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This Town Ain't Big Enough



Early this April, Worth Weller, owner of the weekly News-Journal of North Manchester, Indiana, wrote the owner of the local Ace Hardware, Roger Moore. The letter was retrieved from the Ace Hardware box and read by Roger's wife, Judy.

Judy Moore is a founder and owner of the competing weekly paper, the Manchester Monitor. Neither paper is making any money, and the question around town isn't which paper will survive but if either will. Weller wrote Moore to address this precarious situation but he began on a personal note: "Hi, Roger. Just thought you'd like to know that I spent $290 on paint at the Ace Hardware on Jefferson Blvd. in Ft. Wayne this week. They were really pleasant people, and the owner carried everything out to the car for me. And then I went on to Lowe's, to buy the shop lite I needed, and I plan to get all my yard and garden supplies there too this spring. I remember when I was a good customer of yours."

Weller now describes the tone of this letter as "conciliatory." It continued: "A person I swim with at the pool--no one connected to the News-Journal--mentioned to me the other day that he doesn't shop with you anymore either, because he knows that the higher prices he pays with you go to subsidize the Monitor. Frankly I don't know what your goal is: now that you've alienated the school board, the school administration, and this week the town council and the town employees. I'm hearing people talk about the Monitor and James Odom in the same breath. It's weird. You know how the public is--they associate."

Odom is a Presbyterian fundamentalist from Indianapolis who briefly owned the News-Journal. He bought it from Weller in 1999 and promptly published an editorial defending creationism as serious science. "I make no bones about it," he says. "My intention was to acknowledge the Word."

North Manchester, a town of some 6,000 people in Wabash County in northeastern Indiana, is a sensible place--its rural conservatism blended comfortably with the progressivism of Manchester College. Paula Adams, a graduate of the liberal arts college, says proudly that over half the faculty has studied abroad and that on a per capita basis the school produces more Fulbright scholars than Harvard.

Odom introduced several conservative syndicated columnists, and a lot of readers were bothered not just by their politics but by the idea that columnists were running at all. This wasn't the News-Journal they'd been used to. Weller and his wife, Susan, had bought the 137-year-old paper in 1981 and published what he called "belly-button journalism." He says, "Not much of it's earth-shattering. People like to read about themselves and their kids." But Odom was no fan of belly-button journalism. He preferred stories with substance and a point of view.

Odom says he held his own in 2000, but last year his top ad salesperson quit and the News-Journal headed south. Folks around town began to worry that they'd be going from a local paper they didn't much like to no paper at all. This prospect troubled Paula Adams, a retired family therapist married to a retired doctor--her husband, Parks Adams, is a Quaker who switched from engineering to medicine in midlife. There's something sacred about the press in Paula Adams's view, and after giving brief thought to trying to buy the News-Journal, she and Judy Moore decided to start their own paper. They organized an advisory board, quizzed a lot of journalists from out of town on how to do things, and last October launched the Monitor.

"Since the attack of September 11, many things we thought so important no longer seem so," said their "letter to the community." "This venture is not one of them." On the contrary. "The local newspaper is the modern town crier. How else are we to have regular, accurate news of what matters in our daily lives--the marriages, births, deaths, retirements? Where else do we look for news of our young people's lives, their sports and their schools?"

Six weeks after the Monitor was launched, Odom threw in the towel. He was engaged to be married and needed an income, and the News-Journal had cost him "many tens of thousands of dollars." There was a clause in his contract that allowed him to call off the sale and give the paper back to Weller, so that's what he did.

Professing enthusiasm, Weller made it his first order of business to reassure advertisers that the News-Journal was returning to normal. But now it had competition.

Last December Nancy Nall of Fort Wayne's News-Sentinel wrote a somewhat lighthearted story about the little town with two newspapers. Five months later they're both still plugging away, but nobody's making a dime and nobody's light of heart. Nall took a second look the other day. "The business competition is now more pitched than ever," she wrote in an E-mail, "but the editorial differences that started the battle are gone. Worth is your basic earth-shoe liberal, and so are Paula and Judy. The opinion pages are back to the sort of happy-happy town boosterism they were before Odom came to town, and the news is the usual ribbon-cutting and check-passing stuff you'd expect to find. You wonder, what are these people fighting over?"

The usual. Pride. Survival.

