As an old newspaper editor, who back in my early years in journalism spent a considerable amount of ink providing editorial leadership to the small community in which the paper was located, I understand rabble-rousing. In those days (late 1970s-early 1980s) it was expected that every week (it was a weekly paper), an editorial would provide some direction for the community.
While most of the editorials I wrote involved such topics as the need for paved streets, sewer system upgrades and other general municipal items, one time I took on the local business community suggesting that if they wanted people to “shop at home” for the Christmas holiday season then the businesses needed to make that possible. In a ranch community you could not close the shop door at 5 p.m., I argued on paper, because ranchers would not be able to be in town that early in the day. If you want people to shop at home, stay open late at least a night or two each week, and have longer hours on weekends.
It caused an uproar. The business owners threatened to boycott the paper, they practically called for my head; they demanded a meeting with the publisher/owner. I felt like I needed a flak jacket when I walked into the meeting. My publisher and I strongly stood together as we explained a boycott may hurt the paper, but it would hurt the other businesses and community more. In the end, the businesses made a decision to be open late one night a week; they organized a parade through town. To this day those events and more take place every year.
The idea of editorial leadership to lead to community betterment is as old as journalism itself and it is the theme of “Sweet Thunder” by Ivan Doig.
Morrie Morgan, who first appeared in a Doig novel in “The Whistling Season” (2006), and returned in “Work Song” (2011), is back in Butte, Mont., in 1919 and employed as an editorial writer for the new Thunder newspaper. Backed by the union and the miners who dig the copper from the “Richest Hill on Earth,” the Thunder takes on the powerful Anaconda Copper Company in trying to get better conditions for workers.
But Morrie, who is also called The Professor and is a bit of a walking encyclopedia due to his extensive reading on a variety of topics, uncovers evidence that not only is Anaconda failing to negotiate fairly with the union, the company is also taking advantage of the Montana tax structure and that is hurting property owners, as well as the state itself. This is the kind of fodder an editorialist can jump on with both hands flying across the typewriter keyboard in order to inform the public.
Writing editorials under the signature “Pluvius” Morrie hammers hard against Anaconda, which has its own rival newspaper, The Post. Before long, the company and The Post, bring in one of the top editorialists from Chicago, Cuththroat Cartwright.
The war of words now really heats up. There is an old saying in the newspaper business that if you disagree with the editor, and write a letter, you probably won’t win because editors buy their ink by the barrel. Just imagine, then, how the story plays out when both people buy ink by the barrel!
Doig has masterfully told this story of a newspaper war, and a battle for a community. Morrie Morgan is one of those men who has a backstory of great interest, and a cast of characters around him that only add to the tension, drama, and historical setting.
You can read “Sweet Thunder” and follow the story easily if you have not yet read “The Whistling Season” or “Work Song,” but give yourself a treat and read all three books. ❖