Memories of the way small-town editors used to be

The creative well needed filling early today.

In other words, no blog topics immediately came to mind until this link appeared in my Facebook news feed. Bruce Anderson sounds like an interesting newsman. And his Anderson Valley Advertiser in Boonville, California, definitely sounds interesting. He bills it as “America’s Last Newspaper.”

Phil Chinitz/Atlantic News-Telegraph photo
Phil Chinitz — looking not much different from how he looked 25 years ago. News-Telegraph photo

Reading about the editor and his newspaper made me think of Phil Chinitz, the longtime editor of the newspaper in Atlantic, Iowa. I’ve mentioned Phil in the past. He is retired and I couldn’t find an obituary for him. By now, he would be in his mid-80s.

But it was challenging to find much background information about Phil. Stories posted on the Atlantic News-Telegraph website are protected by a pay wall. And when I bought a one-day subscription for $1, it still didn’t provide full access to the one story about Phil that was posted in September.

So, I’m going to have to rely on memory. By the time I joined the News-Telegraph as a reporter/photographer in the fall of 1989, Phil had been there for 34 of the more than 50 years he worked at the newspaper. I don’t know when the photo posted above was taken. But it shows Phil exactly the way I will always remember him: Thick glasses, blue sweater, barely ever looking up from his computer. He is sitting at the same desk he used when we worked together. The desk shown in the picture behind Phil’s right shoulder is where I worked. That framed certificate on the wall, by the way, is a Pulitzer Prize from the 1930s.

I had been hired by the then-publisher, Mark Griggs, to replace the latest in a series of young reporters who hadn’t worked well with Phil. Mark’s mother worked at the newspaper in Sheldon, Iowa, which was, and still is, owned by Pete and Connie Wagner. I was friends with their son, Jay, who knew I was looking for a job and had recommended me to Mark’s mom. She passed by name on to Mark, proving to me at a young age that who you know is just as important as what you know.

It never seemed that Mark and Phil got along well. And they were very different personalities. Anyway, Phil was initially skeptical about me and it took awhile to win him over. I remember once being assigned a story that I grumbled was boring.

“There’s no such thing as a boring story, but there are lots of boring reporters,” Phil said, barely looking up from his computer. At least that’s how I remember it — and I wrote the story.

No story was too small or unimportant, according to Phil. If something was important enough for a reader to submit it, Phil treated it with respect. He cranked out tons of copy, visited the many daily stops on the small-town newspaperman’s beat that he had been stopping at for decades and edited — with a stubby lead pencil — printouts of every story I wrote for the News-Telegraph.

I’d correct the mistakes Phil marked, print out final copies and then join him in pasting together by hand that afternoon’s newspaper. Once the paper was on the press, Phil went to lunch nearly every day with his wife, Trina, at Bob’s Downtowner, where they always sat in the same booth.

As I recall, Phil graduated from Atlantic High School in 1949. After serving in the Army, he came home and applied for jobs at the Post Office and the newspaper, which was the first to make him an offer.  Virtually everything he knew about reporting and editing, he had learned on the job at the News-Telegraph. His writing was simple and straightforward. He knew everyone in his town and everyone knew him. He had institutional knowledge about the newspaper and his town — of maybe 7,000 people — that doesn’t exist anymore at many newspapers.

Use of the word “many” in the previous sentence is a testament to the lessons taught by Phil. I can hear him now: “How do you know that’s true about every newspaper? Did you check with every one of them?”

Bruce Anderson and Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2015 may be a world apart from Phil Chinitz and the Atlantic News-Telegraph in 1989. But Phil was an important figure at an important time in my development. I’m glad he was there at that time.

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