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Small-Town Newspaperman Makes Good

IT'S the rare urban journalist who hasn't toyed with the idea of chucking it all, scooting off to some bucolic burg, buying that burg's newspaper, and living the life of the honest and hardworking journalist in a place where the kids can have a dog and journalism survives untainted by big-city pressures. Alexander Brook did just that, long before quitting the rat race was in vogue, and he wasn't even a journalist.

In 1958, he and a partner bought the Kennebunk Star, a weekly with a staff - if you could call it that - of two regular employees and an annual budget of, well, no one really knew how much the paper made; the books weren't that sophisticated. Twenty years and many journalism prizes later, he sold the expanded York County Coast Star for more than $1 million.

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"The Hard Way" is an honest, unsentimental, and somewhat dogged look at what it means to publish a small paper, when that means writing the copy, selling the ads, printing the paper, hanging the Sheetrock when the walls fall in, and scrubbing the bathrooms. The book is a virtual primer on how to run a paper, with chapters on the difference between weeklies and dailies, selling ads, expanding, writing editorials, what makes a good reporter, and more.

Brook made some mistakes, as he readily admits. He expanded too fast. He had problems finding investors. His staff departed with some regularity - not surprising, given what they were paid. (Not that Brook was making a killing either. In 1966, his salary was $6,000). But in the end, this is a success story about a man of passion and idealism who did something he wanted and made a go of it, although not without personal costs.

Brook is most eloquent when he talks about the power and seduction of advocacy journalism. He says an editor has the duty to choose sides, whether he's trying to preserve marshes from developers or help parishioners try to keep a water tank from ruining the appearance of their small stone church.

The minutiae of small-town politics get a little tiresome, but that's easy to forgive. What I did find missing was some evocation of what it was like for Brook and his family to live in a small town in Maine. Did his three children ever visit him in his office? How did they react to rural life and Dad's very visible job? Maybe he didn't have time to find out, given his hours, which took a toll on his marriage.

In the beginning, he writes, "I worked from 7 in the morning to between 11 P.M. and 3 A.M. every weekday, from 8 A.M. till 10 at night every Saturday, and 10-hour Sundays, every single one, with half a day off at Christmas, no others. ... I never stopped for coffee, never ate supper till I got home late at night, never stopped working to talk for pleasure.... For 11 years I never took so much as a single two-day weekend off or a vacation of a single day."

In writing "The Hard Way," Brook decided to focus on his life as a newspaperman. He clearly needed drive and singlemindedness to accomplish what he did. He built a newspaper, the way an architect builds a house.

He's out of the newspaper business now. Near the end, he appraises his work: "By any measure other than the standard of living, I call the Star successful in my time. It was avidly and thoroughly read. It was quoted, discussed, praised, and reviled. Locked as we were into every topic as a factor of the debate, there was almost no way of discussing local issues without ringing in the newspaper." How many newspapers, daily or weekly, can make that claim?

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And a note to those urban journalists who are tempted to chuck it all: Unless you are willing to work harder than you ever worked before and endure many defeats and turns in fortune before you ever see a profit, don't quit your day job.

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