MY TURN: A news war that made 'international' waves

By Tom Kirvan

My late and former father-in-law was the consummate small town newspaperman, a gifted writer and photographer who devoted his career to telling the real-life stories of the local citizenry in various communities around Washtenaw County.

The Paul Tull I knew, admired, and worked alongside for 17 years was a self-made man, a product of the school of hard knocks in the Motor City where he graduated from Central High School. He headed west for college, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado in 1940. The war years delayed his plans to begin publishing a weekly newspaper in Saline, a small town south of Ann Arbor, but by 1948 his first edition of The Reporter was on the newsstands, destined to become a positive force in the community for years to come.

The paper, aside from its community-building mission, also was a place where many a person took professional shape, perhaps best illustrated by the Tull role in helping two sets of Vietnamese refugees gain a foothold in American life.

As the founder and publisher of the paper, Paul also was instrumental in helping bring Ford Motor Co. to town in the mid-'60s, working tirelessly with several other local VIPs in eventually landing a mammoth manufacturing facility for the giant automaker.

It was a small town coup that put Saline on the business map as the site of at one time the largest plastics manufacturing facility in the world. The community's suddenly burgeoning tax base helped buy stability and quality for the local school system, and served to attract an influx of talented and civic-minded citizens to town.

But there was little doubt that Paul was the real man about town, seemingly appearing everywhere to cover a meeting, snap a picture, document a grand opening, or to glad-hand a potential ad customer. It was his dream job even though it had an unsteady beginning when he figuratively slugged it out with a rival newspaper next door.

For five years in the late '40s and early '50s, Saline was the site of a royal newspaper battle between the upstart Reporter and longstanding Observer. The newspaper offices and shops were located next door to each other with only an alley between them. It was a fortunate juxtaposition for the two rivals that neighbored with each other, somehow united by a common enemy. It came in the form of the Linotype machine, that strange and cantankerous monster upon which newspapers of yesteryear depended for print production each week.

"One day they would turn out trouble-free copy, pumping hot slugs like mechanical angels from their hellish lead pots," Paul once wrote in a column about the devilish contraption. "Next day they would slip into their killer phase, squirting molten lead into the faces and laps of their operators, and refusing to set usable type.

"When our Lino went into a sulk on press day, we would slip copy across the alley for our competition to set for us," Paul recalled. "The Observer crew was happy to help. They knew their turn for trouble was coming next week or sooner--and we'd be happy to pull them through."

It was a neat, civilized war about which Paul intended to write a book someday. Regrettably, the book plan never got off the shelf, although Paul could take initial solace in winning the first chapter of a small town newspaper war.

When The Observer went under, Paul felt the joy of a hard-fought victory but also a nagging sense of guilt. His rival publisher, a man named Mike Gallagher, was a gallant warrior, a dedicated and talented newsman who was widely admired for the manner in which he conducted his business.

"For years, the happiness of surviving was tempered by my sympathy for the fallen warrior," Paul wrote years ago in a column. "I would still feel guilty if a mutual friend hadn't punctured my conscience--and my pride--one day. He had just returned from a visit with Mike.

"'Don't worry about Gallagher,'" the friend told Paul. "'He went into real estate after leaving the paper. I think he's a millionaire now.'"

That would seem a fitting end to this newspaper story, but there would be one more chapter written years later.

This time it involved a small town newspaper skirmish in Milan, a tiny city just south of Saline. It, too, is home to a giant auto plant, while also housing a fine batch of felons at the federal penitentiary there.

At one point in the early 1990s, Paul's weekly newspaper, The Milan News, was dueling with the long-established Milan Leader in a spirited contest for readership and advertising dollars. For good measure, another Milan paper sprung up, discovering in short order that a newspaper pie can be cut only so many ways in a small town.

The three-front battle in the two-county town of Milan attracted attention from the Detroit media, sending off signals to worldwide CNN as well. Within days, a CNN camera crew descended upon the Michigan town, interviewing the publishing combatants for broadcast around the globe.

Allan Grossman, then Saline's city attorney, was Moscow-bound with his wife, Natalie, at the time of the 1992 newspaper hullabaloo. They were part of a People-to-People delegation that was going to visit three cities in the former Soviet Union.

"We had just arrived at our hotel in Moscow after the long flight from Helsinki and New York," Grossman recalled years later. "We got up to our room and I noticed there as a Gold Star TV set on our dresser and I wondered aloud whether it worked."

A flick of the TV switch and Grossman began to wonder if his eyes were still in good working order.

"I turned on the TV and lo and behold there was Paul Tull, talking in English about some newspaper war going on in Milan," Grossman related.

"Now I've heard a lot about jet lag, but I said to myself this is very, very strange. I hollered to Natalie to come take a look and I asked, 'Am I losing it or do you see the same thing that I see?'"

Her eyes also did a double take, as husband and wife looked at each other in amazement.

"After flying those many hours, I really thought I was in deep trouble," Grossman said with a smile. "When Natalie confirmed it really was Paul there on the screen, I began to feel so much better."

Published: Fri, Jan 24, 2014

Comments

  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »