Trouble in Harbor County

A key distinction between city folk and country folk is that the rustics are less adept at masking opportunism as moral obligation when they spot a few bucks lying on the table.

The case at hand involves a few thousand dollars that were just promised to a free weekly newspaper serving southwest Michigan called the Harbor Country News. The News wants it; there isn’t a hint of rhetorical high-mindedness in the paper’s open yearning.

But the News’s opportunity is a sidebar to a bigger story that pits those age-old adversaries, the press and government. First some background. Up until about 15 years ago “Harbor Country” (a publicist’s coinage) was an economic backwater consisting of New Buffalo (population 2,600), and about 20 miles of beaches, villages, and mildewing cottages. Now it’s Lincoln Park sur la plage. A lot of new money is wandering around New Buffalo these days, and ten years ago the Harbor Country News was launched to chase it.

Crammed with advertising and innocuous articles, the News is bulk mailed to everyone in Harbor Country and claims a weekly circulation exceeding 10,000 copies. It’s owned by the News-Dispatch Publishing Company, which publishes the daily News-Dispatch in nearby Michigan City, Indiana, and is owned in turn by Nixon Newspapers, Inc., of Peru, Indiana. Nixon Newspapers just bought its 12th paper (not counting the News) and also owns a cable-TV company and a commercial printing plant.

A lot of serious money stands behind the News.

For anyone who favors grooming over soul the Harbor Country News is a stylish product. But there’s an alternative. The New Buffalo Times was established in 1942, and somehow, in the best traditions of American gumption, it goes on existing. The weekly circulation is less than a third of the News’s, a copy costs 50 cents, and what the owner and publisher, Mary Beth Moriarty, knew about journalism when she took over is what she picked up as wife of the previous owner and publisher, who gave up a couple of years ago and moved back to California.

Moriarty’s ex-husband made a terrible mistake. He redesigned the paper to look like the Times of Halsted Street. Moriarty slapped a couple of flags on page one (they’d been there 30 years ago), threw out Callahan and Life Is Hell, and went back to basics. She realized that what the locals want is local news, and what weekenders want is the same thing, because they read about the escapades of the local cast of characters and feel good and distant from the city.

Moriarty’s specialist in savoring these escapades is John McHugh. A transplanted Chicagoan, McHugh has the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Today and NBC and a lot of O’Rourke’s in his personal history, and he happened to be playing golf outside New Buffalo in 1985 when his pal Bob Zonka, who owned the paper then, dropped dead. McHugh stayed and kept the paper going for more than a year until Zonka’s family managed to sell it. He had so much fun that in ’87 he moved to New Buffalo permanently and now writes a column for Moriarty.

Last March McHugh dropped in on the city council. He’d heard trouble was afoot. A peevish majority was plotting to shift the city’s legal advertising, which the Times had carried since it was founded, to the Harbor Country News. “This I had to see,” McHugh would write. “A bunch of thin-membraned, male mediocrities, puffed with self-importance, trying to get a muzzle on a female Irish terrier. I’ve seen it happen only once and it wasn’t pretty sight afterwards–overnight the local choir benefitted to the tune of a pair of new falsettos.”

Moriarty kept the city’s business on a four-one vote, which didn’t stop McHugh from ridiculing the rumored plotters. There was carpet layer Bill Geisler (“our municipal flannel mouth”), part-time security guard Bud Bean (“I’m reminded of a constipated owl”), gas-station owner Gordon Christopher (“Fiscal flatulence still appears to be his specialty”).

In May McHugh reported that Geisler, new to the council, “has been purging City Hall of any hint of intelligent life.” Not only that, he’d been heard “pimping for his donkey.” McHugh was alluding to a remark made by Geisler to Councilman Ray Wojdula, “You can kiss my ass,” that was not only covered in the Times but regretted in an editorial.

McHugh’s sallies had long rubbed their targets the wrong way. Over the winter presiding councilman Hop Covert, who owns a sub shop, formally asked Moriarty and McHugh to cut it out. They refused. And so at the close of the June council meeting Bud Bean, raising a matter not even on the agenda, moved that the council take its advertising away from the Times after all and give it to the Harbor Country News. Wojdula, who owns the local drugstore, called the motion vindictive. Moriarty raised her hand at the press table, and when she was allowed to speak advised the council to talk to a lawyer first. Geisler brandished a copy of a Michigan Municipal League document as his authority that a town can legally drop a paper it can’t work with. Moriarty said she was sure the league must mean a paper that can’t meet its responsibilities as the paper of record. Earlier in the evening Wojdula had told the gathered that Geisler had apologized for saying “Kiss my ass.” Then he’d added, to general merriment, “All I can say is, go to hell, Bill.” Now Geisler bet Moriarty she wouldn’t print that. Moriarty said of course she would (and she did).

