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Monday, January 9, 2012

A new owner for the New Buffalo Times

Posted by on 01.09.12 at 09:00 AM

Mary Beth Moriarty
  • Mary Beth Moriarty
My friend Mary Beth Moriarty, I’m pleased to report, is getting out of journalism in one piece, and the New Buffalo Times will go on without her! Moriarty ran the Times for 22 years, dubbed it "the weekly miracle,” kept it going by the skin of her teeth, and last month collapsed from bleeding ulcers. Enough was enough. Moriarty, 56, is newly engaged, and there’s a world beyond southwest Michigan’s Harbor Country that she wants to see with her husband.

Last week’s issue was her last. The Times will disappear for a few weeks and return on March 1 under new management. Moriarty has turned the paper over to a local businesswoman, Dee Dee Duhn, owner of New Buffalo’s Custom Imports. Duhn has done all the traveling Moriarty would like to do, and was also ready for a life change. She has big plans for the Times, though these plans, because they remind me a little of previous big plans, worry me a little.

“I think the paper will look a lot sleeker with Dee Dee at the helm than me,” says Moriarty. “She worked for Estée Lauder for years and years in marketing. I come from the newsroom—she comes from the advertising portion. I always wanted to uphold the reporting aspect of it and I hoped the advertising would follow, and I think she’s doing it just the opposite. I think there will be a lot of advertising in the paper with her, more so than with me.”

What there will be less of is news. “I’m not quite sure how to say this,” says Duhn, “but it’s not going to get as deeply involved in the politics of what’s right and what’s wrong. It will report what needs to be reported but it will not take a stance. I’m staying away from controversy. I don’t think editorial will be as large, and it will be based on—I don’t have the right words yet, but it will be based on a local community in the heartland of America, more about what’s great about what we are and taking a positive action toward improving the community we’re in.”

Harbor Country, a promotional conceit but an effective one, consists of what its chamber of commerce calls “eight quaint towns” in Michigan’s Berrian County, seven of them lining the lakefront for 15 miles beyond the Indiana border and the eighth, Three Oaks, a sort of artists colony six miles inland. New Buffalo is the commercial hub. Its permanent population is only about 2,500, but boaters and condo owners from Chicago can make it ten times that on a balmy summer weekend. The Pokagon tribe’s Four Winds Casino Resort on the far side of I-94 brings in visitors that even the sun and shore cannot, and trains from Chicago and Detroit stop at the new Amtrak platform down by the harbor six times a day. The present mayor of Chicago has a place just outside New Buffalo. So does the last mayor, Richard M. Daley.

The local publisher has her work cut out for her. In addition to the serious competition from the free Harbor Country News published weekly by the News Dispatch in nearby Michigan City, Indiana, she faces the existential question of what kind of paper the Times should be.

Under Vilma Roumel, who founded it in 1942, the Times was unselfconsciously rustic, a paper condescending weekenders from the big city (I was one) read from aloud to amuse themselves at dinner parties. But when Roumel sold it in 1978 for about $120,000, the new owner was Robert Zonka, who’d been an assistant managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. He saw that in New Buffalo, just like in Chicago, fancy real estate deals were getting cut and the rich were getting richer and there was serious journalism to do. He worked like a dog. In 1981 he said in a letter, “I am different these past few years, probably as a result of an incredible effort to make this newspaper work. The experience has been humbling. I haven't forgotten how to be shitty and arrogant, I am just more discriminating as to when to come down hard. I never before worked 80, 90 hours a week. I never before ever worked without letup for almost three years. I never before have been so hard-pressed for money just to operate the house...I'm different now. I don't provoke as readily. I tolerate harder times and grim, grim prospects with much optimism. My paper will work, I vow, and damn it will."

Zonka died suddenly in 1985. His pal John McHugh, another Chicago old pro, ran the Times for a year while Zonka’s daughter, Lark Zonka, looked for a buyer. She wound up selling the Times for about $100,000 in 1986 to Mike Miller, a native of the region who’d been living in Pasadena and had some experience in the operations end of alternative weeklies. Miller made dramatic changes. In 1987, I questioned them.

“The town has been tricked up into resembling an exurban Halsted Street; must the local clarion follow suit...? Personally, we were very uneasy. We'd noted the lavish use of white space, the diminution of hard news in favor of guide-to-the-U-pick-orchards-of-Berrien-County-type features, and the appearance of Matt Groening's Life in Hell in the back pages. We'd decided that Miller was tailoring the paper for weekenders like us without understanding what weekenders like us really want.”

What weekenders wanted, I maintained, was a paper that either told us who was getting rich selling us condos or was so rural it was campy. It would have been less naive and more accurate to say weekenders who bothered to pick up the local paper—plenty have never had it on their radar—wanted both: tough reporting and folksy charm. There's no contradiction between the two. But Miller didn't strike the balance, and it remains to be seen if Dee Dee Duhn can.

