Sunday, December 21, 2008


In Which A Champion Falls...

I'm not a fan of December. I guess that's mostly because it reminds me that the year is coming to an end. And in general, I don't like endings. Of a good book, or a good movie, or something infinitely more significant.

It happened back in the summer, but I was just made to face an ending this past week, when my brother sent me the last issue of the Argus-Champion, the weekly newspaper of the region in New Hampshire where my family is from, and where my brother still lives. The Argus was one of the oldest newspapers in the area, having been printed more or less continuously since 1823. But now it's dead, its end brought about by rising paper and postal costs and a falling subscriber base. It's a familiar story, one that has happened to a lot more robust publications this year, I can tell you, but this one has a particular sting to it.

It was the first newspaper I ever read on a regular basis. When I was growing up, no matter where we lived, my parents always kept their Argus-Champion subscription current and I looked forward to getting a new (if slightly outdated) copy in the mail every week to 10 days. When I was 9 or 10, it was one of the publications I would read to my Mom while she ironed, alternating between the paper and the monthly magazines she subscribed to.

But I particularly enjoyed the Argus, not just because it reminded me of home (and no matter where we lived, we always thought of New Hampshire as home), but because it mentioned people and places I knew about. In addition to a news column from each town in the region it covered, the paper also ran a column called "As We Were," which featured news from the Argus's archives, going back a year, 10 years, 25 years, and even 100 years ago, and very occasionally, an old, long-dead relative of mine would pop up in that column, and it was always surprising and thrilling when that happened, as though the old fellow had got up and wandered down from Cemetery Hill to see what was new in town.

Hearing news about the hometown, both past and present, helped connect me to that place in a way that's not easy to describe today, but I treasured the paper for giving me that connection, just as much as I treasured the black smudges and sharp inky smell the paper left on my fingers after reading it. It fueled the imagination. It gave you a sense of industry.

To be sure, in those days the paper was a cheap rag of only a few pages, with a staff of writers whose talents were mediocre at best. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was copyediting the thing in my head, finding errors of grammar, and spelling, and sometimes even judgment and common sense. But I loved that, too. In its way, the paper gave me early and important encouragement, not to mention a sense of ego as a writer, a sense I might not have otherwise found without it.

The Argus was also special to me because it ran my first essay, a little item I dashed off to them one snowy weekend when I was home from college. Up 'til then, the only places I'd been published were in my school papers and in one obscure historical society newsletter. But this was my first real clip because the Argus was a real paper, for all its faults (which included, sadly, misspelling my byline). When I got the paper that first week of April in 1987 and saw that they had put my piece square in the center of the Op-Ed page, I felt nothing but pure pride. Of course, I didn't get paid for the piece, so pride was pretty much my only compensation.

Like most small weeklies, the Argus was perpetually cash-strapped, which is why I never worked for them, although I was offered a chance to spend the summer of 1988 as their unpaid intern. I needed the experience, but experience wasn't going to pay my last year of tuition in college, so I went with the paying gig. I can't fairly say that I regretted the choice, but every so often since then I've found myself wondering "What if?" Usually that only happened when I would come home and see the paper on the newsstand, or open a box from my parents and find that the only packing material they used were wads of crumpled-up pages from the Argus.

I used to smooth out and read those pages, one by one, going through the ritual of looking for names I knew, always apprehensive and ever-so-slightly nervous until I found some. Which is fitting, of course. When you read the paper of record for the place you're from, it would be a terrible journalistic breach not to see your people catalogued there. After all, a weekly like the Argus was a newspaper in name only. You did not read the Argus for events of the day. You did not read it for what you didn't know, but for what you did. You read it for the birth announcement of your first child. You read it for your parents' obituaries. You read it for a confirmation of the life you lived and the people you lived it with.

And now it's gone.

I'll still get the news from home, of course. My brother will call me every week or so and fill me in, but it won't be same. He'll satisfy my every curiosity about the town and the townsfolk, but it won't be the same.

When I hang up, I'll put a hand to my face, and that's when I'll notice it--the absence of the sharp smell of newsprint.

That won't be all that's missing.

Rest in peace, Argus-Champion. Your readers surely miss you.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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