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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

A Death in the Family   

Ruminations on the end of an historic JOA in Indiana.


By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

No matter how numerous or spectacular my failings in life, I can always say that I once had four bylines on the front page of my hometown newspaper. That would be the Sunday Courier and Press of Evansville, Indiana. Not the Courier, which was (and is) the morning paper. Not the Press, which was (and is, until December 31) the evening paper. The Sunday paper had its own staff, quite distinct, in every regard, from those of the dailies. All three newsrooms were on the same floor of the same ugly building downtown. The three staffs knew one another well enough, but we didn't mingle much, on or off the job--fraternization with the enemy, and all that.

Besides, we all had our own work biorhythms. Courier folks were night people. Press folks were day people. And the Sunday staff--well, we were sort of Night of the Living Dead people. Because of our peculiar mission, laboring all week to put out one fat edition, our work schedule ramped up from a leisurely four or five hours on Tuesday to 15 manic hours on Saturday. By the time the following Tuesday rolled around, most of us were still zombies from the weekend blitz.

That schedule was the reason I wound up with four front-page stories on April 2, 1978. (Yes, I remember the date but I was too cavalier to save the actual page; I must have figured it would be the first of many.) Like most of the staff, I worked on enterprise and features Tuesdays through Fridays. This particular week, two of my stories were scheduled for the front. One profiled a wacky professor, an Abbie Hoffman look-alike who was running for county sheriff; the other had to do with a United Mine Workers strike. But on Saturdays I was the police reporter, and this particular Saturday was a busy one. Three people nearly drowned trying to drive through the backwaters of the Ohio River, and a woman found a dead baby in a backyard. Voila, four page-one stories.

The tripartite news arrangement was a function of Evansville's unique joint operating agreement--a JOA that expires at the end of the year with the demise of the Evansville Press. This JOA, the fourth oldest in the nation, has been around since 1938. It was not created as a lifeline for a sick paper, as most later ones were. Instead, it sprang from one of those serendipities that inspiration is made of. In 1937 the mighty Ohio leapt its banks and threatened the basement equipment at the Courier. The Press agreed to print its rival until the crisis passed. Before the first cylinder turned, however, the moneymen realized they were onto something here. The Evansville Printing Corp. was formed as the business and production agent for the two dailies. And as part of the deal--I suppose so neither paper had an unfair advantage--the Sunday Courier and Press would be a separate, discrete entity.

Now the Sunday staff, perhaps fitting for its novelty status, was about as motley a collection of castoffs and oddballs you'll find this side of a Fox sitcom. My first Saturday I was drafted to take phone dictation from our Illinois prep sports reporter, who was in Springfield covering the state basketball tournament--eight games' worth, plus sidebars. Over the next four hours he filed 56 pages of copy. This was the same guy who a year later, when we were in the throes of a very rocky conversion to a new front-end system, went looking for an ax to smite this manifestation of, in his words, "a communist plot to undermine America's newspapers." He was raving, yes, but he might have been on to something.

Still, working at this shifty enterprise was nearly the perfect job. I got to interview Halston (who grew up in Evansville, as I'm sure you knew) in his Manhattan aerie overlooking St. Patrick's Cathedral. I covered Elvis' funeral. I met Watergate Judge John Sirica. I was seriously cussed out by Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight. My assignments ranged from the surreal--you haven't lived till you've covered a stockyard fire, dodging smoldering heifers--to the tragic. In December 1977, every reporter in town was on the saddest story we'll ever handle: the plane crash that consumed the University of Evansville basketball squad. The Sunday story I wrote about that terrible night can still be found in a little memorial at Roberts Stadium, home of Evansville's team, the Purple Aces.

Actually, I only worked at the Sunday paper about two years, in between stints at the Courier. When I was a kid, however, where I really wanted to work was at the afternoon Press. Bill Burleigh, another Evansville lad who became somewhat better known as president and chief executive officer of E.W. Scripps Co., was then running the Press. When I was 14, maybe even younger, I wrote him an earnest letter suggesting that his paper needed someone--I had a candidate in mind--to review books for teen readers. Not only didn't Bill blow off the idea, he invited me down for what became my first honest-to-goodness job interview. He didn't give me the job, but he just might've given me the bug.

It was the Courier, though, that handed me my big break. At 16, I began working in the sports department, and before long I had graduated to summer internships in the city room. Here my stock rose when I somehow smoked out the fact that disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew had hooked up with a local hustler named Walter Dilbeck to engage in a little real estate speculation. You should have seen the acid look on Agnew's face the night he flew into our crackerbox of an airport and found "the press"--me--waiting for him. Had I been a bug he'd have squashed me. My photographer snapped a few pictures of the abashed ex-veep, and then--a journalist's journalist, he was--asked for Agnew's autograph. Fumbling in vain for a pen, Agnew wordlessly looked to me. So I gave him the only one I had--a glow-in-the-dark model I had scored that morning from an empty box of Sugar Crisp.