The Times lost New Buffalo’s account by a vote of three to two: Geisler, Bean, and Christopher over Wojdula and Covert. The Times lost even though the Harbor Country News’s advertising rates are about 50 percent higher.

Which brings us back to the subject of the ingenuousness of rustics. We asked Phyllis Kelly, editor of the Harbor Country News, for her views on her paper’s good fortune. We did not expect her to say that the News would refuse New Buffalo’s business when it was offered–there’s been nothing to advertise yet–but we were braced for a lecture on how public notices are public business and no matter how troubling the circumstances the public’s right to know always comes first.

“The difference between the New Buffalo Times and the Harbor Country News is that we are a professional newspaper,” Kelly snapped. “Their owner does not come from a newspaper background. She is not objective at all in what she does.”

What about the advertising? we said.

“My publisher said we are a business. We accept anyone’s business. Most readers view their papers as public services, but we are in business to be a business, and I don’t want to participate in her fights. When you play hardball on your news pages and your editorial pages, you’d better be prepared to take a few hard hits in return.”

This is excellent advice. But we suspect the hardballers who weren’t looking ahead are Bill Geisler, Bud Bean, and Gordon Christopher. The council’s vote last March, after competitive bidding, to award the Times New Buffalo’s legal advertising for another year, a vote duly cited in the council’s minutes published in the Times, arguably constitutes a contract. Courts frown on public bodies that wreak vengeance on their critics. To Moriarty this fight’s over the First Amendment, and she’s already counterpunching. Last week she carried an open letter on page one that declared she would not be cowed by “intimidation and bully boy tactics.” She pointed out that when damages are awarded they’ll probably come out of the pockets of the taxpayers, and she signed off, “See you in court, boys.”

Moriarty turned immediately to the Michigan Press Association. In her letter to New Buffalo’s city manager, MPA attorney Dawn Phillips noted that “the chilling impact of monetary sanctions upon a newspaper’s legitimate press activities is recognized as constitutionally impermissible.” The letter was larded with legal precedents that cut in Moriarty’s favor, and it advised New Buffalo that the way to avoid a suit was to resume advertising in the Times, compensate it for any lost revenues, and pay its attorneys’ fees.

We picked up a hint of which way the wind is blowing from the responses of the councilmen we reached. “These guys are really trying to act like demagogues,” said Ray Wojdula. Bud Bean refused to talk, and Bill Geisler said he’d answer only yes-no questions.

Hot Type: Does this have anything to do with personalities?

Geisler: No.

Hot Type: Is the News more expensive than the Times?

Geisler: Just a little bit.

Hot Type: Did you hold up a Michigan Municipal League publication?

McGeisler: Yes.

Hot Type: Which one?

Geisler wouldn’t say, but he gave us a clue. It’s orange and red. We asked the municipal league in Lansing, and a couple of researchers couldn’t figure out what Geisler was talking about. So we asked Councilman Hop Covert if he knew. “I don’t have the faintest idea,” he said.

Bull Shirts

It’s time to judge the papers’ Bulls victory T-shirts. We’ve established two criteria: (1) responsible journalism, and (2) crackerjack marketing.

The clear winner is the Sun-Times. Making brilliant use of the sports wrapper (an innovation of former editor Ken Towers that was deep-sixed as undignified by Dennis Britton and then brought back after a decent interval for special occasions), the Sun-Times gloried in victory with a page one that screamed “Bulls Suns / Game 6 / 3 FEAT! / Paxson’s Incredible Shot, Grant’s Block Lift Bulls” and added a huge color picture of Michael Jordan hugging the trophy. But wasn’t there trouble in Tahiti? No problem. Above the wrapper’s masthead the Sun-Times duly and conspicuously noted, “Revelry Turns Violent; 1 Killed, 3 Cops Shot” (details inside on page one–the buried page one). The beauty of it was that this gloomy announcement could be eliminated by marketing when the rest of the page was transferred to 100 percent cotton.

With one less front page to choose from, the Tribune also came up with a T-shirt that overlooks everything bad that happened in Chicago the night the Bulls copped their third. But unlike the Sun-Times, the Tribune never had anything on its front page to begin with. “Looting, violence mar night to celebrate” ran on page six.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Zdanis.