Craig Findley of the Gazette-Times
Trying to make a good country weekly very good
August 12, 1977
Small-town newspaperin’s got its own charms and its own challenges, as I learned from Craig and Karyl Findley. The business had changed by the 1970s but a lot of their readers hadn’t, and Craig Findley was a foreigner from more than 50 miles away. Nice people, good paper, and probably among the last of that breed in a downstate Illinois whose atrophying countryside no longer can support such endeavors.
Craig Findley has come a long way in twenty-eight years. He's traveled from Pittsfield to Virginia, Illinois, by way of Washington, D.C., Nevada, Wyoming, Chicago and Ohio, from an assembly line in Galesburg to ownership of his own weekly newspaper.
Findley is the son of U.S. Congressman from the Twentieth District, Paul Findley. It shows. There are echoes of his father's voice in Craig's soft, timbreless monotone. The face, too, is familiar, though on the son it is framed by a reticent growth of beard. Findley wears glasses—thick, rimless ones, and he brushes his hair straight back. He looks more like a graduate student, maybe a Russian poetry major, than a publisher.
Findley's been the publisher-editor of the Virginia Gazette-Times for almost a year now. With Karyl, his wife of four years, he's trying to take a good country weekly and make it very good. He's his own boss, and is enjoying himself, and he's as surprised by it as anyone else.
Craig Findley was born in Pittsfield, in Pike County. His father'd grown up in Jacksonville, but he had a chance to take part ownership in the weekly Pike County Republican after the war, and he took it. Craig remembers, "I never had any interest in the paper at all while I was growing up. I hardly ever even went to the shop." The Republican was sold out of boxes outfitted with coin boxes made of lead pipes with slits in the tops. As a boy, Craig used to empty those lead pipes onto sheets of paper at home, carefully counting out every penny, nickel and dime and putting them into paper rolls to take to the bank. "We never had as much money in them as there were papers sold."
The Findleys left Pittsfield for good in '61, heading east to Washington, D.C., when father Paul was elected to his first term as Twentieth District Congressman. Craig high schooled nearby in Falls Church, Virginia, and when it was time for college he signed up at Knox College in Galesburg. Newspapering, as he saw things then, was not in his future. In fact, it was hard to tell what Findley did see in his future. He changed majors often, going from music to philosophy to sociology—a hound casting for a scent. He graduated in 1971 with a degree in sociology and no desire to be a sociologist.
After college Findley, in common with most of his generation, bounced from job to job, with no focus to his life except the search for a focus. He crated steel pre-fab buildings. He stood on an assembly line—second shift, starting time 11:30 at night—and fastened top door hinges on Admiral refrigerators. Then followed a spell of "alternately loafing and working." He worked in a D.C. camera store for a while, then headed west, way west, to Elko, Nevada, and a summer job as a firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management. "That was a lot of fun," he recalls. "Nothing ever burned but sagebrush, and you got to wear an orange helmet and ride in a helicopter."
At summer's end it was back to the Midwest, Chicago this time, and a job selling cameras in a store on Wabash Avenue. It was in Chicago that he was reunited with Karyl Meister. They'd met at Knox College. She was from Chicago, two years younger than Craig, a French major who shared, among other things, his fondness for photography. It was 1973, "about time," he thought, "to find a career."
But it was in Chicago that Findley realized big-city life was not in his future. He saw the light—not on a mountaintop but on the commuter train rattling in from Rogers Park every day.
H e decided to go into the newspaper business. "I knew nothing about it. I was a terrible writer. But I thought it would be fun. I enjoy talking to people. I could take some pictures. So I loaded up the Volkswagen"—the Conestoga wagon of the '70s searchers—"and left."
He headed Downstate, where he began prospecting. He drove from town to town, stopping at every sizeable town, finding the newspaper office, dropping in and asking for work. "I didn't get a job," Findley notes. "But I learned what people were looking for."
An ad in a trade magazine provided the link between Findley and his first newspaper job. "The paper was the Gillette, Wyoming, News-Record. I got the job by phone. I didn't know the guy who ran it and he didn't know me. But he needed a sports editor. Considering my experience in the field, he figured I was worth a hundred bucks a week—and that's just about all I was worth."
Gillette was a boom town. They'd struck oil there in the mid-1960s, and hard hats had become as common as Stetsons on the streets. It was more a camp than a town. There were more trailers than houses. Boozing, whoring, and bar fighting were the favorite sports. "It was a rough town," Findley says. "People were getting killed all the time."
Gillette was a good place to learn newspapering. Findley learned how to type, how to meet a deadline, how to write a good lead, how to shoot a good action picture. He also learned something they never teach in journalism school: "If you don't like something the publisher is doing, keep your mouth shut." After six months Findley was canned. He'd just gotten married.
