MARY JO HARNEY proudly displays a copy of her newspaper,
The Park County Sentinel, in the newspaper office in Rockville, Indiana.
Publishing a newspaper
isn't so easy anymore
By JOYCE KIEFER
Mary Jo Harney succeeds in a business that seems to be doomed. She s the sole publisher of a weekly newspaper--The Parke County Sentinel in Rockville, Indiana. Shes held that post since her husband, Dick, died 13 years ago. The papers circulation is 4,000 in a county with 6,400 households. It serves as the countys newspaper of record.
Each Wednesday when The Sentinel comes out, people line up at the downtown office to buy the new edition. Mary Jo says she could sell the paper to another publisher in a heartbeat.
This is the historic old courthouse in Rockville.
My husband, Bill, and I spent a few days with Mary Jo during our cousin pilgrimage through the byroads of Indiana last month. She is one of his 67 first cousins. I had met this tall, friendly and attractive woman before, but this was the first time we shared an extensive visit in her large Victorian home a half-block from the office. I knew that she and Dick had published The Sentinel together but I was curious to know how she kept it going. What did it take?
Is Mary Jo Indianas own Katherine Graham?
She denies this by saying tartly, We have nothing in common. I wasnt raised in privilege. Unlike everyone else on her and Bills side of the family, she grew up with a single mom. She wasnt able to finish college until her own two girls were there. Her daughter, Jessica, had given her a copy of Grahams autobiography. Mary Jo thumbed through it, then put it to use in her bathroom to keep the cabinet door from hitting the wall. But I cant ignore the similarities--determination for one, knowing her readers for another.
When Dick was dying of cancer, his words of advice were, Dont sell the paper. You can at least live from it. She was 62 at the time. She decided to keep the paper and, she says, it pays the bills. The day after the funeral, she took over the reins. As Katherine Graham said, You inherit something and you do what you can. . . .You add to it or you subtract from it or you do whatever you do.
Downtown Rockville, Ind., still has that warm middle Amreica look
--and the local newspaper fits right in.
What Mary Jo did was carry out what she perceives to be the papers mission: I want the readers to realize the importance of something that happens and how it becomes part of the puzzle that makes up the structure of who and what this county is.
Once we arrived at her home, we relaxed in her sun room, where she served us cold drinks and copies of the paper. Instead of the shrunken 11 width- the downsize of the daily we get in Silicon ValleyI was amazed to see an expansive 17 wide paper with 12-14 pages. Mary Jo explained that the press they use produces papers only in this size.
Front page stories covered the basic pieces of local life--school board meetings, civic projects, public events, and the teenager of the month the paper honors for high achievement. The Sentinel carries county news only, no funnies or wire service copy. In the top left hand corner, Mary Jo continues to write Harneys Corner, the column Dick started. Im not a writer like he was, she says. People send me stories and I pass them on with a few comments.
With the Fourth of July coming up, she reprinted an analysis of the Pledge of Allegiance. At the end she wrote, It never hurts to be reminded of how we got where we are and what makes us strong as a country. How lucky we are to live in this great land, even though we think we have such monumental problems!
Inside, the paper adds the personal voices of correspondents who report on the doings in their communities, Lake Wobegon-style. Mary Jo recently added a representative of the strong local Amish population, Samuel Zook. In one patchwork-of-life column he described how a baby fell out of his dads wagon and was run over by a wheel when the horses were spooked. Then he noted that the chance for rain has dissipated. In this drought some corn fields look rather piteous. He ended with his suggeston for the best way to make sauerkraut.
Another correspondent wrote she had nothing to report from her town but admonished her readers, Take care and look after your friends and neighbors to see if they are in need of anything. Have a blessed week.
History is Mary Jos love. She majored in American History in college and has served as the County historian. Knowledge of journalism came through her brother Bob, who owns several papers in central Indiana and also through her husband, who began his career as a reporter before moving into advertising. Mainly it came from experience. In the early 1970s she and Dick purchased two papers in Rockvilleone Democrat and one Republican. Shortly after, they purchased the 179-year-old Sentinel and combined it with the other two papers to make one non-partisan publication. They also bought and sold several other small papers and published a journal on local history called Parke Place. Local people contributed the stories. It is now considered a collectors item.
The morning after we arrived, Mary Jo walked us around Rockville, which looks like a movie set of Americas heartland. A baroque courthouse stands in the town square with the downtown wrapped around. Our first stop was the paper. The parking lot had a hitching post for the Amish buggies. Mary Jos desk sits next to the front door. facing the counter and prints of Rockwells Four Freedoms and The Country Editor. She introduced her six-person staff. Until recently her daughter Jessica served as business manager. Now she works for a finance firm down the street.
Mary Jo introduced us to everyone in the old-fashioned variety store that reminded me of the five and dimes where I spent my allowance as a kid. We also met everyone at the coffee house where we had lunch. Later she drove us around the town and pointed out a ball field and a park. When the city ran out of money, people volunteered their time to finish the job.
That evening we relaxed back in the sun room. Then the phone rang. NBC wanted to know if The Sentinel still had notes about the unsolved murder of a Rockville woman some 20 years ago. I might have something under the stairs, Mary Jo told us. She disappeared, then came into the sun room, dragging a large gray box. It was labeled Murders.
She pried off the lid. Inside were her husbands notes and court records regarding murders in Parke County. But there was nothing on the case for NBC, because no trial was involved and the car with the victims body in the trunk was found in Chicago. I began to see a dark side to Parke County as I flipped through the legal pad with Dicks minutely descriptive notes on the trial for the execution-style murder of a family. Dick always wrote up the murders and trials, she said. I did the meetings.
The Murders box held one more case, one I recall reading about in California some years ago. A nurse had killed over 100 patients in various intensive care units, some in the Parke County hospital where he was arrested. I read one of the indictments--dispassionate boilerplate legalese with the name of the victim down at the end. I flipped the page and read the next one. Same words but with another victims name, then another page with another name and another . . .
At 75, Mary Jo still looks forward to the futureher own, that of the paper, and that of the county whose story the paper tells. Shes cutting back on the hours she spends in the office, but keeps involved in a number of civic activities. Next year she may take on her daughters as partners.
This year The Sentinel went online. She explained, A lot of people around here are not computer-savvy, but with postal rates likely to go up for newspapers, we need to have an online alternative.
During our visit she went off to a meeting to speculate with local leaders on new economic directions for Parke County. I always have an opinion.
Occasionally she writes an editorial when shes incensed about something, even if it doesnt involve Parke County. She thinks her next topic will be on the news leak of the Navy Seals role in the capture of Osama Bin Laden. She believes it was an act of treason.
The morning we left Mary Jos home, I found the Murders box had been moved to the dining room. Its contents, along with good sauerkraut, high school achievers, and tragic accidents are all part of the story her Sentinel tells its readers about themselves and the place where they live. This is the story Mary Jo believes they still want to read. Its the heart of her own story, too.
©2012 by Joyce Kiefer. The photos are the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted July 9, 2012.
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