For the past 42½ years, come every Sunday evening I’m starting to think about a topic for a column—I’ve been writing a weekly column that mostly deals with local history for a weekly newspaper here in Oswego since the early autumn of 1977.
So it seemed more than a bit odd this past Sunday to realize I wasn’t working against any sort of deadline at all. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper group that owns the weekly Oswego Ledger has decided to suspend all their stringers—including columnists like me—“for the time being.” Not sure if that means forever, but given the newspaper business’s on-going financial problems it wouldn’t surprise me.
I started writing a local history column I called “Epochs” back in 1977, which my old elementary school classmate Dave Dreier published in the Fox Valley Sentinel.
Back in those days, Oswego had two weekly newspapers. The Oswego Ledger was the oldest paper, having been started by Ford Lippold in 1949. Ford published the Ledger on a Mimeograph machine in his basement, with his whole family participating in assembling each week’s edition. The Ledger was a local institution that, while it was a free distribution weekly duplicated on tan 8-1/2 x 11” paper, covered the local news pretty professionally. In March 1965, Ann and Don Krahn bought the Ledger and turned it into an offset printed tabloid-sized paper, still published weekly but on a subscription basis.
I lost touch with Dave Dreier after his folks moved up to North Aurora when we were in sixth grade. As an adult, he had been involved in a variety of business interests before he came back to the Oswego area and went to work for the Krahns at the Ledger. Shortly thereafter, Dave and his friend Steve Keierlieber decided to start a competing Oswego weekly they named the Fox Valley Sentinel. Their business plan called for them to not only cover Oswego, but also Kendall County government as well as expanding coverage north to Montgomery, Aurora, the East and West Aurora school districts, and the Kane County Board. Their first issue was published in 1974, and from the beginning the competition between the Sentinel and the Ledger was fierce.
As for myself, I had no idea I could write until my wife and I volunteered to help produce a county history during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. Until the county history was published, the commission turned out a series of monographs on local historical topics (two of which I co-wrote and two of which I helped edit) as well as the hard covered history itself in which I was responsible for writing a couple chapters and helping edit others. The books and monographs proved popular and helped fund the county’s celebration.
By 1977, I was forced to retire from my job due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, and was looking for something I could do at home to earn a little money. Since the history we’d produced during the Bicentennial proved pretty popular I figured maybe I could write a local history column. I hadn’t seen Dave for nearly 20 years, but when I stopped down at the Sentinel office, we hit it right off again. I pitched my idea to him about writing a column on local history topics. Unlike a lot of budding columnists, I at least had some published examples of my writing to show. And it didn’t hurt that we were old, old friends.
Did I think there’d be enough material to do more than a few columns, he wondered. Yes, I said, I thought there’d be enough for several. Well, write three and bring them back and Dave said he’d see. Which I did, and which he did, and he offered me the gig.
“What do you want to call the column,” he wondered. “It’s got to have a title.” I had no idea, really, it turning out that coming up with headlines is something I’m really bad at (as you can tell if you’ve read much of this lame blog). But I finally suggested “Epochs” had a sort of historical ring to it, and he thought that would work. My first piece was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1977. And except for the odd hospital stay and various non-hospitalized illnesses I’ve been writing a column a week ever since.
Dave prevailed on me sometime in 1978 to cover some of the Sentinel’s news beats. I reminded him I had no journalism experience other than writing my “Epochs” column, to which he replied that he didn’t have any, either, and so what? And after witnessing the horrible political news coverage during the past few decades, I have to admit that my one-time awe of J-school grads has pretty much disappeared.
Newswriting, Dave explained as we sat in his cluttered Sentinel office, isn’t much different than writing a history column. The writing should be clear, accurate, and fair. Write news stories like you’re explaining the topic to your parents, he suggested. Then pulling a crumpled envelope out of the overflowing wastebasket next to his desk, he drew an upside-down pyramid on the back with a blue editing pen and explained, “This is the inverted pyramid. You write your stories like an inverted pyramid Put the important stuff up front, and less important stuff farther down so I can cut the less important parts if we’re tight on space. It’s really not difficult.”
