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A small-town newspaper publisher's alternative universe 

An act of satire in the Madison County Crier led to an advertiser exodus—and a principled stand by a publisher who took a risk on hyperlocal journalism

Frances Madeson left New York and ended up practicing hyperlocal journalism in Frederick Town, population 4,000.

Frances Madeson left New York and ended up practicing hyperlocal journalism in Frederick Town, population 4,000.

Frances Madeson sees herself as a "change agent," and in her view change agents don't effect enough change if they all stay in Manhattan. In 2010 she left New York City and moved back to Missouri, setting up shop in Farmington, a town of 16,000 about 60 miles south of Saint Louis. She ran a little business that provided writing services—resumes, cover letters, and in one case a letter for a woman who wanted to persuade her daughter to stop smoking pot. "A precondition to change is to restore language to people," Madeson says.

Then she discovered Fredericktown, population 4,000, a few miles down the road.

Madeson met Karen Whitener, a local boutique owner who'd founded the fortnightly Madison County Crier in 2008 after spending two years as reform mayor of Fredericktown, the county seat.

The two women hit it off, and one thing they saw eye to eye on was the importance of journalism that actually tells people what's going on. Whitener had written editorials blasting the town government that followed her own, but eventually she'd had to turn the paper over to a woman who worked for her and the Crier soon went out of business.

Bring it back, she said to Madeson.

Hyperlocalism is a catch-term for a new kind of urban journalism that hopes to survive by focusing on a single neighborhood. It's read—or isn't—by neighbors who know each other casually if at all. Madeson was about to practice real hyperlocalism—journalism in a little town where everyone knows everyone else all too well.

Her first issue, in June, saluted the paper's founder (PDF): back issues had impressed her with "how substantive and informative the articles were, and how incisive and daring the editorials. Big shoes to fill."

Her sixth issue, published September 12, alienated Whitener, struck a lot of her readers as unimaginably disrespectful, and cost her almost all her advertising.

Madeson, who grew up in suburban Saint Louis in the 1960s, describes herself as a "serious woman." Her father, Marvin Madeson, was a PR executive who ran Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in Saint Louis and helped launch (and later became national chairman of) the New Democratic Coalition, which was founded after the 1968 convention in Chicago. Its goal was to open the party to "represent and provide avenues of participation for all citizens."

Frances Madeson recalls the NDC as an exercise in "great courage, great daring, and failure, failure, failure." After college she lived an east-coast life, working as a congressional aide in Washington and publishing a novel, Cooperative Village, in New York that was described by one reviewer as a "smart, macabre satire of the War on Terror." But when her marriage ended she decided it was time to come home. And back in Missouri, her gift for fanciful writing fell flat.

Last month William and Donna Killian of Fredericktown submitted to the Crier a story about their son Caleb graduating from the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. To the left of the picture of Caleb that ran on page ten of the September 12 issue was the Killians' account. To the right of the picture the story continued, now in Madeson's own words:

"In an alternative universe (the one many of us are dreaming of and working toward), this announcement might say:

"Caleb Killian . . . graduated from U.S. Peace and Love Corps boot camp . . . on August 12, 2012. Killian graduated . . . as a Private First Class and received recognition for qualifying expert in compassion."

The story continued for two more paragraphs in this vein and concluded with the announcement that Caleb would return to Fredericktown "to lead us in drum circles" and "conduct a workshop at Courthouse Square on how to irreversibly transform bayonets into pruning hooks, once and for all."

This whimsical foray wasn't the only evidence in the Crier that Madeson is a publisher with an agenda. Her lead story was an interview with the town's new superintendent of public schools. With the local ROTC program in mind, she asked him, "Could this possibly be the year that we can evict the U.S. Military from the Fredericktown School System?"

"People around here generally don't take the dark view of the military," the superintendent replied.

Said Madeson: "I don't mean to be dark sir, just realistic."

Let's pause here. As journalists bemoan the corporatizing and sanitizing of their shrinking profession, they revere the memory of the fearlessly independent editors of old who set up shop in steamy backwaters and preached a gospel of equality and fair play. But it was always easier to admire such an editor than to be one. If the voice you hope to inspire with isn't pitch-perfect, all you're going to do is drive people nuts.

The Killians felt it necessary to publish a letter in the local weekly, the Democrat News, publicly apologizing to their son. "It would be nice," their letter concluded, "if some people didn't live in total disregard of respect, trying to influence and degrade others with their extreme thinking."

Whitener threw up her hands. "I think her objectives are fantastic," she says of Madeson. "I'm flabbergasted by what a fantastic writer she is. That makes it all the more frustrating. She could have written an editorial that could have made the most conservative folks stand up and say, 'Wow! Why are we sending our children off to war?' But she didn't."

Whitener turned to Facebook to disassociate herself from the present Crier. "I was as horrified as many of you were at the mockery of Caleb Killian in the last issue," she wrote. "Those comments, along with those regarding the JROTC program, led me to assume that her intent was to encourage a discussion about defense spending, the thousands of soldiers killed and maimed in the wars of the last several years, to question what are our military objectives are, etc. However, I could not have been more disgusted at the manner in which she chose to present the issue."

As the storm waters rose around her, Madeson posted a statement on the Crier's home page that offered fast-departing advertisers a stark choice: "Either you find a way with your dignity fully intact (who among us hasn't had a knee-jerk reaction at one time or another?) to come back in by the next advertising deadline . . . and no one's the wiser, or you NEVER come back in. . . . I'm sorry to have to be so mean, but there have to be consequences for open displays of cowardice."

She was taking another principled stand—as the publisher who would not pander to advertisers. But she took it in a way that would rally no one to her side.

Madeson's next issue, dated September 26, was light on advertising and weighted with letters to the editor damning Madeson, supporting her, and trying to make her understand. A woman who'd grown up in Madison County before moving to New York described her apprehensions on returning: "Having enlightened myself with the arts and the world, I thought I was being sentenced to a life without good coffee, wine, and conversations about literature and world events. I feared that I would be relegated to Bud lite, MD2020, and conversations about God and Nascar. That was a huge mistake on my part. And I fear, one that you have made in your last issue."

Rather than yield, Madeson used the September 26 issue to remind Fredericktown of what stock she's from. She published a picture of her father's grave—in a military cemetery at that—and allowed that she'd gone there "for comfort, for inspiration."

"My father, principled to his core, is my guide in death as he was in life," she wrote. "He understood something about the honor of holding the minority opinion, and not just holding it but embodying it."

In rural America, if no longer in our big cities, it seems the press still has the power to seize a community. Madeson's paper may not survive, but it got everybody's attention. Which of Chicago's wan hyperlocal experiments can say as much?

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