In the summer of 1993, family obligations dictated that I move closer to home. It also meant taking a sabbatical from parish ministry.
That’s how I ended up in Marceline, Missouri, population 2,500, interviewing with the publisher of the Marceline Press to become editor. He’d already offered the spot to me by telephone based on clips I sent. Now he was taking me on a tour, selling the town.
I didn’t know anything about the place. I ran across the opening looking through the Missouri Press Association classifieds. It matched my skills and geographic requirements.
By my initial assessment, the town looked like it had been overrun with vandals randomly defacing neighborhoods with Disney lawn art. Bambi. Mickey. Minnie. Goofy. Donald. Snow White. Friends of Snow White. One yard especially was infested.
“Who puts all this Disney crap in their yard?” I blurted. “That would be my yard,” he dead-panned. “It’s a b— to mow but my wife likes it.”
Marceline was Walt Disney’s boyhood home. That would account for the dominant species of lawn art and why the elementary school came to be named Disney. The family moved there when Disney was five years old and left for Kansas City when he was ten. Those years made an impression on him.
I can picture him squinting through the memories of a ten-year-old looking north from the south end of Marceline’s Kansas Avenue and seeing his Disneyland Main Street USA. Marceline eventually renamed Kansas Avenue for Main Street USA, complete with Mouseketeer-ear shaped street signs. Diehard Disney tourists put Marceline on their schedule.
The Disney connection was always in Marceline’s background in my year as editor. Largely, though, the weekly paper was filled with all the usual sorts of things that makes a community newspaper part of the community: high school sports, city council and school board meetings, Boy Scouts, city budgets and audits. My year was occupied with the pace of being a small town weekly newspaper editor, which, I point out, is the next best thing to being a parish pastor.
My first day on the job was snapping photographs of the once-in-a-century 1993 Missouri flood. The Missouri Press Association picked up some of my photography. That was mostly because the MPA newsletter asked area editors to send in photos and hardly anybody else bothered. That’s the same way I won an MPA news award; we were the only weekly to enter the category. Still, I have my little news boy statuette, you bet.
Everybody knew I was a pastor and that set up some unusual requests for a reporter. When I went out to snap a picture of the city employee’s annual picnic, notebook and camera in hand, I was asked to say the table prayer.
But I didn’t wear my religion on my sleeve. That surprised some readers, but I wasn’t into doing a what-would-Jesus-do editorship.
Besides, somebody already did that. Frederick Popenoe, publisher of the Topeka Capital, invited Charles Sheldon, a Congregational minister, to test out a Jesus editorship in March, 1900. Sheldon authored an 1897 novel that imagined Jesus in charge of a newspaper.
Sheldon first off banned cussing, smoking, tobacco spitting, and booze in the newsroom. He dropped the Sunday edition (probably related to Sabbath work) for a Saturday evening edition that featured the Sermon on the Mount as a front page story. Sheldon emphasized “positive” news, deemphasized scandals and crime, raised a million dollars for India famine relief, and the paper rose from an eleven thousand daily circulation to three hundred thousand by the end of a week. After that he became editor of the Christian Herald, precursor to the Christian Century.
I didn’t do anything like that; I kept to straight news except with the Christmas week issue. There wasn’t much happening that week and I was lazy, trying to get out of town. So I eliminated the usual front page and instead did a full page woodcut of a lion and lamb with the Isaiah quotation, moving everything else inside. We sold a lot of extra copies.
In the next week’s issue I had to cover a Christmas Eve single-car accident that killed both parents, leaving their four-month-old uninjured.
The Marceline Press is no longer in existence. The chain that owned it also bought a neighboring daily, and then sold both to yet another chain that consolidated them into a three-day a week paper, now The Linn County Leader. Marceline has become a section. I cannot think this is a good trend. When newspaper chains stop talking about newspapers and instead create “profit centers,” they inevitably diminish the allure of community and—as Disney himself understood first hand—the magic of locality.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Minnie Mouse at Marceline store photo credit, used with permission
Sheldon’s Jesus editorship in Topeka
Charles Sheldon, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.