A few weeks later Dilbeck called to say that a Kuwaiti investor Agnew had lined up was flying in to inspect some property, and he invited me along. When the Arab businessman arrived, we shook hands just as Dilbeck introduced me as his "associate." Stunned, I had but a split second to decide: Either fess up then and there, killing the story, or play along. Needless to say, I played along. All day the Kuwaiti was puzzled that Dilbeck's inquisitive "associate" kept scribbling in a reporter's notebook, but he didn't seem to mind. We wound up at the local thoroughbred track, one of Dilbeck's favorite haunts, where to keep up appearances he kept peeling $20 bills from a fat roll, asking me to run bets for his guest--and inviting me to put down a few for my own self. I not only walked away with a good story but $100 more than I'd started the day with.

The next year the Courier hired me full time. Thanks, Walter.

I won't tell you that the Courier, the Press and the Sunday operation were great papers; they weren't. But they were like Evansville itself--familiar, unassuming, comfortable--and they had a lot of terrific people working for them. I grew up appreciating the wit of Press sports editor Al Dunning, who years later went on to Memphis' Commercial Appeal and was a writer the sports cognoscenti knew well. In the Courier sports department I worked with a delightful man named Don Bernhardt, who long since passed away but is still revered among horse-racing people everywhere. The pipe-smoking Bernie was unflappable--even the day he set his own wastebasket ablaze and triggered the overhead sprinklers.

To my mind these were the last of the "Front Page" days, where in the backshop real printers worked in hot type and a one-armed deaf-mute played a Linotype keyboard like a Steinway. People weren't such sticklers for the rules then. How else to explain an 18-year-old--guess who--pouring great foamy pitchers at the Press Club Bierstube? But this was hardly shocking. At the Courier we were still hearing about the police reporter who missed a local civil disturbance because, it turned out, he was moonlighting as a bartender.

And as journalists, we were fueled by competition--serious, down-and-dirty competition. We had a JOA, yes, but that certainly had no bearing on the will of one paper to beat, even embarrass, the others. If anything, the airless proximity of the three staffs made the competition that much more intense. Courier people didn't hate the Press, exactly, and Press people didn't hate the Courier--but it was close. What we all hated was getting beat, that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you got to work and found your counterpart's freshly clipped story draped across your typewriter.

Eventually I left Evansville, but I kept in touch with friends back home. Whenever I asked what was up, the usual answer was not much--until the summer of 1986. That's when their world was stood on its head.

Scripps Howard, after operating the Press for generations, announced it was buying the Courier from its local owners, the Enlow family. The Press, in turn, was being sold to a Scripps executive. And the Sunday paper would cease to exist as a separate operation; it would simply be folded into the Courier.

Disbelief: Macy's was buying Gimbel's. George Steinbrenner was swapping the Yankees for the Red Sox. Talk about disorientation. The editor of the Press became the editor of the Courier; the editor of the Courier became the editor of the Press. Some, but not all, of the Press people would join the despised Courier. Some, but not all, of the Courier people would cross over to the despised Press. Nobody knew anything for sure. Except the Sunday staffers; they knew they were in deep slush without galoshes. And except for all those Courier and Press readers, who understood full well that they had just gotten the big noogie as thanks for their years of loyalty. You almost had to acknowledge the perverse beauty of a plan so perfect that everybody got the shaft.

It all made fine business sense for Scripps, of course, but I ached for my old colleagues. People like Joe Aaron, the Courier's longtime columnist, a treasure as good as Breslin or Royko in his unflashy way. Joe's readers positively adored him. So did we. A sweeter, more generous man you'd be hard-pressed to find, especially in a newsroom.

He was a damn good writer, too. Finding some fresh Army recruits down at the Greyhound station one morning, Joe wrote: "Their hair was so closely and clumsily cropped that their scalps glistened through and their mastoids jutted out like knots on a locust post." Joe wrote sentences like that all the time in his "Morning Assignment" column--750 words a day, six days a week for most of the 30 years he toiled at the Courier. Only another writer can appreciate what a crushing burden that is, but Joe carried it with unfailing enthusiasm and grace.

And loyalty. Joe could have worked anywhere, but he was a Courier guy through and through. That made it hard for him to choke down this unholy transaction--although he intended to stay on at the morning paper and keep writing, like the pro he was. But on the first day of the new order, even as his office was being relocated, Joe keeled over in the newsroom and died. He was 57. Now, I have to say this wasn't exactly a surprise, upsetting as it was. Joe had a terrible heart, he'd had numerous surgeries to repair it, and he never could quite kick the cigarettes. But such was the bitterness engendered by the Great Newspaper Flip-Flop that, to this day, there are people back home who call it cause and effect.

As for me, all I knew was that the papers of my youth were going, going, gone.

In 1986, at the time of the swap, the Sunday paper was selling 115,000 copies. The Courier's circulation was 64,000. The Press' was 40,000.

As I write this, the Courier's Sunday edition circulates 109,000. The daily Courier circulation is 62,000. The Press has atrophied to 21,000, and soon will be gone.

I don't know where all those readers went, and it's not my place or intent to blame anyone for losing them. All in all, it just seems like the turmoil at Evansville's newspapers amounted to a lot of pain for not much gain. As Joe might have said, it's a hell of a note, it really is.