Farewell, Millbrook Round Table

Walking into the diner yesterday, I glanced at the honor box containing our village newspaper, The Millbrook Round Table, and was shocked to read the following headline:

Round Table Publishes Last Issue, Closes Its Doors

42-18288293I was numb as I went inside and had my two cups of black coffee. Part of me wished I still drank, so I could go pick up a pint of Irish whiskey and lace my coffee with it.

To me, a guy whose first job out of college was as the lone reporter for the Round Table, reading that the paper had gone under was like hearing that an old friend—a friend you hadn’t spoken to in years—had died suddenly, and penniless. But looking into your friend’s death, you discover that it actually came after a long illness, and in the case of my old friend, it was an illness caused by three factors:

  1. The Internet.
  2. The World Economy.
  3. The fact that nobody reads newspapers anymore (see #1).
EXTRA, EXTRA! Read all about it!
EXTRA, EXTRA! Read all about it!

Sadly, the Millbrook Round Table was just one of scores of local newspapers forced to close down, because the holding company of many of them, Journal Register Co., defaulted on loans and was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. However, despite the sympathy I feel for all of those reporters, editors, photographers, graphic designers, proofreaders, ad salespeople and delivery people, no one can say we didn’t see this coming. The truth is, newspapers have been an antiquated technology, and try as they might, they haven’t been able to find a new business model that would enable them to be profitable in the post-paper world of instant, online publishing.

Former home of The Millbrook Round Table, on the corner of Merritt Avenue and Front Street in Millbrook, NY.
Former home of The Millbrook Round Table, on the corner of Merritt Avenue and Front Street in Millbrook, NY.

But this piece isn’t meant to be a dirge to newspapers in general; it’s a dirge to one newspaper I knew well and loved because, for a brief time, I was a part of its 117-year history. In fact, I count myself lucky to have been the reporter for the Round Table in 1992, during the centennial of both the paper and Millbrook itself.

I was home on spring break and hadn’t even graduated yet when then Executive Editor Diane Pineiro-Zucker and Managing Editor Gene Lomoriello interviewed me for the reporter job. As a philosophy major, I was an anomaly in the newspaper world. I didn’t know the difference between a nutgraph and an inverted pyramid, but they appreciated my ability to write clearly and concisely, as well as my desire for precision and exactitude in sentences, so they hired me. I went back to school the following week, took my final exams and began on the newspaper two weeks later.

Despite its small size, the paper was technologically advanced, using networked Apple Macintoshes throughout the office for reporting, editing and layout. The publishers at that time, Hamilton and Helen Meserve, were intelligent, cultured Manhattanites who had retired from big city finance to the Millbrook countryside, and they ran the paper judiciously and creatively, going so far as to buy a boarding house for their reporters to balance the low salary. Hamilton Meserve was a serious man and from what I remember an avid trout fisherman, and he was also the son of the Wicked Witch of the West (a.k.a. Margaret Hamilton).

6a00d8341c630a53ef0133ef23b27d970b-600wiEvery Tuesday afternoon, when we were on deadline for the weekly edition, I would pick up the phone, hit the “INTERCOM—ALL” button, and screech (in my best Wicked Witch / Miss Gulch impersonation, which was pretty damn good), “I’LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY! AND YOUR LITTLE DOG, TOO!” Once, Mr. Meserve was there and no doubt heard me. But he never fired me. Either he appreciated my brash, unbridled, manic energy, or I was just too damn talented to fire. I like to think it was both.

As a reporter in the country, I didn’t get many of what you’d call “sizzling” news stories. Most of the time, my job as the small-town reporter was to serve as chronicler of the community’s events: fairs, pageants, horse shows, auctions, art expos, book sales, library drives, ball games, village council meetings, and profiles of both local celebrities and regular joes.

Still, there are several stories that have stayed in my mind, some of which I believe made a difference. I investigated a development company on their plans for restoring the abandoned Bennett College site in Millbrook, and I discovered that they hadn’t done any of the Florida building projects they claimed. I interviewed a Silver Star winner—a bombadier over North Africa in WWII—who told me he could make out Patton’s shiny helmet from 30,000 feet. And in one of my first stories at the paper, I reported on a German Shepherd that tore a rabid raccoon to pieces. Gene questioned its newsworthiness, but at the time rabies cases were springing up all over New York and Connecticut, and folks wanted the rabid raccoons dead. The dog’s name was (I’m not kidding) Rocky, and shortly after my story and his photo appeared in the paper, he became a local hero.

