 50,000 miles to interview 92 editors in every state but Hawaii.
Now Riordan, 88, has collected 50 of the profiles for his book, "Our Paper: Lessons in Newspapering from America's Weekly Editors." Many of the profiles appeared in Publishers' Auxiliary and Editor & Publisher, whose then-editor, Robert U. Brown, "was always interested in small town papers as well as dailies," Riordan says. "When he said he'd pay us for the profiles, it gave us a goal."
Riordan found his candidates first by calling the state press associations and consulting other editors and friends who knew editors. "When we picked an editor as a good possibility, I'd ask them to send us three to four editions of their paper," says Riordan. "I could tell how well the editor was doing from the advertising, and what kind of coverage he or she was giving the community." Most weeklies had by then converted to offset, but Riordan also looked for "old-timers still working with hot metal and Linotype machines."
The book was shepherded into print by Bill Whiting of Whiting Writing, who got his start in journalism working at Riordan's weekly, the Tecumseh (Mich.) Herald, and found Riordan an inspiring mentor. "Tom was an expert at enlivening his papers and connecting with his readers," says Whiting. "My own weekly experience springboarded me into a 25-year career with The Miami Herald and Knight Ridder, as a reporter and editor." He notes that Tom's stories reminded him that "newspeople always have coped with change in their business and communities. Some have made out better than others, but always they left a mark on their towns -- usually for the better, and often with great flair."
Or as Riordan puts it: "If once-loyal readers ever stop calling it 'our paper,' that's when a country editor is in deep trouble."
The deep involvement of small-town editors in their communities--whether the issue is school bond levies or school integration -- can make for high drama. "We particularly liked stories of people who'd gotten into struggles with elements in their community," Riordan recalls.
Into that category falls Charlotte Schexnayder of the Arkansas Dumas Clarion (later the National Newspaper Association's first female president), who editorialized against Gov. …