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In our ongoing series “A Sense of Place,” we bring you stories of Ozarks days gone by. In this segment, KSMU’s Jennifer Moore traveled to West Plains to interview the publisher and editor-in-chief of the West Plains Daily Quill, a small town newspaper that’s been in print for over 120 years.
Journalism runs through the veins of Frank L. Martin III. His grandfather was on the faculty when the world’s first school of journalism was established 100 years ago at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
His father was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, covering World War Two from China, India, and Burma. After the war, his father packed his bags, borrowed some money, and bought a small town newspaper in southern Missouri: the West Plains Daily Quill.
"The Quill was founded in 1885 by a man named Mills Williams," says Frank Martin III, now the publisher and editor-in-chief. He sits at the helm of a newspaper which started out as a weekly, focusing mostly on social events.
"[There was] very rarely any bad news until we had the dance hall explosion which killed almost 30 people here in the end of the '20s," he said.
Eventually, the paper began printing daily. And when Martin’s father took over, he steered the paper in an entirely new direction.
"With his experience overseas, he thought that the newspaper should have some national news, so he became a subscriber, or a co-op member of the Associated Press," he said.
In this small, mostly conservative town, Martin is anything but Mr. Congeniality. He practices what he calls “in-your-face” journalism, focusing on hard news and penning left-leaning editorials with more than a hint of sarcasm. He estimates he receives nine critical letters to the editor for every complimentary one.
"If it is unique, it’s because we still practice journalism as it was practiced elsewhere in the country 30 years ago. We lean on hard news, but we’ll also put a picture of somebody with a funny looking carrot or a big squash on page one. And right next to it, we’ll have some local corruption or crime. And we report absolutely everything," Martin said.
Martin takes me on a tour of the newspaper, starting with the newsroom, which is the hub of the paper’s nine reporters and editors. The room is also shared with the advertising department.
Martin: Let's go back in through here...
Moore: Okay...so we're going up into the attic now of the West Plains Daily Quill, where they keep old archives, and old printing machines...
Martin: We don't throw anything away. You'll notice here, zip code directories that probably go back ten years or so.
Moore: And these books over here look like the old archives...
Martin: Those are the old archives. These are...1941...this one under here I probably can't even pull out it's so old.
Moore: Is it possible to look at one of them and see what was in the news during those days?
Martin: Sure. Okay, let me see if I can find a date...February 24, 1916. 'Republicans Howell County For A Man Who Can Win'...'Arcade Hotel in New Hands'...'Republican Delegates to Meet'...the headline says 'John Harlin Sick; One of Ozark County's Main Boosters...he's been troubled for several months with some affection of the stomach and was suddenly taken worse Thursday night...'
Flipping through the disintegrating, discolored old copies of the paper is like taking a step back in time, when many West Plains residents were pioneers who had settled here from back East.
And in considering the Quill’s rich history, Frank Martin’s voice is tinged with sadness when he talks about the paper’s future. It’s a tough time to be in the newspaper business—fewer and fewer people are buying paper subscriptions. In the past month alone, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News have printed their final editions.
The West Plains Daily Quill does have a website. Although it used to be free, the Quill recently began charging a subscription to view the site.
"While people today tell us they'd rather have the paper, something solid in their hands to read, we think proably that will change when the current generation gets of age to be interested enough in their community. They've been raised on the electronic media, and we suspect that the paper product will go out of business altogether," Martin says.
In the meantime, however, Martin says he’ll continue to do what he believes he was born to do.
"There are enough days that I roll the paper up when I leave and have one in my fist when I go home, and am thoroughly proud of being an old-time, old-fashioned newsman...and I don't think I could possibly do anything different and still have that satisfaction," Martin concludes.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Jennifer Moore in West Plains.