And then there were the humorous moments. Like the time I went to a Village Board meeting for the annual budget review and one of the Village trustees complained about a number of the items, until the Village Clerk finally said, “Dammit, R–, you’re looking at last year’s budget!” Then there was the time I was covering the Memorial Day parade and the police chief (who was directing traffic in mirrored sunglasses) called me over, looked around and urged me to poke him in the chest. So I did, and he said, “Yeah…bulletproof. Stop a goddamn .357 point-blank, this son-of-a-bitch will.”

Or take the time I wrote about an event from 1892 in my weekly “Reporter’s Notebook” column. I made fun of a news item from 100 years before, when a local citizen had, “lost control of his horse, letting it ride up on the Village green.” In response I wrote, “Sounds like somebody was dipping a bit too much into the sauce.” Well…the day the paper came out, a woman (who, ironically, worked at the Round Table) confronted me, demanding an apology because her grandfather was the one I’d inadvertently written about. Unfortunately for me, Millbrook had, and still has, a predilection for producing centenarians.

I wasn't quite as good-looking as Robert Redford in "All the President's Men," but I was just as tenacious.
I wasn’t quite as good-looking as Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men,” but I was just as tenacious.

Without question, I’m pleased that I began my professional writing career in journalism—the same way two of my idols got their start: Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. It was Hemingway who once said, “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.” I feel a pang of regret that most young people coming up today won’t get the same opportunities to hone their writing skills while being paid for their words. In essence a paid apprenticeship, newspaper work taught me a lot about writing and work in general.

I learned the importance of writing short declarative sentences. I learned the role of commas in creating nonrestrictive clauses. I learned that nouns and verbs are the meat of writing and that whenever possible you should eliminate adjectives and adverbs. I learned how to produce under time pressure. notebook-page-1I learned that spelling DOES matter—particularly the spellings of people’s names. I learned to use semicolons sparingly. I learned how to write a lead. I learned how to spot a story, how to notice details, how to take notes. I developed close to a phonographic memory, especially when it comes to dialogue—the diction, accents and rhythms of people’s speech. I learned how to LISTEN, and that often the best thing you can do as a reporter is to keep quiet and let the other person talk. I learned the value of preparation: having your questions planned in advance, knowing you could always stray from the agenda if you wanted to. I learned how critical it was to be fair and accurate in your reporting—in any form of writing, I believe—if you wanted your sources to continue being your sources in the future, and if you wanted to maintain a reputation for integrity.

Most important of all, writing for the Round Table day in and day out built up what I think of as my total word count, or the amount of overall experience I have with words. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that a writer shouldn’t expect to be paid for his own work (something that wasn’t journalism) until he has written a million words. That’s right—a MILLION. What the Round Table did for me, more than anything else, was give me a head start on this million-word journey, so that by the time I finished there about a year later, I had written, by my estimate, at least 900,000 words.

An old-school newsroom, when reporters played pranks by switching the numbers on each other's desks.
An old-school newsroom, when reporters played pranks by switching the numbers on each other’s desks.

Coincidentally, last weekend I was going through old boxes of letters when I came upon several letters of praise from former subjects of Round Table articles. This serendipitous find spurred me to unzip my leather portfolio and browse my clips from those days, almost 20 years ago. My writing is sharper and much more felicitous now than it was then, but even then it had that spark—a love of language and a desire to get it right.

After The Millbrook Round Table I wrote for the area’s daily newspaper, The Poughkeepsie Journal, and while I learned a lot from my editor, Stu Shinske, and while the challenge of meeting a daily deadline was exciting, the Round Table had taken my journalism virginity, so it would always be first in my heart. I can still remember waking up at 6:00 am to eat breakfast with my grandparents, then driving in a rush into Millbrook to be the first one in the office, to sit down at my desk with the cool, lilac-tinged breeze wafting in the window, sipping my coffee and starting to type.

I’m glad I got to experience this piece of Americana before it died, if only for a short time. I loved being a newspaperman, and I’m proud to say I was one.


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24 comments

  1. George Hilman says:

    “…you discover that it actually came after a long illness, and in the case of my old friend, it was an illness caused by three factors:…”

    The author Mr. Orcutt fails to mention a significant factor in the demise of pulp newspaper publishing, and that is a significant portion of the news-reading public has lost trust in news organizations, large and small, to publish the truth behind the descent of our country into a police state run by an unelected and unappointed wealthy elite.

    Frankly, I would be delighted to possess each morning (or evening) a paper record of the real events affecting my life, as I thought I enjoyed many decades ago and would be quite willing to pay for it. If not a paper record, then at least an honest electronic record, which is available now only on the WWW.

    • Chris Orcutt says:

      George:

      Thank you for your insightful comment. You are absolutely right that much of the news-reading public has lost trust in news organizations, and there is no question that this loss of trust has partly contributed to the downfall of newspapers.

