Weekly Editor Stars in Ken Burns' World War II Epic

By: Greg Mitchell Like Shelby Foote (the Civil War historian) and Buck Leonard (the old ballplayer), who achieved greater fame after appearing in Ken Burns documentaries, Al McIntosh may become something of a household name this fall when Burns' epic series on World War II airs on PBS. But McIntosh's newspaper days extended well beyond the war years and the columns that Tom Hanks reads in the PBS film. He served as editor and publisher of the Rock County Star Herald for several decades, and became president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

Although he did not serve in the war, you might call him a "fighting editor," as the following episode -- featuring another notable small-town journalist -- makes clear.

On Dec. 21, 1962, Time magazine carried a short profile of Robert M. "Bob" Myers, the 40-year-old publisher of what the article called the country's "largest and most prosperous country weekly, the Lapeer County Press." Like McIntosh, Myers had a long career, earning election to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.

The Time profile opened this way: "In the judgment of Robert Marshall Myers, the American rural weekly is valueless, lily-livered and moribund. It is run by 'printers,' who stuff their pages with syndicated hayseed features and eke out a precarious living on job-printing contracts. 'The political power of the country weekly,' says Myers, 'is a grand illusion. More than half of the nation's 9,000 weeklies never print an editorial. Those that do are generally reactionary.'"

With a circulation of 12,123, the Press easily held off inroads made by the big Detroit and Flint dailies, and made a good deal of money. Myers offered to split all profits above $25,000 among the paper's staff. A local attorney likened the County Press to the Bible.

The article continued: "The main reason for the Press's success is that it strives, with considerable effect, to be a good newspaper. ... The county, like much of rural America, is sturdily Republican, but the Press endorses candidates without regard to party."

To make the paper newsier, Myers "reduced ad space from 67% to 60% ... beefed up the page count from 20 to 36, and sometimes to 40. To attract competent newsmen, he matched salaries with his metropolitan competitors. His editorial staff of 28 now embraces everything from a full-time photographer to an unpaid poet.

"In the process of rejuvenating the Press, Myers threw out all sacred cows. He not only refuses to participate in community drives, but sometimes refuses to run stories about them. County merchants soon discovered that taking a big ad in the paper did not buy them the customary exemption from unfavorable stories. The Press prints all drunk-driving arrests, even when Lapeer merchants are involved. As if to console them for such publicity, Myers recently reported in his own weekly column that many wealthy residents of Metamora, a community eight miles south, were deep in arrears to Lapeer stores. Myers' victims may not have appreciated the headline, METAMORA DEADBEATS, but Lapeer merchants did."

Al McIntosh might have liked much of this, but one remark ticked him off -- and he sent a letter to Time that it published in its Jan. 11, 1963, edition.

McIntosh explained at the outset that he had no quarrel with Myers, "but when you reprinted his uncalled-for remark that the 'American rural weekly is valueless, lily- livered and moribund,' you did thousands of aggressive community weekly publishers an injustice.

"Talk about courage? What about Horace Wells of the Clinton (Tenn.) Courier-News, who stood up to the ugly mobs of uncouth segregationists? Or Hazel Brannan Smith, who runs a small weekly in Durant, Miss.? She knows what it means to attack a corrupt political machine, to have her shop bombed, to be shot at -- to print the truth when a law man shot a Negro in the back at close range and then used the old alibi 'he was trying to escape.'

"Or Samuel Woodring of the North Augusta (S.C.) Star, who tried to oust the corrupt machine bullies and was beaten up by a police sergeant, called a dirty Romanian Jew, a Yankee and a Communist? They started a boycott and another newspaper against him -- but he didn't quit.

"There are thousands of good, aggressive, honest, hard-working publishers who are faithful mirrors of the happenings of their communities. They are the ones who lose business and friendship because they hold true to their obligation to print the truth without favor for friends or business."

Maybe Burns should turn to a history of small-town weeklies next. Surely McIntosh would make it again, as would Myers.


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