The 102-year-old twice-weekly Chetco Compass Star newspaper had two big problems—a busted compass and a black hole where a star should have shined.The Chetco Compass Star sucked as a small-town coastal newspaper. How bad? Try sucking worse than an anteater with a punctured snout. Really, it wasn’t even a newspaper. That First Amendment-enshrined, Fourth Estate notion died after a Midwestern Newspaper Chain bought and gutted it, then sold it to another Midwestern Newspaper Chain that gutted it worse, and then another and another, until it was rendered totally gutless and bought by a Pacific Northwest Newspaper Chain owned and operated my a family of hacks that lived in Hacksville.
No, you wouldn’t call the Chetco Compass Star a newspaper. It was a Nickel Ads, an ad circular, a rag of ads, a mediocre prostitute of a newspaper pimping itself out for ads that largely advertised shit nobody needed, except for the Meat Bonanza and cleaner carpets.
None of the newspaper’s staff read the newspaper. Why was that? Simple. There was no content to read. There was no high school sports coverage, features, columns, cartoons, editorials, or any real news outside of poorly written press releases from various government agencies, churches or civic groups. A crime log is not news. A social media post commenting on a tidbit from a police scanner is not news. Letters to the editor were rehashed opinions plagiarized from right wing web sites. Occasionally the paper would print special publications with titles like Fall Home Improvement or Summer Car Cruise. Every story appearing in these publications was canned. Every photograph was stock.
Nothing in the paper provoked thought or reflection in its readers. Nothing. It says something sad about a paper when the most interesting item in print are legal notices. Great stories, critical stories, were present everywhere in Chetco, dying to be unearthed and told. If told well, they could enhance the community.
As for the paper’s current design, it was pedestrian. As for the paper’s print quality, it was mushy. As for the paper’s circulation, it was dwindling. The most recent owner had cut staff, shifted coverage to non-coverage, ran more syndicate filler, raised ad rates, raised subscription rates, and put up a paywall on the website. Day after day an angry subscriber would show up at the office to cancel a subscription. The complaint was always the same: there’s nothing in here anymore.
The people that worked at the paper were tired, miserable and underpaid. They had long ago forgotten the definition of journalism and its singular important purpose in a free, democratic society. They didn’t really care about what they were doing for a living and it showed in their long faces and long lunches.
A month before Christmas, everything changed. First, the soulless publisher had a nervous breakdown and got shipped out to a funny farm. Then, the paper’s owners took an unexpected trip to Europe but not before leasing a new office and requiring the employees to move their own supplies and equipment on a Friday night after deadline. Where formerly the paper had been housed in a graceful brick building (since 1938!) with an ocean view, its new home was now a former Mexican restaurant in a mini strip mall with a Tudor facade. Behind the mall was a two-acre fenced lot and home to a couple of goats, Copper and Mama. The lot had apple and pear trees, plenty of forage, and an RV stripped of its interior that served as a goat shack.
Other tenants in the mall included a nail salon, greasy spoon, real estate office, cobbler, pet store and a pot shop. In fact the paper was adjacent to the pot shop. Its name was the McCall Cannabis Company and it boasted the biggest space in the mall.
The pot shop was named after a legendary two-term Oregon Governor, Tom McCall. Back in 1973 McCall signed a bill, the first of its kind in the nation, that decriminalized possession of marijuana. McCall also had the distinction of sanctioning and supporting the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history, 1970’s Vortex I. It later became known as the Governor’s Pot Party.
The McCall Cannabis Company easily rated as the most popular pot shop in Chetco and the entire Southern Oregon Coast for that matter. They moved product and then some. The store was always packed and people loved hanging out there. Earl and his employees were super jacked for the holiday season and bedecked the shop in enough Christmas swag to decorate a gymnasium. The centerpiece of it all was a towering Douglas fir (no Norwegian noble!) festooned with cannabis-looking snowflakes and strung with red lights shaped like joints. Earl donned the Santa hat and cranked up the reggae Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and the party was on. Cannabis candy canes for everyone, including belligerent dogs!
