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

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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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