Back into the Volkswagen. Next stop Urbana, Ohio, a town of 11,000. Urbana is the home of the Daily Courier. Findley worked there as a general assignment reporter. He covered the police beat, making morning rounds to the police station, fire house and sheriff's office to write up what had been stolen, shot or burned down the night before. He covered the courthouse. He covered the school board. He took pictures ."I could have become editor, I guess, if I'd wanted to stick around long enough," Findley says. But he was getting stale, so he left.
By now Findley's journalistic career was firmly rooted, even if he and Karyl were not. Father Paul had been talking to Craig about buying his—Craig's—own paper. He'd seen a lot of talented reporters and photographers "buried" in Washington, laboring anonymously for AP, UPI, or one of the big metropolitan dailies, working without bylines, without hopes of ever being more than cogs in the national news machine.
His father suggested at first that he start a weekly in Beardstown, which has a daily in a market Findley thought was better suited to a weekly. Craig providentially ignored that advice. Then he heard, through his father, that Bill Kilby, for twenty years the editor-publisher of the Gazette-Times in Virginia, might be talked into selling. It took a while but a deal was made, the papers were signed, and on August 1, 1976, Craig and Karyl Findley became legal owners of a two-story brick building on the north side of the square, a backroom full of antique presses and hand type, drawers full of metal addressing plates, a leaky roof and title to what the sign over the front door says is "Cass County's Greatest Newspaper."
At their worst, country weeklies are little more than portable, discardable bulletin boards filled with "news" about burgoos and rummage sales and who's married who. Not all country weeklies share those faults, of course. The Hillsboro and Montgomery County News is an exception. So is the Gazette-Times. The paper runs its share of notes about ladies' aid meetings and pot lucks—that is what the people buy the paper to read—but such items are only a side dish on the G-Ts news menu. In addition to its staple coverage of routine local stories—county board meetings, school board, town politics—the paper has provided first-rate running accounts of local agriculture, and what bids to become Virginia's permanent front page story, the town's water shortage.
People are what make a town, of course, and Findley frequently makes room on his front page for profiles of area citizens—people like Fred Roloff, retired coal miner from Chandlerville ("There ain't no better work in the world than coal mine work"), expatriate architect Jim Coady who moved to Virginia after "tiring of the urban life" in Springfield ("Doing a house is more fun than anything else I can think of") and barbed-wire-and-stoneware-jar collector Arthur ("My wife calls it junk") Crumrin.
These stories are generally well-written and researched, the equal of similar stories in papers serving towns ten or a hundred times more populous. The difference between the G-T and many of its counterparts is striking. It's the difference between information and journalism.
Sometimes journalism stirs up hornets' nests of controversy and in a town the size of Virginia, if you stir up a hornets' nest, you're likely to get bit. Critical comment or even accurate but unflattering reporting is likely to elicit complaints from its subjects, who are neighbors, friends, fellow church members or, worse, advertisers. For instance, Findley lives across the street from Dave Sinclair, Virginia's mayor. "I complain to him about things he does. He complains to me about how we cover things. We get along great."
Occasionally Findley goofs. "Our biggest gaffe to date was in not being subtle enough in our headlines. A post-election head in April read, "Sinclair landslide buries Mallicoat"—which was accurate even if it wasn't tactful, since Mr. Sinclair won the race for Virginia's mayoralty with 73 percent of the vote. "Mr. Mallicoat has hardly had a civil word to say to me since."
Size insulates big-city papers from controversies of this sort. The small-town paper has no such refuge. It is small-town journalism's trickiest and stubbornest problem. "We try to make every story accurate and in good taste," claims Findley. In earlier years the staff at the county courthouse would deliver news of property transfers, divorces, marriages and the like—all public information—with some of the items marked, "Please do not publish."
Findley no longer honors such requests, but in doing so he allows himself no claim to superiority. "My predecessors, being from this town, had insights into the community that I'll never know," he explains. "They felt pressures that I'll never feel."
The social fabric in a small town is made of tightly-woven cloth. Sometimes it's too tight. Parochialism and hometown pride are opposite sides of the same coin. For example: relations between Virginia and Beardstown, fifteen miles to the northwest on Rt. 125, have always been less than cordial. Beardstown is bigger, but Virginia is the county seat. Beardstown is Democratic (generally speaking), Virginia Republican. Beardstown is "city," Virginia country. Papers in each town rarely mentioned the other town—or its paper—by name, even to criticize them; except to call it a "miserable little nose-rag," for instance, the Gazette of seventy years ago rarely acknowledged that Beardstown had a paper.
