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Maine newspapers - like the one you’re reading right now - have been around for a long time. More precisely, we’ve had “print media” in Maine since the early 1700s. In that time our state has produced journalistic legends like Seba Smith and Charles Farrar Browne, who honed their "media" skills at a time when “honing” was something people mostly did to the blade of their ax or a scythe.
Despite their legendary status, there’s a good chance you never heard of either Seba Smith or Charles Farrar Browne. They never cut a rap DVD or an offensive Youtube video and they never got fined by the FCC for some obscenity-laced diatribe on live radio or television. So, when asked about them you’re likely to ask: “Who? What?”
I know we’re not a print culture anymore, but back when newspapers were a lot more important than they are now, Smith and Browne where huge celebrities. Meanwhile, many people today conclude that if it’s not on television or on Facebook, it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.
Unlike the journalists who write news stories for today’s readers, most 19th century newspaper writers were prudish and starchy and formal and they had a writing style to match. Smith and Browne were the first exceptions to the formal, pedantic style of writing and their refreshing approach to newspaper writing became enormously popular.
Smith, born in Buckfield in 1792, became famous for a series of letters on politics that he wrote using rustic speech and satirical comments under the pen name Major Jack Downing. He’s considered a pioneer in the development of authentic American humor.
Browne was born in Waterford in 1834 and like others born in that remote area of Oxford County he was different. Writing under the pen name of Artemus Ward he developed a unique satirical style that poked fun at the straitlaced stuffed-shirts that were his contemporaries. He went on to become Abe Lincoln’s favorite humorist.
Ward’s pieces appeared regularly in Vanity Fair and his letters to London’s Punch magazine made him popular in England, too. He died in London in 1867 when he was only 33.
Today, although there are a lot of bright, gifted and very talented people working in Maine media (just ask them) most regular people assume that if a newspaper, television or radio reporter is any good, what are they doing working in Maine, right? A lot of young "talent" comes through Maine but most of these hot shots don’t stay long enough to unpack or learn how to pronounce our place names. These transients are easy to spot because they appear out of nowhere, you have no idea who they are and they demonstrate pretty quickly that they have no idea who we are.
I once wrote for a Maine newspaper that you’ve probably heard of and maybe even read. One night I was sitting in the City Room writing a story when a new reporter sitting next to me stopped her frantic typing for a few seconds, turned to me and asked: "John, do you know if Damariscotta is near the water?"
It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have a clue. A week before she had been writing cop stories in Fond du Lac, Wisconson, which I think is kind of near some kind of water, and she knew nothing about Maine except how to get here.
The editor who hired her assumed that she was better than any of the other candidates mostly because the address on her resume didn’t have a ZIP code that began with "04." In case some of you new arrivals are still wondering – Damariscotta is by the water. In fact there are mounds of clamshells on its beaches and the beaches of nearby Newcastle, which date back at least 2,400 years. So we can assume Damariscotta has been on the water and a source of fresh clams for a while now. I don't have a clue about Fond du Lac.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at mainestoryteller@yahoo.com or 899-1868.
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