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New Buffalo News; Uncovering a Breakthrough 

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New Buffalo News

W. Michael Miller is game enough to work in New Buffalo, Michigan (pop. 3,000; three times that in season); but he won't live in that kind of a pressure cooker. Miller commutes from Union Pier (gateway to Chickaming Township; pop. 1,400), three miles up the Red Arrow Highway. "New Buffalo is a very tough town," Miller told us the other day. "It's not a bucolic seaside fishing village. I have to get out of there."

When we began visiting New Buffalo, in 1974, "bucolic," "seaside," and "village" were close to the mark. Perhaps "fishing" as well, although angling for PCBs has never been our sport. "Very tough" would not have occurred to us. The New Buffalo Times, the local weekly, favored headlines that announced "Install Mrs. David Siegmund president, Gateway Garden Club" and poems that began:

There is nothing so rare as a day in June,

When good friends get together and

That is what the "What's Trump" girls

Have been doing for 20 years . . .

But why dwell on the Proterozoic era? In 1980, local boosters came up with "Harbor Country," a catchier motto than "If it's good enough for Lincoln Park it might work here on weekends"; and the New Buffalo Times's new owner, Robert Zonka, former assistant managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, noting condominiums going up right and left down by the harbor and property values climbing by a factor of three, opted for covering harder news than pinochle. John McHugh, a buddy of Zonka's from Chicago who took over the paper when Zonka died in 1985 and ran it for a year on an emergency basis, saw his job the same way.

This may come as a surprise to the New Buffalo Times's many recent critics, but that's how the new owner, who is Mike Miller, also sees it.

"The issues and controversies that occur here are small-town controversies, but they're fueled and driven by large-city kinds of energies--by real estate changing hands," he reflected. "There's an attitude on the part of people who have already moved here--it's called 'pulling up the ladder,' meaning 'I don't want to see any more change.' It's understandable, but it's at odds with the reality of the situation.

"I'm not the only newspaper in town, but in a lot of ways I am. And it's incumbent on the publisher of the weekly newspaper in a small town--if you want to call this a small town--to point some direction."

Miller, who's 41, took over the Times a year ago next week. He grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, but he'd been living in Los Angeles--selling ads for the Los Angeles Reader, then directing operations at the Pasadena Weekly--when a common friend introduced Zonka's daughter Lark to him as someone with a newspaper to sell. Why not? Miller told himself.

The $100,000 price tag was probably ridiculously high, given that Robert Zonka had lived desperately close to the margin for seven years, that the News- Dispatch in nearby Michigan City, Indiana, had moved in with a free shopper to siphon off New Buffalo advertisers, and that John McHugh had told Lark Zonka he was quitting the paper in October come hell or high water because he couldn't stand another New Buffalo winter.

But Miller saw possibilities. He introduced the Bridgeman Times--which is the New Buffalo Times with a made-over front page and a couple new pages inside--and started selling it in the town 13 miles north. He courted advertisers, boosted ad revenues by 45 percent, and was able to hire three writers and a photographer. Now he's launching a series of mass mailings offering free trial subscriptions; his goal is to lift circulation from three thousand to up around five.

What about the editorial product? Chicago weekenders we know take the New Buffalo Times very seriously and they have been dismayed. The town has been tricked up into resembling an exurban Halsted Street; must the local clarion follow suit? It got back to Miller that Karen Conner, onetime director of special events under Mayor Jane Byrne who'd moved into town to promote tourism and deal real estate in a big way, had been grumbling Miller was turning the Times into a Reader.

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. Our view was that Miller should tell us who's making a fortune selling us condos or give us back the What's Trump girls.

"I think that's a really valid criticism," Miller said--acknowledging the balsalike quality of the editorial matter. But Miller, unlike his predecessors, is a somewhat shy person, and his background isn't in reporting, reasons we think he's been slow to penetrate the community. He'd moved the Times into a new building, changed printers, and built a sturdier financial base. He said he'd left one of the hardest steps for last.

"The news has got to cover the local bases. I think there's still some criticism in the community over how I'm doing that, but in the last four or five months I think I'm covering that base more." He pointed to an excellent three-part series on development ("The Pizza Hut has become a type of symbol of conflicting views about where New Buffalo is headed") written in August by two expatriate Chicagoans.

Expatriates are a force to be reckoned with along the lakeshore, Miller told us. They are settling in year-round, content to let their modems connect them with the world beyond. Many wander in and offer to contribute a line or two, and Miller gives them their heads. "People are more inspired when they're writing what they want."

Miller mentioned one resettled scribe who'd come by and expressed an interest in covering Chickaming Township politics for the Times. He hasn't actually done much of that. On the other hand, Miller acknowledged, the man has a rare gift for writing about his bike trips.

Uncovering a Breakthrough

The last time we heard from Reflections Theatre, they were waiting for Lanford Wilson to come to town. This was last winter, when Reflections, bold as brass, was staging Wilson's entire "Talley Trilogy" in repertory, and they'd invited the playwright in. However Wilson, who does not fly, stayed in New York; and the reviews of the three plays, for that matter, placed ambition considerably above accomplishment.

But now Reflections has a new trilogy up and running. And we hear Torch Song Trilogy is sensational. In last week's Reader, critic Albert Williams said the show looked like "the breakthrough the company needs."

The problem now isn't coaxing Harvey Fierstein in from New York to see his Tony-winning drama done here. It's getting the Tribune and Sun-Times to even review it. Richard Christiansen said he'd try to get there sooner or later. But Hedy Weiss told Reflections to forget it.

We called Weiss at the Sun-Times to see what's up.

"Part of it is simply our first priority is Equity productions," Weiss said. "After that, there are some non-Equity theaters that are almost in that class--a handful." Who? we asked. "Bailiwick, Commons, increasingly Pegasus, Stormfield, City Lit, Blue Rider, occasionally ETA," she said. "One I've missed and intend to catch up on is Intown Players. . . .

"Then there are about a hundred non-Equity productions. And I decide among them in a variety of ways--is it a theater that attracts 200 people or 2,000 people during a run? I can't see some of the more interesting smaller companies and quite frankly there's no room on the paper. I'm not the only reviewer here--TV and movies and pop music certainly have equal time."

And then there's the element of personal choice.

"I have to tell you I think Torch Song Trilogy is a dreadful play," Weiss told us. "But that's not why I didn't go. I didn't have time. I'm booked every night for the next two weeks. Literally not a night off, and that includes weekends."

Sid Smith takes some of the overload off Richard Christiansen's shoulders. Fine-arts writer Lynn Voedisch also reviews plays for the Sun-Times, but Weiss said Voedisch only covers the openings Weiss would have covered when Weiss is not available to cover them. They do not write in tandem.

Glenna Syse?

"Glenna no longer does deadline reviews," Weiss said.

"The truth is--look! Even at the New York Times there's a first string [Frank Rich] and a backup [Mel Gussow]. And I'd say they cover far less drama of a certain level than the papers in Chicago. There's not a prayer some of these groups would have in New York of ever being covered."

The romantic delusion among actors is that they can open a storefront somewhere and the critics will beat a path there and acclaim them, Weiss said. The reality about succeeding in Chicago theater is totally different.

"It's Darwinian," she said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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