These concerns drove Weller to write his letter to Roger Moore. He'd sized up Moore as the "reasonable one" in the other camp, and Weller guessed he might be tired of subsidizing his wife's adventure. The letter eventually got down to business. "I'm surprised you can afford it frankly, both in terms of public relations, lost business, and the permanent cash outlay," Weller told Moore. "We've already got back all the subscribers James lost for us, and we acquire another 20-30 new ones a month now. This community sticks to its own, you know.

"If you'd like to talk about a graceful exit strategy sometime, call me at home. I'm not interested in hurting you, and I'm surprised how dedicated all of you are to hurting the Wellers....I really don't think it is healthy for this to go on much longer. Do you?"

Whatever Weller might have intended by this letter, to Roger Moore it was "very childish," to Judy Moore "a bunch of garbage." Cheryl Wilson, to whom Judy Moore immediately showed the letter, chooses even stronger words. "It's like sending a letter to a man saying 'Your wife's cheating on you. Here are the pictures.'"

An investor in the Monitor, Wilson runs Tri-Oaks Realty, next door to the paper. She proofreads the paper every Monday night and on Tuesday joins Judy Moore and Paula and Parks Adams in labeling the copies that go in the mail. She could be called Moore and Adams's silent partner, though she says, "Silence has never been a description of me."

A lot of things go unspoken in small towns--including the covenant that keeps them unspoken--yet in every town there's someone who rattles the cages. North Manchester has Cheryl Wilson. For 16 years she sold ads for Weller. She introduced him to Odom, whom she'd heard about from a mutual friend in Indianapolis. But between the time when Weller started talking to Odom in 1997 and the time when he sold Odom the paper two years later he fired her. Wilson says she still doesn't know why. Weller says merchants complained about her sales pitch: instead of telling them what a great place the News-Journal was to advertise, she told them they owed it to the paper.

When she read Weller's letter to Roger Moore, Wilson decided to damn him with his own words. "I faxed the letter to three people and hand delivered it to maybe four more--people I thought would care." One of the first to see it was Jane Grandstaff, a member of the Monitor's advisory board.

Grandstaff's reaction was telling. "She did not respond," says Wilson. "She has never talked to me about it, and I haven't heard a word that she's said to anyone else." The silence turned out to be typical, and Wilson learned a lesson. "It's a small town," she reflects. "The Wellers are nice people who have done a great job of raising their kids. People don't want to choose. Most people just didn't want to read it. It was probably a dumb thing to do."

Did it hurt your realty business?

"Probably," she says. "It's a small community, a peace-loving community, a Christian-based community."

Confrontations can poison a small town. Even Roger Moore decided that his best response to the letter was no response. "I won't get into a peeing contest with him," he says. After running into Moore a time or two and expecting him to say something about the letter, Weller began to wonder if he'd ever read it.

The Monitor and News-Journal are both tabloids. The Monitor's better looking. Its editor, J.D. Denny, graduated last summer with a master's from Indiana University's journalism school, and it shows. But a couple of months ago the Monitor committed a serious blunder.

Denny had decided to show how North Manchester was spending its money by publishing the payment vouchers approved by the town council. Each item in the list of vouchers he got from the council consisted of a claimant, an amount, and a description. For example: "ILB-Bankcard Services, $1,293.12, Plane Ticket J. Mugford." John Mugford is North Manchester's public works director.

Something else Denny started is a feature called "Speaking Out." Since townspeople hesitate to say what's on their mind when it can easily come back to haunt them, "Speaking Out" allows them to call in anonymously and leave recorded messages that the paper prints. A couple of readers noted the above line item and in the next installment of "Speaking Out" asked: "Where in the world did John Mugford go that his plane ticket cost $1,293.12?"

The Monitor could have found out with a phone call. Or Denny could have left his desk and walked across the street to the town hall. Instead, the question appeared in print unanswered. Only then did Denny learn that the dollar amount stood for the sum of all charges owed ILB-Bankcard Services by the town, and the ticket was simply the latest charge. Mugford had actually spent only $270 to fly to the annual meeting of the American Water Works Association in New Orleans. The Monitor ran a clarification.

Around the same time, "Speaking Out" also took shots at some school officials, including assistant high school principal Randy Self.

Afterward, neither Mugford nor Self sounded particularly aggrieved. "It was just something that was put out that shouldn't have been," says Mugford. "I've been in this town 27 years, and it all comes out in the wash sooner or later." Self comments, "They didn't intentionally attack me, and I didn't take it as such."

But Worth Weller was distressed enough for everybody. He writes a column in the News-Journal that he calls "Reflections in the Mirror: A Bi-Weekly Column of Community Reminiscing," and for two columns in a row--making the occasion by definition extraordinary--he condemned the scandalmongering of North Manchester's "new paper."