These people were happy, attuned. Their offering to the community grooved. The newspaper staff was not happy; they had tuned out. Their offering to the community clanked.
The McCall Cannabis Company had a lot going for it, but its HVAC system was a mysterious, Willy Wonka contraption. It had a life of its own and it wanted to live. Something was seriously wrong with the ventilation in the product storage room, the very room that abutted the newspaper office, the very room where Earl and friends secretly toked out (they despised vaping devices), testing the tasty nugs. They had to sample, right? Was it not their professional duty to ensure consumer satisfaction?
What it all meant for the newspaper was that that sweet sticky smell of bud vented not up, up and away into the sky, but directly into the newspaper office. It not so much vented as it seeped, crawled, infiltrated, conquered, and occupied like a benevolent invading army of stoned forest fairies.
Sometimes the odor was so spectacularly thick that the newspaper staff commented, joked, and fanned in exaggeration the air to their nostrils. Yeah, it’s fun to get high on the job! For free!
Nobody complained. No human being was in charge to complain. The dankness was in charge. And the dankness was good.
One week into their new office space, with Christmas fast approaching, after breathing in various strains of the energizing sativa or relaxing indica, unbeknownst to them, the staff of the Chetco Compass Star began to evolve as creative minds. This change was gradual, then suddenly manifest in print.
The reporters got off their asses and nosed out news. They interviewed the town’s growing homeless population and profiled their excruciating plights. They started writing features on shelter animals and the men and women released from county jail. They wrote essays and poems. They ditched the seasonal gift guide and inserted a human help guide. One of the reporters launched a muckraking series on graft by the good old boys on the port commission. Columns began appearing on rain, forgiveness, crafting, driftwood fort building and yes, cannabis. The editor published a front page editorial extolling the virtues of using cannabis and he didn’t even partake! One of the ad reps turned in a comic strip about the lives of Copper and Mama. A photographer started using special soft focus and fisheye lenses. A secretary started perusing back holiday issues from decades ago and discovered items to reprint. In short order, the Chetco Compass Star undoubtedly stood as the only newspaper in America that published Christmas Jello and fondue recipes.
Not a single story contained a strident sentence. Every story invited readers to think, consider, reconsider. The publication became the conscience of the town. It inspired residents to care, and even better, act.
As for the paper’s new design, well, faaaaaaaaar ouuuuuuut. One of the designers found some back issues of Highlights magazine from the 60s in a thrift store and wept when he realized he’d just had an aesthetic epiphany and had to transform the paper. And that he did. Nothing like a fat rounded font to induce a good mood.
The paper grew in size. No one said it couldn’t grow. The owners and publisher were gone. And guess what? More businesses wanted to advertise. The paper was making money!
Office culture changed, too. A tree went up. Lights got strung around the windows. A gift exchange was arranged. Home baked goodies began showing up. A reporter brought his elderly black mutt to work and The Colonel became the office dog. People stopped using their phones for personal use or buying crap from Amazon. They stopped watching YouTube conspiracy videos. They talked to one another and pitched ideas.
And lo and behold, readers stopped canceling subscriptions and subscriptions began to climb. The paper’s web site quadrupled its hits. The goats starred on social media. Not once did a staff member step inside the McCall Cannabis Company. No need! It was the cherished gift of the contact high.
On Christmas Day, the Chetco Compass Star published a special edition—on green newsprint! Where they found that paper stock was unknown, but someone had because they cared enough to find it. The edition contained nothing but tidings of good joy where staff and readers contributed mini memoirs from past Christmases that weren’t Hallmark pablum, but honest recounting of the challenges the holidays pose for people. Families read them aloud on Christmas Day and the edition became a keepsake.
As for the future of the Chetco Compass Star once the owners returned from Europe and installed another soulless publisher, well, that wouldn’t matter. Whoever it was, would breathe the air inside the office, the office next door to the McCall Cannabis Company, Earl’s pot shop, and Earl planned on ramping up production/promotion for the new year. He was even going to rent the space on the other side of the newspaper an open a new hash extraction facility. Oh my. Imagine where that might lead! Was the return of the darkroom inevitable?