A small-town newspaper publisher's alternative universe | On Media | Chicago Reader

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A small-town newspaper publisher's alternative universe

An act of satire in the Madison County Crier led to an advertiser exodus—and a principled stand by a publisher who took a risk on hyperlocal journalism



Frances Madeson sees herself as a "change agent," and in her view change agents don't effect enough change if they all stay in Manhattan. In 2010 she left New York City and moved back to Missouri, setting up shop in Farmington, a town of 16,000 about 60 miles south of Saint Louis. She ran a little business that provided writing services—resumes, cover letters, and in one case a letter for a woman who wanted to persuade her daughter to stop smoking pot. "A precondition to change is to restore language to people," Madeson says.

Then she discovered Fredericktown, population 4,000, a few miles down the road.

Madeson met Karen Whitener, a local boutique owner who'd founded the fortnightly Madison County Crier in 2008 after spending two years as reform mayor of Fredericktown, the county seat.

The two women hit it off, and one thing they saw eye to eye on was the importance of journalism that actually tells people what's going on. Whitener had written editorials blasting the town government that followed her own, but eventually she'd had to turn the paper over to a woman who worked for her and the Crier soon went out of business.

Bring it back, she said to Madeson.

Hyperlocalism is a catch-term for a new kind of urban journalism that hopes to survive by focusing on a single neighborhood. It's read—or isn't—by neighbors who know each other casually if at all. Madeson was about to practice real hyperlocalism—journalism in a little town where everyone knows everyone else all too well.

Her first issue, in June, saluted the paper's founder (PDF): back issues had impressed her with "how substantive and informative the articles were, and how incisive and daring the editorials. Big shoes to fill."

Her sixth issue, published September 12, alienated Whitener, struck a lot of her readers as unimaginably disrespectful, and cost her almost all her advertising.

Madeson, who grew up in suburban Saint Louis in the 1960s, describes herself as a "serious woman." Her father, Marvin Madeson, was a PR executive who ran Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in Saint Louis and helped launch (and later became national chairman of) the New Democratic Coalition, which was founded after the 1968 convention in Chicago. Its goal was to open the party to "represent and provide avenues of participation for all citizens."

Frances Madeson recalls the NDC as an exercise in "great courage, great daring, and failure, failure, failure." After college she lived an east-coast life, working as a congressional aide in Washington and publishing a novel, Cooperative Village, in New York that was described by one reviewer as a "smart, macabre satire of the War on Terror." But when her marriage ended she decided it was time to come home. And back in Missouri, her gift for fanciful writing fell flat.

Last month William and Donna Killian of Fredericktown submitted to the Crier a story about their son Caleb graduating from the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. To the left of the picture of Caleb that ran on page ten of the September 12 issue was the Killians' account. To the right of the picture the story continued, now in Madeson's own words:

"In an alternative universe (the one many of us are dreaming of and working toward), this announcement might say:

"Caleb Killian . . . graduated from U.S. Peace and Love Corps boot camp . . . on August 12, 2012. Killian graduated . . . as a Private First Class and received recognition for qualifying expert in compassion."

The story continued for two more paragraphs in this vein and concluded with the announcement that Caleb would return to Fredericktown "to lead us in drum circles" and "conduct a workshop at Courthouse Square on how to irreversibly transform bayonets into pruning hooks, once and for all."

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