There's no word of scandal here Newspapers: Small town editors waste no ink on the Starr report.

September 16, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Forget the presidency's future. The big story this week is the big cat story out of North Carolina. It seems you can't open the newspaper without hearing all the jarring and salacious details.

(To our young readers, a warning: The following is graphic material.)

"The cat first began moaning in the night, like an anguished woman. It then became vocal during the daylight hours, its hoarse feline voice echoing down the valley," according to the Avery Journal. "Another oddity is the fact that none of the neighborhood dogs bark at the cat."

The paper's 8,100 readers were spellbound by news of a big cat "terrorizing" residents near Sam Brewer Road on Hickory Nut Gap. Some folks say it's a cougar. Maybe a bobcat. So many half-truths, even quarter-truths. One thing is for sure: Dogs don't bark at it. And another thing: The story is far from over.

"They say it's still up there," says Bertie Burleson, long-time editor of the Journal. Expect to see follow-up stories on the big cat. Expect to see more classified ads such as, "LOST. Male gray tabby named 'Dosie.' White chest, belly & feet. Small scar one ear." Expect more "The Magic of Herbs" from columnist Adele Forbes: "Garlic speaks to me. Always has. Always will ..."

Don't expect anything on President William J. Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky in the Journal -- or in many other community newspapers across the republic. They're not playing that game. They want no part of the scandal or a possible impeachment proceeding or an improbable cigar placement.

As Bertie Burleson will tell you, "we don't do national news. And we're not doing anything on the scandal." (The number of times Lewinsky's name has appeared in The Sun: 657. The number of times her name has appeared in the Avery Journal: 0)

Imagine: picking up a newspaper this week and not seeing a Clinton's-been-a-bad-boy story. But America's little papers -- tucked in towns such as Franklin, W.Va., Winthrop, Iowa, and Caldwell, Kan. ("A Good Little Newspaper in a Fine Little Town") -- are proudly scorning the World's Top Story.

"Our philosophy is we only print good news," says Janet Jentz, editor of the Winthrop News. "The Hometown Paper with the Personal Touch" boasts 1,600 Iowa readers who do not want to pick up their weekly paper and read about Clinton, Jentz says.

What her readers want to know, she says, is that this week's "Senior Citizen Menu" promises goulash, wax beans and sherbet. They want to remember that locals Jennie Engel and Kent Wilson once danced with an ice cube balanced on the bridges of their noses for 15 minutes (and 4 seconds). They do not, Jentz says, want to read in their hometown paper that our commander in chief and an intern achieved their own record-setting dance.

They want to know that East Buchanan High wrestling coach Phil Steffen won the "Wrestling Coach of the Year Award."

That story was on the front page earlier this year. This week, as national newspapers and magazines angle for yet another scandal angle, Jentz is considering front-page stories for tomorrow's edition.

"I don't know yet what both of them will be," she says. One story could be the rodeo in Aurora, she says. The other will probably be a piece on the Harley & Hot Rod fundraiser. "You can hear about the Clinton story everywhere else," she says. "You can hear it constantly."

South and west of Wichita, in Caldwell, Kan., editor Damon Weber is readying the Caldwell Messenger for publication today. The front page of this weekly (circulation: 1,500) will not, Weber repeats, not utter a syllable about the presidential scandal.

"No, no, hell, no!" Weber says. "It rained. ... That's news!" A nasty drought has scorched these parts all summer, so this week's rainfall has been welcome news in Caldwell. Better yet, front-page news.

The century-old Stanley Republican in Stanley, Wis., is at work on a story this week about a new, medium-security prison. Somehow, the idea of a prison opening in their back yard has been deemed more newsworthy than events inside the world-famous Beltway. Small-town America, editor Candace Brenner says, doesn't give a hoot.

"They don't care who Clinton sleeps with. Get real," Brenner says. "This is none of my business." And none of her paper's business, either.

The Stewart-Webster Journal ("Serving Your Communities Since 1850") hails from Richland, Ga., about 250 miles south of Atlanta. Like other weeklies, the Journal's mission is to herald the coming of visitors, the coming of fall, the coming of life. So its eight pages are complete with births, marriages, "Best in Fair" ribbons, anniversaries and passings.

If you want analysis of the scandal, managing editor Linda Provencher will provide a personal opinion. She doesn't buy the Clinton story, especially the bit about Monica's infamous blue dress.

"I'm from the South, the old school," Provencher says, "and to hold on to that dress for three years, what kind of housekeeper is she?"

But that's not for publication in her paper. No, if readers want juicy gossip, they'll have to settle for Emme Parker's "County Chatter" column, which included this recent titillating morsel:

"Recently one night I called a friend long distance. Obviously I had received a wrong number when the child answering the phone said, 'Mama can't come to the phone right now. She just rammed her car into the back of the garage coming in from the bar!' "

Not bad. But it's no big cat story.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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