Two recent journalism school grads, Betty and Henry Beetle Hough, that’s who. Their adventure is explored in this week’s radio program, “Once More the Thunderer.”
Some context: My “Portrayal of the journalist in popular culture” students are watching “Teacher’s Pet” this week, a film that takes an interesting twist on the contrast between a tough almost-modern city editor (Clark Gable) and a legendary country editor, the venerated father of the perky journalism instructor played by Doris Day. (Yes, it’s a variation on the newspaper-as-battle-of-the-sexes theme, with an academic twist.)
That father figure is clearly based on William Allen White of Emporia, Kansas, famous for half a century as a voice from the nation’s heartland. His life was dramatized for radio (see the link in the previous sentence), and got at least a tip of the hat in Will Rogers Jr.’s radio series, Rogers of the Gazette.
Today’s “Once More the Thunderer” program offers another small Gazette for comparison — especially timely for students who want to hear more on a “weekly newspaper” or “alternative press” theme after watching both “Teacher’s Pet” from 1958 (where the country weekly is described as old-fashioned, no matter how good its editorials) and “Between the Lines” from 1977 (in which a scrappy counter-culture weekly is being sold to a yuppie businessman more interested in profit than public service).
This radio drama is also a fresh look at a “newspaper couple” for students to compare with the troubled relationships in “Between the Lines,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “His Girl Friday,” “Front Page Woman,” “Up Close and Personal,” “The Paper” and many other screen and radio tales, not to mention the many incarnations of Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
Laraine Day and Franchot Tone play Betty and Henry Beetle Hough, co-editors of the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard island, “one of the most frequently quoted of country weeklies,” in this true-story episode of DuPont’s Cavalcade of America, an always-upbeat (but not always this good) docu-drama series about inspiring Americans.
While the radio production is based on a 1950 book, the Houghs attitudes toward covering their small community should be interesting for 21st century online entrepreneurs exploring “hyperlocal journalism.” (They also should see Hough’s 1974 autobiography, “Country Editor.”)
Both the radio play and the original book echo much lore of the press, including the anecdote that puts “The Thunderer” in the title, and explore common themes in the portrayal of smalltown journalists. Some examples:
- A lecture to a young reporter on the “facts of life of a country newspaper,” how giving someone a gold watch can be an important story.
- An exercise in journalistic ethics and integrity, when a local woman asks the Houghs to suppress a story.
- Evidence of courage and commitment to public service — with a heavy dose of Yankee gumption — when a hurricane hits the island.
- Some pressroom lore, complete with brand names.
- The equal-partnership romance of a couple moving off to a small town to run a country weekly. (None of that “His Girl Friday” nonsense here!)
As the woman who wanted the story suppressed eventually concludes, “I’m sorry I said the Gazette was ‘a little paper.’ I think that I’ve learned it’s a pretty big paper.”
Some background: The Houghs met at the Columbia Journalism School. Henry’s father — also a publisher — bought the Vineyard Gazette from its retiring owner and gave it to the couple as a wedding president in 1920. Elizabeth died in 1965; Henry sold the paper three years later, but remained active and lived to be 88. Read more in this 1984 AdWeek profile and interview, published a year before his death.
When I first read the Gazette, it was in another couple’s hands. James “Scotty” Reston, two-time Pulitzer winner at the New York Times, and his wife, Sally, bought the paper in 1968. Reston also wrote a memorial column when Henry Beetle Hough died in 1985. (Curious students can retrieve the full text by searching for the headline in the Proquest Historical Newspapers database at the library.)
Despite the modern website and a move to modern computer typesettng, the Gazette’s print edition back in Edgartown still looks something like the Hough’s version, as the website mentions: “The Gazette has kept its distinctive publication format – an oversized black-and-white broadsheet measuring 17.5 by 23 inches with seven columns of type.”
Format isn’t the only tradition the paper upholds. According to its website:
In 2011, the Gazette received a record-setting 27 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, including one for general excellence, the top prize for small newspapers. The judges called the Gazette “an outstanding, fascinating weekly newspaper” with “superb newspaper writing.”
— note: This item has been updated and edited a few times since the original posting,
adding links, movie comparisons, and real-world background information