Don McLeese and Dave Hoekstra – remember those names, all you newspaper readers out there?
They were, in their time, not so long ago, among the most popular lines, spread in the Sun-Times, McLeese on the music beat and Hoekstra on many aspects of culture, entertainment and sports.
McLeese left the city first, and went to Austin, Texas, where he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman and then went to the University of Iowa in Des Moines to teach journalism, which he has been doing for almost 20 years.
After starting out writing as a junior in high school for the Aurora Beacon-News, Hoekstra left the Sun-Times after nearly 30 years in 2014. As he told me at the time, “The time was right, because the newspaper was and I stopped talking about things much that I wrote.”
Each has written previous books, McLeese on Dwight Yoakam and the Motor City 5, and Hoekstra on supper clubs, soul food and other things (he’s also done some great articles, and contributed to the Tribune). These new books are more ambitious and bold, one on a professional level and the other on a very personal level.
In “Beacons in the Dark: Hope and Change Among America’s Community Newspapers” (Agate Midway), Hoekstra writes, “To understand the community newspaper … you need to understand the meaning of community.” He also writes that this is “not just a book about journalism … (but) a book about the disappearance of social ties and self-sacrifice for the common good.”
It started four years ago with his desire to write about the Hillsboro Journal-News in a small Illinois town of about 6,000 people about 75 miles north of St. This idea grew into something more complex, when he interviewed and investigated several people in about 20 other newspapers, all owned by the family, one to its fifth generation.
He gives us a look at the paper in Miami, South Carolina and the Reader here in town, and gives the main story. I was particularly interested in those from Marfa, Texas, where the Big Bend Sentinel is run by a young couple from New York, who have decorated their office with coffee and a bar.
Joy and hope are set against a grim landscape, filled with grim statistics such as “since 2004, more than 1,800 print shops have closed in the United States and at least 200 counties had no newspapers at all.”
“More than once during the face-to-face interviews … several of the family preachers broke down in tears,” he writes. But Hoekstra is a happy man. He doesn’t have any easy answers to “how can newspapers survive?” question but he gives many examples of how others are trying, with courage and innovation. He writes, “newspapers are not dead if they share the spirit of experimental thinking with the community.”
I read this book before it was published and that is why you will see words from me on its cover. I wrote that in it there is “hope for all of us.”
So it is with McLeese’s “Sliding Steps: Spinning and Falling Towards Stability” (Ice Cube Press), in which he informs readers, some 250 pages in, that, “I didn’t write this because I thought a book about me might have any intrinsic interest, and , if I had, I could have made the section more interesting – rock stars, journalistic gossip, whatever. My goal all along was to write about how sobriety can change your life, or at least it has changed mine.
However, it begins in such a fascinating fashion that it is impossible not to read on. He writes, on his first page, “I wasn’t quite sure who I was, where I was, or why. I didn’t know how long I would be there. It was very dark outside, and it was pouring, but was it 10 o’clock at night or 4 o’clock in the morning? There was lightning, and there was thunder. It was a hot August night in West Des Moines. I was lying on the grass, unable to walk, soaking wet.”
Then he gives us the bumpy road that led him to that sad place, through his childhood, running a memorabilia store, first marriage, writing for the Reader and then the Sun-Times.
His drinking was chronic and for a time was embellished with marijuana and cocaine. He never realized the problems, as he remained highly employed and appeared to be successful. He had a family, a good job and stature.
But now he knows better, asking in the book, “How many times did I drive drunk? Every time, at least on the way home. To think that I’ve never hurt anyone, or killed anyone, or even been charged with drunk driving, seems like a miracle to me.”
He started writing this book without the idea that it could be published. “In a way, it was cleansing for me, liberating in the sense that at first I was writing for myself,” he told me. “This was an effort to understand myself.”
It is very clear and, he says, “My wife Maria was not a big fan of me doing this book but she is her hero,” he says. Still, she and the couple’s two older daughters, Kelly and Molly, are portrayed on the page with honesty and compassion, her love and gratitude palpable.
McLeese and Hoekstra both seem happy as they trade talking about their new books. We can only hope that they have more to write.