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Chesterton's Living Fossil

The Real Royko



By Michael Miner

Chesterton's Living Fossil

When Vicki Urbanik went looking for work after college, Warren H. Canright--editor, publisher, and owner of Indiana's Chesterton Tribune--sat her down to explain the operation. Urbanik's eye wandered to a couple of antique printing presses sitting in the newsroom gathering dust. The sight of them delighted her. They made the Tribune feel like a country newspaper should.

It felt cluttered, inky, timeless. Canright observed the white skirt and high heels Urbanik had worn into his untidy shop and told her, "If you start working here you don't have to dress like that." Even jeans would be fine.

She took the job. Eleven years later she's still at the Tribune, one of its four reporters. "I didn't think I was going to be here this long, believe me, but it kind of grew on me."

Chesterton is a cozy town a few miles east of Gary, just beyond the heavy industry that lines the shore of Lake Michigan but not quite part of the weekend Riviera Chicagoans flee to in summertime. It tries to charm. Colorful awnings jut from the stores on the main street, and local commerce favors craft shops. There's a village green, and a bandstand on the green. Hollywood's surviving Munchkins assemble here once a year for the famous Oz festival, sponsored by the Duneland Chamber of Commerce.

Across from the green stands an old red brick storefront, the words "Chesterton Tribune" set in concrete below the roofline. A former owner built this home for his weekly in 1902, and the paper's never moved.

Canright, now 71, still presides. "When we went to offset-type printing it kept us from outgrowing the building," he said, sitting at a desk in the crowded back room where the paper's produced. "This used to be the composing room, and we had our Linotype machines down the side." Now the offset presses are kept down in the basement.

The backbone of small-town America is its vigilant weekly papers, tirelessly keeping the people abreast of sewer bond issues, pancake breakfasts, and spelling-bee titleholders. What sets Chesterton, population 10,000, apart is simply that its weekly paper comes out daily. In 1961, a time when the nation's afternoon papers were beginning to die like flies, the Canright family decided to publish five afternoons a week.

"When we went daily I think seven daily papers were delivered in Chesterton," Canright told me. "We were the eighth." The Tribune, Sun-Times, and Daily News came in from Chicago, the Tribune from South Bend, the News-Dispatch from Michigan City, and the Vidette Messenger from Valparaiso. But the dominant daily in the region was Gary's Post-Tribune.

The Canrights somehow spotted an opportunity. "When we became a daily," Canright said, "the Chesterton town council met on Mondays. The Porter town council met on Tuesdays, and our school board met on Mondays. That's three big news stories, and we were having to get them in the Wednesday paper with essentially one reporter." Enough was happening locally to warrant a daily paper, the Canrights reasoned, and the other dailies were simply too big to do it justice.

"They're really not able to cover the area in very much detail," Canright explained. "They used to cover our area with what they used to call country correspondents--today we'd call them stringers. And we still cover the local stuff better than they can do. We even cover a lot of the Porter County stories better than they can do."

"Our area" is Chesterton, the nearby hamlets of Porter, Dune Acres, and Burns Harbor, and the intervening countryside, all of which composes a single school district known as the Duneland School Corporation. Within those confines the Tribune, circulation 5,300, remains the ultimate authority.

In 1928 Canright's father, Warren R., was a Chicago Tribune Linotype operator who wanted out of the big city. Warren R.'s wife wasn't so eager: she had family in Chicago and deep roots--so deep that her mother had escaped the Chicago fire in the arms of her father, who carried her from their flat at 19th and State to Lake Michigan.

I'll go, she said, but no farther than 100 miles from Chicago.

When Warren R. heard that the Tribune was for sale he and his wife went out to Chesterton and took a look. "My mother said it looked like a dying factory town," said Warren H. "But there was a new high school and a new Methodist church, so they decided someone thought it had a future." They bought the paper for $15,000; later they purchased the building housing it for another $15,000.

Warren H. was two when his parents took over the Tribune. His son David began delivering newspaper bundles at the age of ten, and when he was old enough to get a work permit he advanced to sweeping floors. Now he's the managing editor. His wife, Margaret Willis, is the photography editor; Warren H.'s wife, Elizabeth Canright, is the office manager.

"I don't run a lot of columns," David Canright told me. "I don't run a lot of canned features from syndicates. Our paper is almost devoid of comics. [It does carry Donald Duck and Funky Winkerbean.] The budget goes into local community news. We cover an endless series of meetings."

In the big cities afternoon papers toppled like dinosaurs. Their delivery trucks languished in rush-hour traffic jams, while faithless readers discovered how easy it was to come home from work and turn on the TV. But in Chesterton afternoon publication proved a godsend. The competing papers all were AMs. "A lot of meetings last to midnight," David Canright said. "Reporters have to choose between missing their deadline or leaving early and getting only half the story. Our paper will come out the next day and have the whole meeting. We try to be a newspaper of record for our little town, and I think that's why we compete."

"It's hyperniche marketing," says reporter Jim Hale.

Unlike the Nixon News in Michigan City, the Howard Publications paper in Valparaiso, or the Knight-Ridder paper in Gary, the Tribune is family owned. No bean counters from headquarters pass through Chesterton pointing out ways to give the reader a little less and the stockholder a little more. And the Tribune thrives.

"Some of the things that make the Tribune special in my mind go beyond news coverage," Urbanik said. She told me about the drawer in the front office where the Tribune puts copies of the photographs it publishes. "We allow people to come in, look through the drawer, and if there's anything they like they can have it for free."

The north wall of that cluttered front office is where the Tribune displays its honors. There's probably no way to keep a plaque from looking impressive, other than stuffing it in a drawer, but the numerous certificates from the Hoosier State Press Association betray the paper's modest self-regard. None is framed, though a few have been laminated in plastic. The others remain bare pieces of paper, tacked casually to the wall like preschool artwork.

"Are you going to watch the stuffing?" asked Urbanik.

I had no idea what she was talking about.

"We're having a funeral-home war for prepaid funerals," explained Warren H. Canright. "We already stuffed one of the funeral homes this week, and we're stuffing the other one today."

"It's a ritual," said Urbanik.

I decided to get some lunch first. Wildly overestimating the time it would take the Tribune staff to stuff a flyer from the White-Love Funeral Home--"Our family caring for your family"--into each copy of last Friday's edition, I got back after the stuffing was over. I had to settle for the postmortem.

Jim Hale said he'd led today's discussion. The question on his mind was this: "What is the proper place of people with humanity degrees in a capitalist society that places too much emphasis on business?" Hale said that, as always, he became overwrought contemplating the world's disdain, while David Canright remained "reasonably sanguine." Canright argued that opportunities do exist for people like Hale with worthless humanities degrees, and Hale had to concede the point--after all, he was holding down one of those opportunities at the Tribune.

But Hale wasn't mollified. "It's as if our society were a person who said our purpose in life is to breathe and eat," he grumbled. "Business should take care of the crap, so we can spend our lives reading and listening to music and going to theater and museums."

"And writing novels," Urbanik put in.

"And writing novels. But I realize that's an extremely radical and ridiculous position."

Nevertheless, Hale went on, Thomas Jefferson--not that he was such a paragon of virtue--had it right when he said, "We fight a war so our sons can write poetry." It might not have been Jefferson, Hale acknowledged.

The thing is, I told Hale, the best poetry's written while the war's going on. Once it's over, the art dries up.

"Well, I'd rather be William Wordsworth than Siegfried Sassoon," said Hale.

If only the staffs of the great metropolitan papers could only meet once a day to stuff and bond. There'd be so much less of the reckless cynicism that befouls their product, cynicism that's really just professional anomie leaking into print. The Tribune isn't some soulless little place kids drop by after college long enough to kick-start their resum├ęs. Reporters sign on and never want to leave.

Typical of the breed, Hale and Urbanik are both products of the region. She grew up in Whiting, and her dad worked at Union Carbide. He grew up in Portage, and both his parents worked in steel mills. She studied journalism at Indiana University. He studied humanities at Valparaiso University. He's been at the Tribune 15 years.

As it happens he's about to get married, and then he's moving to Pennsylvania. Is it like growing up and leaving home? I asked. In a way, he said wistfully. "A lot of the time it feels like we're one big family."

The Real Royko

Late one night in 1968 I was killing time in the wire room of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, where the UPI bureau I worked at was located. Not long before, Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and the country was full of anger and despair. Journalism wasn't much of a profession just then, or so it seemed to me. We were taking the king's shilling and telling the king's truth. Hippies didn't pay our salaries.

The Chicago Daily News teletype was rattling, and I idly began to read what was coming over it. It was a column by Mike Royko, someone I'd never heard of. The story he told was roughly this. A kid who'd saved a few dollars and opened an account at a Chicago bank wrote the bank president asking a simple question: Why hadn't the bank, like most other institutions, lowered its flag to half-mast to honor King? It's possible the kid went on to say that he'd decided to close his account. The letter enraged the banker, who wrote back belligerently that no one was going to push him around. Who did the boy think he was?

This sort of anger flowed freely through America back then. It was intolerant, it was paranoid, and it was respectable. If the insignificant encounter of the small boy and the banker had made any paper I was familiar with at the time, the account would have been generous in its sympathy for the banker. After all, he had standing in the community. He had difficult decisions to make that children couldn't be expected to understand. He deserved some deference.

Royko ridiculed him. He called him a pompous, bullying fool. And he called him that so cleverly I stood there laughing out loud. I'd been educated to believe the duty of journalism was to stand with the little person being pushed around by the big, but this was the first time I'd seen anyone on a major paper take that obligation seriously. I felt exhilarated.

A couple of years later I was working in Chicago. Local government at the time, no matter how Richard J. Daley might be sentimentalized today, was provincial, authoritarian, and corrupt. Royko stood against it and mocked it, behaving like the "second government" Solzhenitsyn said any great writer is. Thousands of idealistic young readers who believed themselves unenfranchised read him reverently.

As the years went by, City Hall changed. So did those readers. They got older and wealthier and made connections--and discovered Chicago had a place for them after all. The handful of independent politicians Royko unabashedly admired left the stage, and no one who could earn his respect succeeded them. Royko ceased being a second government, because he stopped offering a moral alternative. He remained a debunker, a lampooner, an iconoclast. He still made me laugh out loud, but his eye for humbuggery had become sharper than his eye for injustice.

Humbuggery's a much easier target. Everyone's less than he pretends to be, as I'm sure Royko himself knew only too well. Everyone's flawed. Everyone's a humbug. And I didn't always enjoy Royko's choice of which humbugs to ridicule.

Lately gossip around Royko had to do with his retirement, but his 64-year-old body, which he was never kind to, made that decision for him by giving out. A CNN reporter asked me if there'd ever be another Royko. The answer, of course, is no. The fuller answer is that a powerful tradition exists here of journalists who damn everything else and tell the truth, and Royko leaves that tradition stronger than he found it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of David Canright and Warren Canright by Randy Tunnell.

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