By Wayne Fenstermacher, Guest Columnist & Former Cecil County News Editor – Part I
I appreciate Mike’s invitation to write about the recent coverage of the Cecil County SPCA – from a former journalist’s viewpoint. In order to do that, I should tell you about my background and how I came to cover Cecil County for three different newspapers over an 8 year period starting in 1989.
I met Jim Wolf in the early 1980s when he purchased the paper. My ties to the paper developed as he encouraged me to add writing to my photography skill set. I was on the staff full-time when we published the first broadsheet newspaper in Pennsylvania entirely on desktop computer systems (Apple Macintoshes).
Jim expanded the geographic reach of his publishing endeavors when he took on a partner, Don Althouse, who helped fund the birth of The Local Ledger in Millersville and The Public Ledger farther north in Lancaster County. Althouse handled much of the circulation and distribution duties and had a heavy hand in the management of the sales team while Wolf focused on the writing staff and correspondents. The Public Ledger was where I cut my editing teeth.
Jim left publishing after a turbulent time with his partner. While the business was good to him, I got the sense that Jim liked the autonomy he had just a few years earlier and missed that with the partnership. For more than a year, I worked as the managing editor of the Public Ledger in northwest Lancaster County until I got a call from Jim in the summer of 1989.
He wanted to get back to the journalism he was proud to deliver – the kind not afraid to challenge the status quo or fear any implied or overt pressures imposed by larger advertisers on the news coverage.
He proposed publishing the Rising Sun Herald in nearby Cecil County and he wanted me to be its editor. My father died when I was just a kid and I trusted Jim’s guidance. I started working for him before we even had our first office in the Crothers Insurance building on Main Street in Rising Sun. The first few weeks were spent researching the communities of Rising Sun and Port Deposit and meeting the people I would come to depend on for news and feature stories for the next year or so.
I was 24 years old, still living in Lancaster County and made the 25-mile commute to the office every day of the week. I lived and breathed what was going on in northwest Cecil County. It certainly wasn’t for the money that I worked those nights and weekends. It probably worked out to less than minimum wage at the time. But, it was the people I met each day that made it worthwhile. They returned that dedication with the trust that we would be fair and balanced in our news coverage. We regularly would hear how much people in Rising Sun and Port Deposit wanted their weekly paper back after the Whig went daily, so the timing couldn’t have been better for us.
There were only four or five of us who handled all of the business of the paper and a dedicated older couple who handled the distribution every week. It was long hours and a lot of driving, but I loved it. Then, less than a year later I had the wild idea of moving to California and finding a job. My brother and his wife were there and my Mom needed to be there, so it wasn’t a difficult decision.
I was in California in 1991 selling a private label wine selection when Wolf called and asked if I wanted to come back to Cecil County and launch another newspaper – this time in North East and Elkton. I drove back across country alone in my 1988 VW Jetta and moved into an apartment in North East. A few weeks later, we had our first issue.
It was named, appropriately, The Times of North East & Elkton – and we even threw in a couple of articles from Charlestown and south of the C&D for good measure. Because The Herald had added Perryville coverage while I was gone, we now covered all of Cecil County. And, there wasn’t just one news organization determining what was fit to be shared with the reading public.
For five years I covered elected officials in North East and Elkton as well as the Cecil County Commissioners for both papers. I’ve had experience covering controversial issues, talking with the Maryland Attorney General’s office and even extensive coverage of allegations of wrongdoing
During the 17 years I worked as an editor, I can say that we never missed publishing a single issue of the paper – even with holidays and snowstorms (nearly 900 weeks’ worth) and I can’t remember being later than the publication day in delivering the issues to our readers.
I left Wolf’s employ in 1996 as I started to plan a life with my soon-to-be bride. I couldn’t see a way to buy a home on the pay I was receiving.
We started The County Post in partnership with Mike Smigiel, Sr., Esq. In addition to introducing full-color photographs on the front page each week, we also launched the county’s first Web-based news coverage in TheCountyPost.com. We had a team of 11 columnists and correspondents who teamed up with us. Because of the immediacy of the Internet, we regularly beat The Whig to even breaking news stories.
I can still remember the multiple re-counts of election ballots in Charlestown and the robbery of the Bank of North East on that same day. We even posted a photo of the robbery suspect just hours after it happened while readers of the daily paper had to wait for it. That experience nearly killed us as we often worked 18-20 hour day 6-7 days each week.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been working for high-tech companies in public relations, analyst relations and customer development. It’s a far cry from the excitement of uncovering the antics of politicians and serving the public’s right to know.
Looking back nearly 20 years, I’m still very proud of the good that we started when we first started covering Cecil County. I’m sure it’s a wise business decision, but unfortunate for those who are not able to get a physical copy of The Herald. It’s a fine community paper.
Editor’s Note From Someone Noticed: Wayne thanks so much for this insightful piece. We’ll look forward to part II as Wayne begins to assess the current state of media today in Cecil County.