Mr. and Mrs. Gudger sat down next to my desk. Their faces were gaunt, bleak, and pale. Four days earlier their only son had shot himself dead at 24. “You’re the man who put that in the paper ain’t you?” Mrs. Gudger said tearfully. “Why’d you have to do it? Why’d you have to put us through this?” As I leaned forward to murmur my sympathy to her, her husband lunged and slammed a right hook into my cheek, launching me and my rolling desk-chair into a Xerox machine. As I scrambled to my feet, Mrs. Gudger got between me and her husband, and the mountain man backed off. Before moving down the stairs with his wife, Mr. Gudger turned and said ominously, “If you’ll be cruel to us, we’ll be cruel to you.”
The moment had been foretold: out here in the mountains, Clifton Metcalf had warned me before I joined the editorial staff of The Mountaineer, the triweekly newspaper of Waynesville, North Carolina, “our readers don’t always write letters. Sometimes they pay you a visit.” This brand of editorial feedback has been exorcised, of course, from big-city journalism. When somebody like Ed Meese gets steamed up over allegations that he’s been paying off loans with government jobs, he at least has to get the proper authorization before being allowed up into The Washington Post newsroom to throw a punch at a reporter. In place of the country reporter’s glass jaw, the big-city newspaper, in its high civility, substitutes a pecking order beginning with that strange bird of Swedish plumage, the ombudsman. If that doesn’t do, there are always letters to the editor, columns on the Op-Ed page, or the ultimate weapon—not the fist, but the lawyer. But proximity to the people gives smalltown papers their special flavor, one that is worth taking a few bumps to preserve.
I was back in Waynesville recently to celebrate a centennial. Early in the year 1884 W. S. Hemby peeled the first copy of The Waynesville News off his hand-held press. It informed readers that an immense monument to George Washington was nearly complete in the nation’s capital. A mushy poem of lost love (“I pictured her as one who drew/Aside life’s curtain and looked through . . .”) and a tale about a Mexican fleeing American troops near Los Angeles finished off the front page. A half-dozen owners later. The Mountaineer, the “Largest Circulation Non-Daily Paper in Western North Carolina,” shoots off an offset press at five copies a second, and provides “All the News You Need.” Seven reporters and editors do it all—write the stories, shoot the photos, do the layout and the paste-up, put the paper to bed. There’s nothing national, no wire services, but plenty of local coverage, from Bethel to Beaverdam. A herd of buffalo escapes onto the town golf course and a sheriff’s deputy, wielding a nine iron, gives chase down the fairways in a cart; Miss McCracken betroths Mr. Noland; a Haywood County man drowns under mysterious circumstances in the Pigeon River. Add photos of the biggest spud, the longest zucchini, the heaviest trout, and an eggplant that looks like Richard Nixon.
There’s a whole lot more to the broadsheet than zucchinis and eggplants, however. At a time when (some might argue) the Watergate-era aggressiveness and high public standing of big-city papers has faded, The Mountaineer, circulation 13,000, is just coming around. The paper has in the last few years conducted investigations into transportation of nuclear waste, bribery in the county jail, mistreatment of migrant workers, and allegations of vote fraud. In some cases, new standards in reporting have collided with old institutions, changing the face of both the paper and the community.
One person who recently felt the shock of muckraking city-style was Mayor Henry Clayton, the irascible boss of Waynesville from 1964 to 1984. Henry (as he’s known to townspeople) didn’t like the new federal flood plain plan because it cut into his property, and he didn’t like the new town manager system because it cut into his power. He worked hard at ignoring both, and could be found more often at his package store than in his office at the town hall. But when The News and Observer of Raleigh bought The Mountaineer in 1979 from local families (The New York Times also bid on it), Clifton Metcalf, the editor, decided the time had come to give it a more aggressive voice. The Mountaineer reported that the mayor hadn’t paid his town taxes and was three years and $24,000 behind in his county taxes. The fight with his wife hit the pages. She was charged with hit-and-run, having repeatedly bashed her jeep into his car when she saw him with another woman. In another incident, Henry sent the police out to evict a long-hair to whom he had rented a house. “Nazi tactics,” an alderman called it. Tradition dictated that these stories pass through town as so much gossip; The Mountaineer put them on page one. Finally, and for the first time ever, the paper endorsed a candidate for local office. In the November mayoral it was not Henry Clayton, but the auto parts dealer, Ronnie James, who got the nod. James won in a landslide and ended up giving the keynote speech at the celebration of The Mountaineer’s hundredth anniversary. A few weeks later, Henry Clayton was arrested on Main Street and charged with drunk and disorderly conduct.
My sturdy old Royal manual typewriter with “touchcontrol”—for two years a steady companion at The Mountaineer— has, I’m afraid, gone the way of Mayor Clayton. It was a fine machine, assembled by Stan Gurzkowski and two other men the second week of August 1948, in Hartford, Connecticut. When I returned to Waynesville I found it dusty and alone, keys crimped together in a final, symbolic concession to changing times. As a hundredth birthday present, The News and Observer gave The Mountaineer a set of Microtek video display terminals. The typesetters, too, whose inexact fingers occasionally added a special touch to our pages, fell victim to the cathode ray. Now management’s talking about going daily, picking up the wire services and expanding into other towns and counties along the Great Smoky Mountains. Maybe they’ll even hire an ombudsman. Or an ombudswoman. But for now, at Main Street’s Open Air Curb Market—farthest convenience store west in North Carolina where you can buy THE NEW REPUBLIC—the clerk peers above a rack of postcards and insists that “things is still about like they always was.”