      I will admit that your idea didn’t occur to me when I was writing the piece originally, in large part because I was feeling nostalgic about newspapers and was reporting on my own history with them.

      I appreciate your taking the time to read my piece, and I hope you’ll visit my site again.

      Sincerely,

      Chris Orcutt

  2. Steve says:

    Chris, thanks for writing and posting your story about the Millbrook Round Table. As a Millbrook transplant, commuted from downtown Verbank, I enjoyed my time with the Class of ’60, the Round Table, Corner News, Carmines and the Millbrook Diner! At a recent reunion the Diner was a must visit, even the family gave it a full thumbs up! It was a most memorable time in my life, more so than any other school or college I attended. Steve

  3. Al Walker, Long Island, NY says:

    Chris:

    Quite a column. I just discovered the literary demise of the Millbrook Round Table while looking it up on Internet as I fondly do about once a year. I just missed the Feb 2009 last issue and just discovered it a year later now. I have happy memories of summers and holidays at the home of my grandparents Perry and Mary Moore and cousin Gertrude in days long gone by. Great memories of the fine Sutherland family. I often picture the view looking down Franklin Avenue from the Library steps towards Tribute Gardens, seeing the sunset above the garden and basking in the light of Millbrook. The Round Table brought back those memories fondly. Instead of the Round Table on the Internet, I’ll just have to take the 110 mile trip in person next time.

  4. Debi Barrett Miller says:

    I just started trying to find Hamilton Meserve and found you. This was great reading. I wanted to let Hamilton know that his mother was a friend of my Grandmother’s. Margaret would stay with my Grandmother when she was in Beverly Hills. My Grandmother’s name was Gertrude Gebelt (Gigi). My mom, dad and one sister visited Maggie at her apartment in New York in 1963. She was so gracious and nice to me (us). I just wanted to pass this on to Hamilton Meserve.

  5. Tom Sipos says:

    I came across this article by accident and am very glad I did. It is with sadness that I lament the closing of the Taconic papers. At the same time there are MANY memories of the people and events that were associated with the papers. The day the mill burned in Pleasant Valley in 1994 stands out as one. Thanks for writing this piece Chris. Hello to Ham and Helen, Diane Zucker, Nancy Lutz, Stu Shinske..

  6. Barbara Goodman says:

    I can still see the back office of the Hyde Park Townsman, where I worked for about a year in 1984. It did a damn good job for that town, and I tried to do one, too. I can remember particularly being proud of scooping the Poughkeepsie Journal (sorry, Stu — and, by the way, you might remember me as Barbara Horner). Mr. Meserve, you and your wife were lovely people to work for, although you didn’t have the boarding house when I was there and boy the salaries were low! I still remember Jim DeFelice and Ray Fashona. I still remember what I wrote — and in fact was looking for an old story of mine for someone at the FDR home when I stumbled upon this elegy. I thought good local papers like the Townsman and the Round Table would last.

  7. Chris Shave, former Voice Ledger reporter says:

    Dear Chris,
    Sorry to say that I’m late for the funeral as I wrote a letter to the editor and then chewed my finger nails waiting for the Poughkeepsie Journal to get around to publishing it.
    It ran today and when I checked on-line for Ham and Helen I found your piece. It was a wonderfully written tribute my friend.

  8. ALFRED JOHN SMITH says:

    I find that newspapers don’t print the news, “they” make the news. You [newspapers] have no business because you let the “Wal-Mart Family” close every town’s business and put America out of work.

    • Orcutt says:

      Thank you, Erin. It really is sad, but at the same time I feel that newspapers, and the reading public, didn’t do enough to change with the times. It’s all about interaction with your readers today, and finding ways to deliver personalized content. Anyway, I don’t know who you are, but thank you very much for the compliment and for taking the time to read my column. I hope you visit again soon.

  9. Stu Shinske/Poughkeepsie Journal says:

    Chris — a beautiful retrospective. As someone who worked at a weekly paper for four years to start my career, I definitely understand your devotion to the Round Table. Thank you for your kind words, as well, about our work together. But as you showed when you worked with the Journal, and as you show now, your talent and passion, first and foremost, drive compelling writing.
    –Stu

    • Orcutt says:

      Stu: I’m glad you understood my meaning when I said that the Round Table was first in my heart. I loved my brief time at the Journal, too, but I focused on the Round Table because it was the paper that died.

