Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gregory Hinton's "Waiting for a Chinook" explores small-town newspapers of the West

"Six Against the Blaze," 1960. Photo by G.C. "Kip" Hinton
Talked to my colleague Gregory Hinton in L.A. last week. He'll be in Laramie in July for the debut of his play, Waiting for a Chinook: A New Play About Old Newspapers.  It runs July 9-13 at the Fine Arts Studio Theatre at the University of Wyoming. Tickets are $7-$10 and available at the UW Fine Arts Box Office. Here's a short description of the play:
Waiting for a Chinook follows Vince, a disillusioned city reporter, who returns to his boyhood Western town to search for place and meaning in the writings of his late father, Cliff, a Wyoming country editor.
Greg's father, G.C. "Kip" Hinton, was the editor of small town papers, including the legendary Cody Enterprise, established by Buffalo Bill and once owned and edited by the indomitable Caroline Lockhart. Editors such as Greg's father knew every part of the business -- reporting, photography, advertising, layout, typesetting, distribution -- because they had to. Most of these papers were one-person operations, or employed just a few people. Greg's father started his career at 15 as a printer's devil and moved up from there.

Greg lives in the big city these days but he was born on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana and grew up in Wyoming and Colorado. He has a fondness for small-town western life that, frankly, I don't share. I like the West all right -- I've lived here most of my life -- but I prefer cities as do most contemporary Westerners. Wyoming has two cities, as defined by a metropolitan statistical area: Cheyenne (pop. 61,000-plus) and Casper (pop. 57,000-plus). If you're feeling generous, you might throw in the state's micropolitan statistical areas: Sheridan, Gillette, Riverton, Evanston, Laramie, Jackson and Rock Springs.

When Greg began his research, he discovered that community newspapers have been able to weather the storm that has closed their big-city rivals. You know the story. Technology and the 2008 economic downturn closed a slew of newspapers and caused others to move entirely online, with mixed results. At least one daily -- the Chicago Tribune -- fired all of their photographers and told their reporters to use smart phones for photos to accompany their stories. Now they will all get the chance to experience life as a small-town reporter.

Another problem -- bloggers like me think they know everything and readers listen to us even when they should be turning to real news reports. I was trained as a journalist and I've worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. But Hummingbirdminds ain't no newspaper and doesn't pretend to be.

I try to be accurate. But actual newspapers have to report what happens at the city council meeting and at the Friday night high school football game. It has to spell correctly the head of the local Rotary and the garden club. It has to support itself with ads from Joe's Garage and Jean's Bake Shop. Sometimes editors write columns blasting a county commissioner. They know that soon they will run into that commissioner at the bank or on the street corner. It's a small town, after all. 

Back in the 1950s and 60s, Cody was smaller than it is now. Greg's father was called away from family events to report on car crashes and storms and fires. He shot a famous photo (see attached) of a tanker explosion. Not only was he covering the fire, he was putting out the fire as a member of the volunteer fire department. When the fire exploded, he was almost enveloped by the flames. As one of his fellow fire fighters recounted years later, he thought that Kip Hinton was a goner.

But he wasn't. He lived to report on other fires and natural disaster, rodeos and ball games, boring meetings galore.

Take some time and go over to UW July 9-13 to see Waiting for a Chinook. You'll get some insight into what makes these small-town editors tick, why they do the job they do. You will also experience the creative talent bred in the West's small towns. Some of our most talented writers, artists and musicians may be "Big City" now, but the influences of rural childhoods are still in their blood.

To read the UW press release about Waiting for a Chinook, go here

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