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An evening conversation: At the podium

By Stephen Cameron

The plan was to step up, grab a cordless microphone for easy wandering, check some notes and begin a friendly, post-lunch discussion.

But before anything could happen, a lady tugged at my sleeve. She was smiling but determined to speak.

“We really think you should change some of your comic strips,” she said, indicating a friend who stood nearby for support. “We’d really like it if you’d add ‘Pickles.’ It’s really funny and everyone would enjoy it.”

As evidence, she produced two sheets of papers with a total of three comic strips pasted on each — and thrust them into my hand.

“I’m sure your readers will appreciate the change,” she said.

And that little conversation pretty much sums up my appearance as a guest speaker this week at the Riley County Seniors’ Service Center on North Fourth St.

The topic on the program announced that I would be discussing the role and future of community newspapers — and for the record, I tried.

As a rule of thumb, however, addressing a group of older citizens is more about self-defense and justifying your competence as opposed to imparting any knowledge.

These folks have been around, they know the community and, more to the point, they know exactly what they perceive to be wrong with things — including the newspaper you’re representing.

I’d barely taken a sip of my soft drink in preparation for a little opening joke before three, four, five people began blistering me because their copies of The Mercury were being delivered late.

Or tossed into the snow. Or the bushes.

I promised to pass the information on to our very sharp circulation manager.

Then I took a deep breath, looked at my notes for a reminder of how I wanted to begin portraying community newspapers.

I cleared my throat briefly, and…

Ah, more hands in the air.

A woman right down in front of me asked, “Why do you run stories and pictures of all these terrible murders and rapes every day?”

Another deep breath…

A gentleman in the back boomed out a question: “Why doesn’t the paper have the courage to write about corruption by city officials? You afraid?”

Well, no, I said — adding that you can’t just accuse people of corruption on a whim.

“I can write that a public official has done something silly,” I said. “That’s called opinion. But if I write that this person is corrupt and he’s never been convicted of a crime, that’s not opinion anymore.

“It’s libel.”

He grumbled and asked why we wouldn’t run his letters to the editor.

“Do they claim government officials are corrupt?” I said.

“Of course,” he replied.

A lady who had arrived late stopped right at my side and said, “Can you see about getting my paper put on the porch?”

I didn’t have time to respond before a wonderful princess wearing gigantic sunglasses said, “Well, I love your columns. I think they’re just wonderful.”


And that wrapped it up, with my notes fluttering unused to the floor.

I looked at the woman who had endorsed my writing and said, “Hey, want to go get a cold one?”

No, I really didn’t.

But I wish I had.

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