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May 26, 2005

The Old Grey Lady – Part Three

Tom McLaughlin

My experience with the News Post began when I sent a series of columns I had written for the Middletown Citizen, a vibrant and well written and constructed newspaper for the Valley. Every town should have a Citizen.

I received a response from the then editor who assigned me to Nancy Luse, the assistant managing editor. Nancy and I developed a warm professional relationship. If I was way off base for a family newspaper she would call and I would adjust the essay accordingly. We would meet about once every five or six months and discuss ideas for the column.

I will admit, I sometimes wrote on the edge. For example, I blasted, perhaps unfairly, the judges of the Frederick County judicial system. This came about after listening to many lawyers on an unrelated matter. I also met with Dave Elliot, the managing editor, and Ms. Luse’ boss, on two occasions and he stated he enjoyed the columns and thought they were good.

There are three types of humor. The first is the warm fuzzy kind like what Uncle Cuthbert did at Thanksgiving or diapering children. The second is a combination of political and number one depending on the mood of the author. The third is the foul-mouthed garbage heard everywhere.

If you can’t write without using those words, you have no business writing at all. My humor falls in number two, depending on the news of the week, what is going on in my life and other factors. One thing about a humor columnist is that he must always keep his facts straight.

A funny piece will be destroyed if he names Annapolis the capital of Maryland when it is really Baltimore. See what I mean? Readers will note the mistakes and not the humor. It is easy to get twisted around with all the, ahem, interesting individuals in the governments of Frederick County. Many people think to write a good humor column, one need only sit down at a computer and start typing. This is far from the case. I visited cow shows and have seen more back ends of these bovines than I care to remember. I have watched goats being judged. I spent hours at the Great Frederick Fair. I learned about tractors, combines, peaches strawberries, BMW’s, the latest record craze, and a wealth of other information to be used in the column. I went to city, county, and small town meetings. I went to book signings, visited Nora Roberts’ programs (I hate romance writing) and stood in Safeway and observed people. I read three newspapers looking and finding ideas. The list is endless.

The column was a huge success. I was recognized everywhere. I developed two characters, cows named Bessie and Belvedere. I would often meet people who recognized me from my picture at the top of the column and they would ask me about my imaginary friends. I wrote about re-entering the dating scene in an honest manner and received letters and e-mails empathizing with my plight.

I scribed about politics which is where I think I got into trouble.

Last Thanksgiving, I went to the beach to be with my parents and upon my return, I noticed that my scheduled column had not been printed. There was also a phone message on my machine from Mr. Elliot asking me to call. I found out they did not want me shooting a bureaucrat in the column. I changed the story in the column to the bureaucrat getting lost. The column ran the following Sunday.

Then my columns did not run at all. Perplexed, I called Ms. Luse and she told me to talk to Mr. Elliott. He gave me a ridiculous story about there being too much sex in the pieces.

The columns were always sent to Ms. Luse a full week before they would appear and any sex – imagined or other wise – could have been edited out. I kept pressing.

Then came the excuse that the columns were purposefully pulled to gauge reader reaction and he stated nobody called. My column appears on a Sunday and the News Post offices are closed, therefore any attempt to contact them would be fruitless.

It was the height of the Christmas shopping season and, even if my mother wanted to protest, she would have forgotten all about it while in her shopping mode. I thought there had been a mistake, and I told everyone who called and e-mailed me not to contact the newspaper.

I thought either Mr. Elliott or Ms. Luse had made a mistake and I did not want to get either of them in trouble. I really like those two. I kept pressing and was told all columnists and free lancers would be pulled because of financial problems with the newspaper. Of course, they weren’t.

Mr. Elliott told me to sit tight. To this day, I still don’t know why the column ended. The rumors seeping out of the newsroom indicated that I was “let go” was because I had made fun of Scott Rolle, the state’s attorney and congressman wannabe, and that he had put pressure on the newspaper to get rid of me. I don’t know if that is true or not. This was not the first time this had happened. I was offered a Thursday column and submitted five different types of writing styles to Mr. Elliott. We worked together to iron out what the column should be.

I think I wrote about four or five pieces but only a few were printed. I proposed a piece about wanting to do a “follow the money” story about a new development in Middletown but was told not to touch the development issue.

Meanwhile I began the task of gathering tons of information for future pieces. I began searching for ideas and studied almost every issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine back to 1900.

Suddenly I was told the column would be stopped. There was no reason given. I don’t think neither Mr. Elliott nor Ms. Luse were instrumental in treating me this way. They are good and decent people and I am sure they were the messengers from others.

* * * * * * * * * *

One thing that surprises me is the hatred the News Post generates. I realize hate is a very strong word, but it is the only one that applies. I travel in many circles both economic and political and found myself defending the paper. My association with The Frederick News-Post has gotten me in huge arguments about the newspaper.

Most had legitimate reasons for their gripes. A few current employees have told me they refuse to read the newspaper they work for. When I asked people why they still subscribed, many said it was for the obituaries. It is a sad state of affairs when a newspaper relies on the death notices for sales.

Many, many people subscribe because it is the only daily newspaper in the county. And I think this might be the reason for the arrogance and high handedness behind management. I was also surprised by the number of former employees who are also quite angry. These include people from all parts of the company, not just the newsroom. I can understand their frustration as they tried to perform an admirable job but, as they communicated to me, were let go for no apparent reason. The New Post is facing stiff competition for the advertising dollar. The Washington Post has opened an office here and – I assume – plans are underway to expand local reporting.

The Gazette is siphoning off advertising dollars. Witness the size of this weekly whose stories are well written and not biased.

The Hagerstown paper is moving in from the west. The local cable channels will probably expand and drain off more advertising monies as the new owners take control. Cable television has been running trailers below the local forecast on the Weather Channel and elsewhere.

A new building, Japanese presses and other expansion plans will not work if the product they are selling is defective. A new circulation manager, regardless of heroic efforts, cannot add subscriptions to a company with a newspaper so universally disliked.

* * * * * * * * * *

It is not fair to criticize the newspaper unless I have some suggestions for improvement.

They could do small things like organize the yard sales by town, make the auction section a pull out and distribute a Sunday only newspaper subscription.

Frederick is still a farming community and the agriculture section should be expanded, a homeowner’s page developed and increased local sports coverage

Reporters and others need to be hired and paid a living wage; and current employees should be given hefty pay increases. A core of good hardened newspaper professional are desperately needed for the A section. The bias must stop.

For example, on the front page on April 30 a large article appeared about Governor Robert Ehrlich while Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore was buried on Page A-6. They both spoke in Frederick on the same night.

Huge pictures do not mask the lack of the written word. I am sure you also have ideas. Please e-mail Myron Randall at Send comments about what I have written to the Letter to The Tentacle section of this web site. I do not hide and I wish everyone to read your opinions. I wish The Frederick News Post every success. I hope they will make the needed changes to earn the respect of the people of Frederick County.

Tomorrow: A Final Plea

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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