Inside Mike Miller’s tent when he ran the Times was someone as uneasy as I was. This was his wife, Mary Beth Moriarty. When she was growing up in Chicago her family had a place in Grand Beach (also home of the Daley compound), and she grew up so fond of the area that on her 16th birthday her friends gave her a subscription to the New Buffalo Times.

“I worked for the paper on and off,” Moriarty recalls. “I started out in advertising sales. I went into production. Then photography. Then I wound up happily doing the [entire] paper on my own. Then he left. He kind of gave up the paper four years after he started. It became formally my paper in 1992.” She's speaking of Miller. They split up and he cleared out and the paper was all hers. So, she says, were tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.

Her first order of business running the Times was to turn the clock back. “It didn’t look like a weekly paper. I wanted to go back to something more traditional. The people who lived in the community and the people here on weekends all wanted to have a hometown newspaper. They wanted to have a newspaper where they found out Mrs. Mrozek was having a 100th birthday."

Regardless of whether they’d ever heard of Mrs. Mrozek?

Yes, says Moriarty. “That’s what they wanted . They didn’t want reviews about the latest movies playing in Michigan City written by the publisher of the paper. They wanted info about their community. About what was going on in the Boy Scouts. They wanted to know who was crowned Miss New Buffalo. They wanted to know about themselves. And they wanted to know about the people they elected to public office, who were people in the community Like themselves. And when I took over the paper that’s what I gave them."

I occasionally looked in. “Moriarty slapped a couple of flags on page one (they'd been there 30 years ago), threw out Callahan and Life In Hell, and went back to basics,” I wrote in 1993. The occasion for this piece was a feud Moriarty was having with the New Buffalo city council, which was trying to shift the town’s legal advertising from the Times to the Harbor Country News (despite the News’s higher rates) because it didn’t like Moriarty’s approach to journalism. Moriarty didn’t know much of anything about journalism before she married Miller—she'd been working in the city of Chicago's real estate department—but she learned fast, and what came easiest to her was the part where you stick your nose into things and tell the truth about them.

“We worked really hard—70 hours a week is the norm,” Moriarty tells me. “This was the first New Year’s I wasn’t standing out in Whittaker Street at a quarter to 12 waiting for the clock to strike 12 at the New Buffalo Savings Bank. Sometimes it was snowing. Sometimes there were snowplows out. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the clock because it was snowing so hard. Sometimes it was raining or sleeting.” But weather permitting, she wasn’t out there alone. “There were people wandering the streets because they wanted to see their picture in the paper.”

For the last year or two Moriarity has been telling me she wanted to get on with her life but couldn’t bring herself to close the Times. Last Thanksgiving she got engaged to a retired British Petroleum exec she’d met in May in David’s Deli in New Buffalo. On December 23 she collapsed in David’s Deli. Four days and three pints of new blood later, Moriarty called Dee Dee Duhn and offered her the paper.

Dee Dee Duhn at the 2011 Grand Party
  • Dee Dee Duhn at the 2011 Grand Party

Dee Dee Duhn will be coming at the local power structure from a different direction. She runs a successful local business and every year throws her “Grand Party,” a major be-there-or-be-square event on the local calendar. A farm girl from Missouri, Duhn worked for Estee Lauder in Dallas, followed her former husband to the Chicago region, opened Custom Imports 20 years ago in Gary’s Miller Beach neighborhood, and moved the business to New Buffalo more than a decade ago. She says that at this point the shop pretty much runs itself—aside from her annual January shopping trips overseas—which is why when Moriarty called and offered her the Times “before I could say no I said yes.” She tells me, “I’m always open for challenges and haven’t had one lately so I thought it’d be the biggest challenge in my life to try to be a publisher and editor. I won’t try. I’ll probably do a darned good job. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got, and I generally do succeed if it’s something I really want. And this is. I never thought about it, never imagined it, until it was presented to me. It’s so far beyond what I can imagine—the same way mountain climbing was.”

I’m not sure taking over the Times will actually surpass Duhn’s biggest earlier challenge. More than two decades ago she joined an expedition planning an assault on Annapurna II in the Himalayas. She trained for a year, much of it at altitude in the Rockies, and in 1991 her party climbed the world’s 16th highest peak to nearly 19,000 feet before turning back.

Or maybe running the Times will be even harder than that.

“It’s been a long time since I needed to be totally focused and gain some new knowledge,” says Duhn. “I will do whatever it takes to make this work. Yes, absolutely, I will subsidize it from the store.”

Moriarty's last issue is a keepsake. "My only regret is that I can't go on," she told her readers. But "it has become evident for some time that my life needed more balance. After a trip to the hospital over Christmas, it became clear that it is time to enjoy life and make a change. With my future husband, Stan Sorrels, we plan to have a full and wonderful life."

And Duhn told the same readers, "After living in Kansas City, Dallas, and Chicago, I have never called a place home until I moved to New Buffalo....I cannot image our town without the New Buffalo Times."

The issue is fleshed out with articles from old issues announcing past changes of ownership, and a sampling of columns past owners wrote back in the day. There's a short social note announcing the engagement of Mary Beth Moriarty of New Buffalo and Stan Sorrels of LaPorte, Indiana.

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