A small-town editor with large ideas

May 03, 1993|By Maude McDaniel | Maude McDaniel,Contributing Writer

Somewhere in the heart of every journalist a dream lives: Acquire a small-town newspaper, settle back and live happily ever after. "The Hard Way" exposes this as the fairy tale it is. Still, no one who makes a living putting one word after another will be discouraged, for this book speaks to the "soul of newspapering."

In 1957, Sandy Brook abruptly broke off his career as a "Wall Street Man," to buy a moribund little weekly newspaper in Maine. At 35, he moved his wife and three small children north to a 20-year adventure that must often have seemed more struggle than epic at the time. With perfect hindsight, he turns it all into the stuff of newspaper legend. And, if he does not often think too lowly of himself -- well, on the basis of the evidence offered, he shouldn't.

Displaying equal faith in the good sense of the average citizen and in the small-business opportunities of capitalism, Mr. Brook transformed the Kennebunk Star with its negligible fraction of York County coverage into the York County Coast Star, a county-wide 900-pound gorilla of a weekly. Fat with both state and national awards for journalistic excellence and service, it sold in 1977 for more than $1.6 million and is now owned by the New York Times.

"The hard way" involved relentless expansion in area and up-to-date equipment ("our modernity dress, pregnant with possibilities"). It took 15 years to get in the black and horrendous labor, indeed, slavery of a sort that surely led to his personal burnout (not to mention, and unfortunately Mr. Brook almost never does, the apparent sacrifice of his own family life) to reach that happy bottom line.

But Mr. Brook does have idealistic rows to hoe. He sees publishing a local weekly as a mission with a mystique, complete with techniques and goals that distinguish it from the small-town daily. Scorning traditional reportage and writing style, he believes weeklies are uniquely in a position to carry out investigations and crusades, and seems to have made himself a thorn in the side of all the block-headed, sometimes venal, city officials, developers and self-important establishment characters who dominate every small-town scene.

Scrapping away in his own eccentric fashion, Mr. Brook wins notable battles both in print (generously quoted) and local referendums for the environment, democracy and common sense.

For example, he makes a formidable editorial case for beauty alone as a reason for preserving the scenery ("There is so little natural beauty left that the handsome animal that once stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific is now riddled with flea-bite and infection. We are the fleas on its back").

Like so many newsfolk he holds orneriness next to godliness (actually, above): His masthead, for example, carried the slogan T.H.W.T.B. which he explained as either "The Hard Way's The Best" or "To Hell With The Bastards," depending on who asked.

With a gift for characterization more often encountered in fiction, Mr. Brook captures both enemies and friends live for the reader, especially Herman Cohen, the irrepressible, blustering, "indiscriminatingly insulting" gadfly whom Mr. Brook supports to eventual victory in battles with the local powers-that-be for the heart of democratic community.

Mr. Brook's honest too; seemingly disdaining any of that not-his-real-name foolishness, he doesn't appear to worry about future amicable relationships with some of his former colleagues.

Not all journalists will agree with every one of his decided opinions ("There's no point jousting with the enemies of motherhood and apple pie"). But his attempt to "explain the weekly newspaperman as an extension of his community, and the community an extension of the newspaper," touches on many practical matters and raises a number of philosophical issues that must be considered by anyone who still, in idle moments on the police beat, dreams the dream.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Hard Way: The Odyssey of a Weekly Newspaper Editor."

Author: Alexander B. Brook.

Publisher: Bridge Works Publishing.

Length, price: 306 pages, $19.95.

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