The first time I had to write an editorial, I turned to my grandfather for help.
He had been dead for more than a decade, but he left behind a legacy of more than 10,000 editorials written over a 50-plus year career in journalism. I learned the art of editorial writing by reading hundreds of them, which spanned the days from the end of World War II all the way to the advent of the Internet. Until I started working in the business, I had lived in a newspaper family, but hadn’t really understood what he had accomplished.
This 225th anniversary year marks the 84th year of my family’s involvement with the Rutland Herald.
The family tradition started with my grandfather, the son of a Randolph shopkeeper, whose first job in newspapers was taking copies of the Randolph Herald in a wheelbarrel to the train station. He went on to fail (in his estimation) as a writer of fiction, instead becoming a reporter and then the author of more than 10,000 editorials over 50-plus years as editor of the Rutland Herald.
He bought the Herald in 1947, in partnership with the Noble family. Robert W., my grandfather, was Republican through-and-through, but of a flavor that would seem out of place in today’s GOP. He wrote editorials opposing the red-baiting McCarthy, and questioning the treatment of a black minister in the Irasburg affair. He took positions liberal enough that it earned his paper the sarcastic moniker “Russian Herald” while maintaining a conservative, frugal, pro-business outlook on the balance.
The vehemence of the response to his editorials spoke to their importance in the political world of Vermont. Not just the Russian Herald, but Robert W. was branded a “communist” by none other than the mayor of Rutland and Vermont’s representative to Congress, because of his criticism of McCarthy. My father told me that when the Rutland Herald endorsed Democrat Phil Hoff for governor, something akin to heresy in deep red Vermont of those days, the chair of the Rutland GOP stopped calling. My grandfather said “At least we’ll be able to get through dinner in peace.”
Although he remained a Republican, his newspaper became identified more with the progressive reshaping of Vermont, and as a nurturer of journalists, with generations of reporters cutting their teeth on the city desk at the Herald before moving on to win Pulitzers or other accolades at bigger and more prominent papers. The Mitchells — including my father — were known as hands-off in the newsroom, allowing the editors to pursue stories independently from any influence from the opinion of the person writing editorials.
In the 1980s, the Nobles decided they wanted out. My father scrambled to put together a plan to buy their shares. I vaguely remember that time as one of increased stress, but in the end the Nobles kept their word to sell to us, despite visits from chain newspaper executives with deep pockets flying in in corporate jets. After the sale, my grandfather continued to write editorials, and my father slowly took on more responsibility, until stepping into the publisher role after Robert W.’s death.
While my grandfather’s legacy has been clearly defined, my father’s (Robert John, or R. John) time as the leader of the Rutland Herald has been less so. He rarely, if ever, wrote a story or editorial for public consumption, preferring to work behind the scenes or in one-on-one interactions. His influence is felt, though, in the legal cases that start with Rutland Herald vs. or Times Argus vs., which helped define the public’s right to access to information, and the government’s responsibility in providing that access. When newspapers were financially healthy, many publishers pursued these cases in the public interest, despite the monetary cost. Many publishers didn’t — but my father almost always did.
He also continued the philosophy of preserving a strong and independent newsroom, being unafraid to take unpopular or controversial stances on the editorial pages, and acting as a balance to elected officials and others who have great power. This led to his role in the editorials on civil unions that won the Herald the Pulitzer Prize — which amounted basically to asking questions and staying out of the way of the writer. But other newspapers in Vermont did not take that path, to their shame.
Not all of his legacy is so lofty. I followed him one day into the State House as he went individually to a half-dozen legislators who had been misidentified in an editorial, and apologized to them personally. He felt it was important to make sure they heard the apology directly from him.
But as much as I take pride in the Mitchell legacy, we are just one family among the thousands of men and women who have worked at the Herald over centuries of publication. My grandfather wrote the editorials, but the reporters and editors were the ones who pursued the stories of injustice, of daily life, and corruption and self-dealing and other miscues of generations of politicians and business leaders. These men and women worked as typesetters, mechanics, press operators, copy boys, advertising reps, in the composing room, mail room and dark room, to keep the paper going day after day.
Print newspapers are a 24-hour operation, with a different department responsible for each significant, critical link in the chain. If any one link failed, the entire chain broke — be it the press, the carriers, the editors, or the composing room. The different parts of the operation learn to depend on each other, for better or worse, just like a family.
For as many anecdotes as I have from my own family, this extended newspaper family has thousands more. It is privilege to play a role in that, however small.