"And another thing ..."

In St. Louis, the "Town Talk" column's coverage of issues like improper grocery bagging and televised ice skating helps put the "free" in freedom of the press.

By King Kaufman

Published September 5, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

There are great and weighty issues facing our society, and there is brilliant writing about these issues to be found in our nation's newspapers. Fortunately, they give out Pulitzers every year for that sort of thing, so I don't have to worry about it.

But twice a week, a newspaper lands, unbidden, in my front yard and I pounce on it like a caged animal pouncing on, uh, Caged Animal Chow. I tear it open to Page 4 and devour a column called "Town Talk."

Labor Day is coming. I'm betting there will be many Labor Day sales, but I will not be at any of them.

The paper is the Southwest City Journal, one of a couple of dozen neighborhood papers published in and around St. Louis by Suburban Journals, a local chain that was bought last year by Pulitzer Inc., which also owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Twice a week, in each of these papers, which are mostly distributed free, is a column, sometimes called "Town Talk," sometimes called "Sound Off," that consists of transcripts of messages that readers have left on a garden-variety answering machine in the newsroom. The call is free. You have 30 seconds. Speak your mind.

Has anybody else noticed these reporters on national and local news, when they end their story at the end of the program they say, "I'll see you tomorrow night; I'll see you next week; I'll see you on the weekend." They don't see us, but we see them. Why don't they change their ending?

"It's kind of taking the pulse of what's on people's minds around town," says Julie Kelemen, a copy editor who edits "Town Talk" for six papers distributed in the southern parts of the city and neighboring St. Louis County, including the one I see. A typist does the actual transcribing. "And sometimes what's on people's minds is really surprising. You know, grave societal issues or things going on in the news that you think everybody would be thinking about -- they're not."

No, ma'am. They're talking about what's on TV, what's happening with their neighbors, slights real and imagined at local businesses or with vague, unnamed, at least in the paper, enemies.

When I go to the grocery store I ask the bagger (presuming they have some schooling) to put all the frozen items in one bag. I run these down the conveyor first. When I get home there is a frozen item in each bag. Don't they even know hot from cold?

Kelemen has been editing the column for more than four years. It takes her about a half day a week, and it's her favorite half day. "It's great," she says. "When I started here in '97 I was like, 'Wow, I get to edit this?' It's like a big treat." She says pretty much everything that gets left on the answering machine that's audible and not libelous or offensive makes it into the paper sooner or later. Sometimes -- maybe half the time -- people talk about local political issues. And sometimes, they just engage in good old-fashioned Midwestern straight talk.

What would you do if some people jumped in front of your car forcing you to stop, and you know they are up to no good? Would you continue on or stop? What do you think the ruling would be? It better not happen to me. They would be dead ducks.

Kelemen says the idea with the column is to keep it local, so you'll see different comments in different newspapers throughout the region. "If you think these are funny, the ones down in Jefferson County are even funnier," she says. "You're getting into a little more rural territory down there. Like I remember one that was really off the wall, but it was somebody's legitimate problem. Their neighbor's donkey kept wandering onto their property."

Suburban Journals reporters sometimes get story ideas or even scoops from the callers, who leave messages anonymously, which encourages people to be more forthcoming but also means the papers have to be careful with the information they receive. When I talked to her, Kelemen was working on a story that arose from a caller wondering what ever happened to a certain bill in the state Senate.

Why are some people so dumb when they get on the stage of "The Price is Right"? They keep looking to the audience for answers.

Sometimes callers are responding to earlier callers. These threads can go on for quite some time.

"I remember when I first came here there was one line of discussion that just kept going on and on," Kelemen says. "Some people get fixated on a topic and they just keep calling about it. It had to do with ice skating being televised on educational TV. Some people loved it and other people hated it, and there was like this war going on over whether they wanted to watch ice skating on TV. It was just bizarre, the kinds of rows that people would get into. You know, it's not about global warming, it's about ice skating."

On the other hand, sometimes it's about global warming.

I am thankful that we didn't have global warming back in the '30s, '40s and '50s when I was young. Back then we regularly had 105-degree heat and no air conditioning. If we had had global warming on top of that how bad it could have been.

Indeed, we all would have been dead ducks.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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