Sarah outside her newspaper in Marysville (Photo by Tom Parker)
Full circle – There and back again for Marysville journalist
She doesn’t bleed ink though there were days when she thought she must, her hands blackened and stained, nails pale haloes luminous within their individual darker frames, the crevices and whorls spider-webbing her fingers and the backs of her hands an ancient roadmap across uncharted territories, the accumulation of words and sentences and phrases, of grafs, charts and halftone images, all smeared into one indecipherable text no amount of soap could banish.
For Sarah Kessinger to be who she is, what she is—even where she is—there could be no other place to start: a pressroom in Oberlin, with the heady smell of ink and hot presses, the clatter of typewriters, of constant hustle and bustle and the omnipresent deadline looming like a thunderhead on the horizon. Born into the newspaper business—as much a part of her DNA as it was in her blood— she never thought where it would take her.
Now she stands on the front steps of a redbrick building in Marysville, several hundred miles and a lifetime away from those formative years, one unstained hand resting on a black metal railing, a small smile playing across her lips, while below the stairs a flourishing green yew festooned with autumnal leaves accentuates the colorful red-and-green placard announcing the name of another pressroom, another clatter of keyboards and smoldering deadlines, another newspaper.
If that stairway seems familiar to her, there’s a reason. Oberlin was, in Sarah’s words, the first half of her growing up years. Her parents—Howard and Sharon Kessinger, owners of the Oberlin Herald—relocated to Marysville to purchase the Marysville Advocate. That launched the other half of her growing up years.
Throughout those two halves, newspapering was her life. Her chores ran the gamut from cleaning the office to stuffing inserts, the behind-the-scenes acts that enable newsrooms to keep churning out editions. She also watched reporters, listened in on interviews, and learned the ins and outs of a journalism life.
There was never a shadow of a doubt about what would come next: journalism school at K-State, with Spanish thrown in because she liked the sound of the spoken language. Next came the University of Kansas and Latin American studies, and a reporter’s stint in Garden City. At the time she arrived the place was called the “most cosmopolitan city in the country” on account of the Vietnamese and Hispanic populations that exploded with the rise of meatpacking plants. Until then, the inward migration had been directed toward urban centers, but now the nation was changing, and Rural America would never be the same. Though basically a novice, Sarah fit the job as few others could—she knew the work, she knew the language. Both of them.
“I loved the diversity,” Sarah says. “The Harris News Service, which owned the paper, was well-regarded for starting journalists. It was a good place to work, and had a lot of good writers.”
During that time, she started a bilingual newspaper called La Semana, worked up to editing, did a stint in Mexico City and McAllen, Texas, and circled back to Kansas and statehouse correspondence in Topeka.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” she said. “But I did it for 10 years. I learned a lot. Boy.”
Throughout those years, her parents would occasionally ask her to return home to run the newspaper. She had a list of ready excuses, mostly centered on how established her kids were in school. Plus, the city offered certain luxuries that small towns couldn’t match. Lawrence especially drew her, its many eateries and gourmet shops, its vibrancy and diversity. Marysville couldn’t match it in a million years.
And yet, she was starting to dream of something different, something beyond the reach of a mere journalist. By now she had decades of bylines, but she wondered what her name would look like in an editorial slot. Not an article, not a report from the political front, but a Voice.
And, too, her children, Paul and Sophie, were growing up, and her parents aging and showing signs of slowing down to a life after newspapers. All the while, the city expanded and grew and traffic slowed to a crawl: it was all a symptom of something else.
Her new husband, Peter Muraski, was willing to follow her anywhere. When her son graduated from high school, they pulled up stakes and headed home. It was time to trade the big city for a community, and all that implies in the rural sense of the word.
“It was a good time for transition,” Sarah says. Peter had always been an urbanite. In small-town U.S.A., he found his footing. “It was a smooth transition," Sarah says. "Even Sophie sensed the change in people. My daughter is hearing-impaired, and going into a huge high school like Topeka High just wasn’t working for her. We needed to try something else. This seemed like a good option. And it sure was.”
“I hate labels.”
Sarah says this with an expression somewhere between a frown and a smile. Maybe a grimace.
“Journalism is the marketplace of ideas,” she says. “The media’s responsibility is to provide understanding through a variety of viewpoints. It’s not a partisan thing.”
This following a letter-writing blitz by conservatives railing at a recent editorial on President Obama’s address to students in public schools.
“You are the liberal press,” I remind her.
“That’s so polarizing,” she says. “I don’t consider myself a liberal—I’m a moderate. It’s a matter of respect to other ideas. People today want to drown out other opinions rather than to get to know them and to try to understand their issues.”
The kerfuffle doesn’t worry her. While major dailies like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune are losing ground, rural weeklies retain strong readership, even in the face of polarization and dissenting opinions.
“Small weekly newspapers are critical to their communities,” Sarah says. “We haven’t seen a drop-off in circulation, though there’s been a small drop in ad revenues, which is part of the recession. But we do have to make some changes.”
For one, the average age of newspaper readers is in the mid-sixties, a demographic that’s slowly dying off. A Web presence is all but necessary in today’s digital age. The Marysville Advocate has gone online, which not only creates new advertising revenue but also broadens the scope of readership to a worldwide outlook.
“A good chunk of our business is now online,” she says. “We’re certainly getting some younger people and people who move away but still have ties to the community.”
Best of all, advertising has been surprisingly strong for some retailers, though not as strong as she’d prefer.
“We’re trying to encourage innovation in advertising,” Sarah says. “And that’s a challenge. Being creative all the time is hard, but it’s also critical.”
But as much as she’s directing her staff toward the future, she also insists on rounding out their workflow in all things journalism. No matter their position in the company, staffers are required to help stuff inserts—which means ink-stained fingers and hands. “I don’t think most journalists really live the full journalism experience anymore,” she says.
She credits much of the strength and success of the newspaper on the employees—most have been there for many years. “I’m fortunate to have such a good staff,” she says. “They know their jobs and work very hard at them. Their work ethic is so good. They know the community inside and out, and they’re willing to try new things.”
And, too, she finally gets to have a voice. Her voice.
“It’s fun,” she says. “I can write editorials, but I’m learning that it’s a lot more work than I thought it was. You have to get a lot of background information, and then stop and think before you write.”
And then take the backlash, or the praise, and keep doing what comes naturally.
Thomas Wolfe once famously said, “You can never go home again.” Sarah intends to prove him wrong. But, he was right, of course. Not that a person could never again take the necessary physical steps from whatever far-flung providence they washed up in and make the passage back to their former place of abode—what he meant was that our remembrance of home was forever a thing of the past … a myth with no hope of regeneration.
The Marysville of Sarah’s second half of her growing up years was a different animal than it is at the beginning of the 21st century: fewer people, for one; some buildings more modern and others shuttered and empty; the Mexican restaurant on Highway 36 gone, replaced by not one but two Chinese restaurants; and diversity, that under-appreciated, even xenophobic reaction, has blossomed with an influx of Hispanics.
Of course, it all means she’s able to recycle those skills she learned in Mexico and the streets of Garden City. And that might be the most amazing outcome of all.
And then again, maybe not. Maybe what’s really amazing is that Sarah went out into the world, promising never to return, and returned anyway, and in so doing took a really good newspaper and transformed it almost overnight into a much better newspaper, the kind that people talk about and discuss on the street, the kind they look forward to reading each week, the kind she always thought she had in her. And that she found herself back home.
“I consider myself lucky,” she says. “It’s just wonderful! I didn’t realize it until I moved back.”