      As I wrote to you in an email a while back, you taught me a lot in a short period of time, and I later shared some of those “lessons” with my own writing students. Like the time I came back from a Poughkeepsie City Council meeting and was mulling over my notes, and you said to me, “Orcutt! I can’t edit what I don’t have.” I learned that mulling it over is NOT writing, that you have to produce a draft first, realizing that while it might not be perfect, it’s a starting point.

      Honestly, I’m a little taken aback by the interest in this piece, but I’m learning that newspapers are still very important to people. Hopefully readers will show that concern in increased support of the ones that remain, like the Poughkeepsie Journal.

      Thank you again for your kind words.

      Sincerely,

      Chris

  10. Nancy Lutz says:

    Hi Chris,
    The entire community is extremely sad about the loss of all seven weeklies, not to mention Dutchess Magazine and the Hudson Valley Guide. It is a sad sign of the times, and I’m actually tearing up right now. I will miss the papers, and tthe Weekend section, but I am really sad for all of the area businesses and organizations who have lost a free/low cost place in which to promote their business or event. Churches and other non-profits really needed the local paper to help publicize their small fundraisers. They are the life blood of any community. The church, the firehouse, the scouts – they need those spaghetti dinners to balance their budgets! There really is no substitute – the Journal can only do so much for the entire county.

    At church this past Sunday, in nearby Pleasant Valley, a fellow parishioner came up to me and said, “What are we going to do now? Who will publicize our St. Patrick’s Day Dinner? And the Chicken BBQ?”

    I foresee record low attendance at pancake breakfasts and tag sales in our bucolic hamlets. I post a great many events online at the county’s tourism website, http://www.dutchesstourism.com, but many listings are not really the type of activity tourists are seeking. Anyway, I will try to fill the gap a little bit, but the Taconic Papers will be sorely missed. Thanks for a beautifully written article.

  11. Matthew says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Our own local newspaper is experiencing similar difficulties, for though the town is larger, the combination of electronic news and a harsher economic climate is making newspapers less attractive. As you noted, though, part of the issue is that the proper business model for newspapers hasn’t been hit upon. I can’t help but think that our newspaper’s methods–trying to stir up sensationalist stories to create attention-grabbing headlines–is doing them more harm than good as their readers turn away from what amounts to a lot of pot-stirring and inaccurate reporting.

  12. Orcutt says:

    As an addendum, I walked over to the office on 52 Front Street (pictured above) today, and there was one car in the gravel parking lot. I went to the door, knocked, waited, tried the lock to peek in and say hello, but it was locked.

    From there I strolled across the street, and because it was Presidents’ Day, the post office was closed, so that entire section of Millbrook was dead. There was a fierce north wind blowing dust down Front Street, and suddenly I felt like I was in the novel THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. It looked like a ghost town. I wanted to cry but instead walked down to the diner and drowned my sorrows with black coffee.

  13. Hamilton Meserve says:

    great column…lots of good memories come cascading back….sad it’s over….Ham Meserve,
    Publisher, Taconic Newspapers 1980-98.

    PS: Naw, didn’t mind the screeching on the intercom..and, as you note, good reporters were hard to find, especially if they were tabula rasa not conditioned by journalism school!

    • Orcutt says:

      Ham:
      I consider it an honor to have you say so about my column. I hope my feelings came through, but in case they didn’t, I have to tell you that you and Helen were excellent mentors, as were Diane and Gene. There were so many other great memories I considered writing about–like how your sweet dogs had carte blanche around the building, the time I wrote a piece about Couse getting fired and you stood behind my reporting, and the time your delivery guy was sick so you let ME do the Western Connecticut run and I got lost, but you didn’t chew me out about it. What I’m trying to say is that you were a great employer and an even better role model. I remember when I first met you and you were reading that week’s paper, and I said to myself, “Shit, I better make sure everything I write is true and as good as I can make it because the friggen PUBLISHER is reading it.” Having you and Helen work hands-on with us kids (and that’s what we reporters were, no two ways about it) was incredibly inspiring.

      Yes, the Round Table has closed up, but you two can rest easy knowing that your time there, and the mentorship you gave a lot of young writers and editors, wasn’t spent in vain. In fact, I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but a few years ago, a man transferred THE ENTIRETY of the Round Table to electronic form (PDFs), and they’re all available up at the library. You probably already know this. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were the one who thought of it, but anyway.

      I hope you and Helen are doing well in Maine. And thank you so much for giving me so many great memories from that newspaper. You two are the quintessence of class.

      Sincerely,

      Chris Orcutt

  14. Elisabeth says:

    What a great piece, beautifully written. I’m sorry this newspaper is just another casualty of the internet.

    Your voice screams in this sentence: “As a reporter in the country, I didn’t get many of what you’d call “sizzling” news stories.”

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