"Not only did John [Mugford] not deserve the attack," wrote Weller, "but the community does not deserve to have the kind of new, sensational turmoil that has been turned loose on school and town officials here recently....Are these acts of desperation to gain readership through sensationalism? Does the publication of tawdry, anonymous half-truths and untruths serve the community? One has to wonder."

Weller feared that the Monitor was following in the footsteps of James Odom, "who refused to listen to what people were trying to tell him and finally suffered the consequences. It's bizarre, but as is often the case, a tyranny of the right has been replaced by a tyranny of the left. Tyranny of any kind must not rule: the community should rule in a Democracy."

And he appealed to his readers to take his side. "The News-Journal's editorial staff is from this community, raises its children in this community, and recycles the dollars that it earns in this community. [Denny is from Lake Zurich, Illinois.] We do not own another business that we can live on while we subsidize a money-losing newspaper, and we do not have personal wealth that we can funnel down a dark hole."

But as Cheryl Wilson had discovered, the people of North Manchester don't want to take sides. Kimberly Shumaker, executive director of the chamber of commerce, says the town's merchants "started off trying to advertise in both" and now feel "stuck" because times are tough and they can't afford to. When merchants do choose one paper over the other, she says, it's not for business reasons. "In a small town you know everyone and you support your friends."

David Grandstaff owns the local rendering plant and chairs the Town Forum Steering Committee, which is the local strategic-planning group. He's a longtime friend of Worth Weller, though his wife, Jane, is on the Monitor's advisory board. "Worth was kind of hacked over that," says Grandstaff, "and I said, 'We've been friends long enough to know we don't tell our wives what they can and cannot do.'"

Grandstaff read the letter Weller wrote to Roger Moore. It's nothing he wants to comment on any more than his wife did. But he will talk about his fears for both papers. "I just got a haircut," he says, "and I was asking the gal cutting my hair how she's treating the advertising. Obviously in a small rural community people aren't doubling their ad budget just to accommodate two newspapers. It's a fairly common public perception that after a time the advertisers will begin to vote their dollars, but I'm not really sure that's happening."

What's happening instead, he senses, is that business owners are thinking hard for the first time about advertising anywhere. They're drawing back, asking themselves what they get for the money. "I think the pie itself is going to shrink," he says. "This is not a booming economy. This is rural Indiana. We're agriculture, light manufacture, education, retirement."

He won't say one paper's better than the other: "It depends on the week and the topic and the circle of friends." Last week the Monitor shone. "Judy Moore happens to have a niece who works in PR with one of the 500 race-car drivers," he says. "So they took a crew down there and got a wonderful close-up, personal spread because of who she knew. It was written just like Judy talks, a firsthand perspective of 'something I don't know squat about'--in that sort of voice. 'When they stuck that thingy in the back end of the car.' I have to think a lot of people chuckled when they read it."

If the Monitor and News-Journal both go under, silly features won't be the only big loss. Also gone will be the coverage of important matters, such as the work of Grandstaff's Town Forum Steering Committee. As he says, "Those out-of-town papers wouldn't give a rat's fanny what's going on in our local board."

Judy Moore insists that Ace Hardware doesn't actually underwrite the Monitor. But it's clear that the Monitor's founders are better positioned than Weller to do without income from their paper. In the best of times, says Weller, he and his wife, Susan--who's worked there part-time--together earned $60,000 a year from the News-Journal. The last time he got any money from it at all was when Odom owned it and was paying off his note.

Weller and his wife both teach, which is how they support themselves. A son just graduated from Duke, but a daughter's on her way to New York University in the fall. "Without the News-Journal income, jeez, this is scary," Weller says. "We're putting money into it we don't have anymore. I think the general readership--the public--is kind of excited about the competition, but it's not the readers who float the boat. It's the advertisers--and the advertisers don't like turmoil. And if they learn to live without advertising--that's not a good thing." He's giving himself until Christmas to somehow make the News-Journal pay again. If it doesn't, he'll probably close it.

"Do you think a newspaper that's one of two in a town with a population of 6,500 could be self-supporting?" says Cheryl Wilson. "I'm not convinced one paper could be self-supporting. It's a tough market. We have one car dealership--we used to have two. One grocery--we used to have two. There's not a lot of pickings here.

"That's why I guess I think the Monitor should be the survivor of this. It's really clear to Judy and Paula that there's not going to be a salary involved."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Skaggs.

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