The tradition of giving Beardstown the cold journalistic shoulder had ended with Findley's ascension to the Gazette-Times editorship. Findley wants to broaden his coverage to include the whole of Cass County, something he considers a proper function of the county seat's only paper. Others aren't so sure it's a good idea. It is, in any event, a new idea, and new ideas take some getting used to. "I made the mistake of running a story about 'that other town' on our front page the other day," Findley notes. "Some of our readers complained. They're afraid we're going to overlook Virginia."
Typical was the gripe sent in by an ex-Virginian living in Michigan. "I'm wondering if someday soon when I receive my paper in the mail it will be entitled the "Beardstown Gazette-Times" . . . . I honestly think . . . the Gazette should return to being a Virginia paper . . . I realize it must be difficult to be newcomers in a small town and I do admire you for trying some new things . . . but I miss the old hometown Virginia Gazette."
Things weren't helped much when Findley dropped the word, "Virginia," from his flag recently and added as part of an outline of the county emblazoned with the motto, "Serving Cass County." Nowadays he tries to fit at least one out-of-town story and one out-of-town photo onto each front page, along with a Virginia story. "People will accept it," he insists. "I don't think I'm overestimating my Virginia readers at all."
Findley realizes that too much change too quickly is risky. "An elderly Virginia woman gave some very good advice when I got started—Bonnie Mensees, 'Aunt Bonnie' people call her. 'Take things slow,' she said, and I took that to mean that I should listen to other people's ideas before I tried to ram my ideas down their throats. I've tried to follow that advice, to take it easy and try to feel my way." Findley knows he's still the new boy in town. "Some people still don't think we're here to stay," he acknowledges, "but only the years will settle that."
Findley must be doing something right. Circulation's up an estimated 25 percent since he took over a year ago. He's expanded his readership into Beardstown and recaptured most of the faithful from the now-defunct Chandlerville Times. And he's managed it with a crew barely large enough to run a one-pump gas station.
"Mom and Pop operations." That's how a staffer for the Illinois Press Association described weeklies like the Gazette-Times. Most are run on shoestring budgets and survive only because, as Findley puts it, "everybody on the staff does everything." Karyl Findley keeps the books, prepares the "Courthouse News" feature, covers the county board, writes up society news. Terry French sells ads part time, while Vera Petefish comes in twice a week to set type. ("She's sixty at least and she goes like crazy," her boss marvels.) Printer Jim Lyons does job printing in the back room (it accounts for maybe a third of the operation's income) and can, if necessary, write up a story on his own. The writing staff includes reporter Tom Jindra, like Findley a veteran of the Urbana, Ohio, paper, and several columnists and local correspondents—including Roy French, the paper's best natural writer, whose "Hickory Journal" is a popular feature. Findley himself writes up most of the news, sells ads, does the layout, takes and develops all the photos (perhaps the paper's best feature) and writes all the headlines. (Strangely, for an editor, Findley rarely writes editorials because, he says, he hasn't yet learned how. "Bill Kilby wrote super editorials," he notes. "That's something our readers lost when he left.")
Says Findley of his staff: "Everybody's good, the best as far as I'm concerned. They're very loyal to the paper. When I took over I was worried that they might view me as an outsider for a long time to come, but we get along famously."
Tuesday nights they put the paper to bed. "We come in at eight in the morning, work 'til six-thirty, then go to Kiwanis, come back at seven-thirty and work 'til one, two in the morning, go home, grab a few hours' sleep and show up at the office again at eight." "Sometimes," says Karyl Findley, "the pace gets to be too much."
To relax, Findley likes to play cards—poker and bridge. (Reminded that satirist-playwright George S. Kaufman was a famous card player, who for a while made his living at the poker table, Findley remarked, "Oh, would that I had his gift for writing." Pause. "And cards.")
He's also a volunteer fireman ("I was going to all the fires anyway, so I thought I'd join to help roll up hoses ") He joined the Kiwanis. He sits on the Doctor Recruitment Committee. He serves as secretary of the Cass County Tuberculosis Board. He is the coroner's photographer.
Music, too, is important. He's a jazz fan, and he plays trombone and baritone horn in the Virginia City Band, the Beardstown City Band ("I'm trying to make friends there") and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. He's going to audition for the Springfield symphony, he says, when his lip's in shape.
"Like father, like son," is an old saying of some possible political significance to Craig Findley. As son of the man who is perhaps central Illinois' most successful politician (eight tries for the district's congressional seat, eight trips to Washington) Findley is often asked whether he himself might someday run for office. He considers the question premature. "I love to talk politics," he admits. "But I've never made a speech in my life. I think it would be kind of presumptuous of me to think I knew enough about the people in the area to understand their problems. I have no intention of going into politics." Findley pauses. "But then, three or four years ago I had no idea I'd be in the newspaper business either." Findley seems unlikely to assume that his future will be any more predictable than his recent past. For the time being, though, he is a small-town newspaperman and he likes it. As for the rest he is content to wait and see. □