And I found that after telling readers historical stories I’d researched for a while, writing news stories wasn’t difficult—but it was challenging. Get a date wrong in a historical piece by a couple years, and who would know or care? But getting a decimal point wrong in a tax story and a LOT of people cared. Since I’d grown up in Oswego, a lot of the people on boards and commissions had known me since I was a little kid, and they weren’t the least bit shy of collaring me at the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station to let me know what they thought about stories in the most recent edition.
I’d always disliked math, but after school I’d found myself working for a company where all I did all day was math, using a giant, startlingly noisy mechanical Frieden calculator. The main thing I took away from that job was memorizing the decimal equivalents of fractions all the way up to 32nds. So it was actually a relief of sorts when I was forced to retire from doing math all day. But in writing local news, I found I was back doing lots of math once again, figuring percentages of property tax increases, working on local taxing agency budgets, writing census stories, trying to explain school test scores—you name it.
By the summer of 1980, Dave had come to the conclusion that the Oswego area’s advertising base really couldn’t support two weekly papers. By that time, Jeff and Kathy Farren had added the Ledger to their small Kendall County Record, Inc. chain, joining joined the Kendall County Record and the Plano Record. Dave and Jeff talked things over down at the Oswego American Legion bar and Dave agreed to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens. The Farrens merged the two papers, with the new paper named the Ledger-Sentinel.
Along with adding newswriting to my part-time job, I’d also kept writing my weekly column and when the Farrens bought the Sentinel, they asked me if I’d come on board as the new paper’s part-time editor, photographer, reporter, janitor, whatever. And they asked if I’d continue writing my column. Jeff and Kathy didn’t care for the name—neither did I—so we decided to change it to “Reflections,” and “Reflections” it’s remained right up until today.
I retired from the news business in March 2008, but I agreed to continue writing “Reflections” every week. When the Farrens decided to retire in 2015, they sold the paper to a large newspaper group. I was asked to continue writing my column. The paper’s name was soon changed back to the Oswego Ledger, but I continued writing “Reflections” for each edition. Until last week.
The newspaper business has been in serious financial trouble for years, partly because of changes in technology and partly because too many news organizations–especially at the national level–seem to have lost their way, turning management over to accountants instead of news people and allowing their news judgment to be influenced by focus groups and other such corporate-influenced nonsense. And now the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be adding to the existing problem in a way that stands to destroy so many of the weekly papers that still manage to survive, the ones that cover the births and deaths and marriages and local government, school news, and other information communities rely on. And that will be a real tragedy.
Weeklies have withstood a number of serious challenges, especially in small towns where farming was once the mainstay of the surrounding region. Technology and scientific crop advances have drastically reduced the number of farmers needed to till the soil, and that has had major negative impacts on the population of the small towns that were interdependent on farming. Fading populations have led to disappearing churches, social, and civic organizations, and declining school enrollments. The invasion of rural America by big chains like Walmart and the dollar stores has largely destroyed whatever locally-owned businesses remained. And with that went the advertising base that once supported local newspapers. For years, the big chains refused to advertise in weeklies, preferring direct mail instead. Hundreds of communities lost their churches, their schools through consolidation, their downtown business districts, and, as a result, the newspapers that once helped tie those communities together.
I’m hoping against hope that doesn’t happen to Shaw Media, the company that owns the Oswego Ledger and the other papers in the KendallCountyNOW newspaper group. Communities need local newspapers to make sure everyone’s informed about what’s going on. After all, who has time to raise a family and go to all the local governmental meetings that take place throughout the month, from the village, park, and library boards, to the county board, the fire district board, and all the others?
As for me, I’ll continue collecting local history and interpreting it down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum before it all gets thrown in the nearest Dumpster. And I’ll also continue to preserve and publish as much local history as I can by here at History on the Fox to preserve it, at least as long as this electronic format lasts, while I wait to see what happens to the Oswego Ledger and my old place on each week’s opinion page.