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The Family Newspaper Business

FOR nine years of my childhood, my father edited the Weiser Signal-American. Weiser was a long way from anywhere, and the paper was the main source of news for its 4,500 townspeople as well as the irrigation farmers down along the Snake River and the scattered ranchers up in the dry Idaho hills. In the late 1950s, the town was small enough that I could bicycle from one end to the other and slow enough that it was safe to do so. The downtown business district boasted no more than one of everything (if that), but civic pride ran high and interest in local events was strong. People really read the paper, and my father could be sure he would hear their reactions in detail.

This made for a demanding job with mostly intangible rewards. In that time and place, small-town newspapering meant long hours, low wages, and an uncertain future, but if my father questioned the wisdom of his situation, he nevertheless poured all his energy into making the paper everything he thought it could be. In ways large and small, the whole family pitched in to help.

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I loved the location of the Weiser Signal-American office, next door to the twin turrets of the Knights of Pythias lodge and across the street from the Sherwin-Williams paint store with its Cover-the-World globe suspended over the sidewalk. On weekdays, the newspaper office hummed with light and activity behind the gold-lettered front window. Telephones rang, machinery clacked, and printers' ink perfumed the air.

But my visits were usually on Saturdays, when the place was deserted, the typewriters and presses still. Sun filtered through the ancient venetian blinds, capturing lazy bands of dust motes in its path. The back shop was dim and melancholy. Its gloom, usually pierced by the bright lamp over the linotype keyboard, was only faintly relieved by distant ceiling lights and the crack between the double doors leading to the back alley.

The Signal-American came out only twice a week, but it still wasn't easy to fill up the issues. There were only so many articles one could do on who-ate-Sunday-dinner-with-whom. My father looked for stories wherever he could find them, and we often went along. We covered a good portion of southern Idaho in the '57 Chevy, seeing everything from rare geode collections to a clothesline strung with prize mink pelts. We peered down river banks at roiling floodwaters and up mountain roads at raging forest fires. We located new dam sites and old ghost towns. My sister and I were photographed in front of so many historic markers that we were known as the ``Monument Twins.''

The paper's staff was small, and whatever nobody else got done ended up in my father's lap. Take the sports reporter. If there was one (they never lasted long), my father trained him. If there wasn't one, my father covered his beat. I often went to the games to help him keep score, but the real enticement was the homemade fudge sold at halftime! He also covered all the important local events: city council meetings, county fairs, the Old-Time Fiddle Festival, and the Miss Washington County Pageant. Somehow he found time to proof copy, tinker with layout, and be on hand whenever the press broke down.

My mother did more than pack the picnic basket for our news-gathering excursions. She also wrote her share of features, took pictures, and developed film whenever the paper was minus a regular photoprocessor. She worked at the newspaper office on Saturday mornings and, until my little sister and I were old enough to be left at home alone, we tagged along.

The darkroom was in the basement of the Signal-American building, a cavern otherwise fully occupied by the press. My sister and I could sit quietly inside the cramped cubicle, bathed in soft red light, while our mother slaved over her chemical baths, but we usually found other ways to amuse ourselves. We tried walking around the press without smearing ink on our playclothes - a neat trick, since the machinery nearly touched the walls. We rode the creaky freight elevator up to the main floor, always certain the cable was about to break. We vied with each other at decoding the ``backward'' typeface on discarded linotype slugs. And when the ``monsters'' in the shadows got too scary, we escaped to the haven of the front office, where we sat at the big oak desks, drawing paper dolls on blank sheets of newsprint.

Over the years, the peeling plaster wall above my father's desk accumulated a sizable array of awards from newspaper associations and journalism societies. But in the end, it wasn't enough. Small-town papers were closing all across the country, at the rate of nearly one a week. So he made a mid-career change to high school teaching, and we moved on to greener pastures in Oregon. Things were better in many ways, but not quite the same. Although we left the newspaper business, it never left us.

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