P.D. East & The Petal Paper

The demise of print media has been a given for years, their death throes fodder for late-night comedians. Magazine and newspaper circulation has declined drastically over the past decade, as have advertising revenues. Craig’s List has eviscerated the want ads and shrinking readership has made print unattractive to advertisers.

Rather than get news from a paper thrown onto a wet lawn, people are getting information from the Internet, where much content is free and they can control what their eyes and ears take in. No need to subject oneself to news one doesn’t like.

In the U.S., newsroom employment is half of what it was ten years ago. The list of deceased newspapers is long and the number of cities with more than one paper can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

A hedge fund, whose assets include the National Enquirer, has purchased the venerable but bankrupt McClatchy Co. and its roster of estimable newspapers. The new owners are expected to follow private-equity strategy by selling assets such as real estate and inflicting further layoffs.

Investment guru and Berkshire Hathaway C.E.O. Warren Buffett got his start delivering newspapers. His company had been acquiring newspapers for years. Buffett, famous for keeping investments for the long term, recently sold off Berkshire subsidiary BH Media Group. BH owned seventy newspapers. Vice-chairman Charlie Munger said, “Technological change is destroying the daily newspapers in America. The revenue goes away and the expenses remain and they’re all dying.”

With the incessant torrent from the Internet and twenty-four-hour-cable-news what are we missing? Small-town, local news and public-service announcements—what we who think we’re so sophisticated used to find amusing—go unreported as the means for disseminating local goings-on are disappearing.

But let’s take the Wayback Machine to Mississippi in the 1950s.

Having taken some college journalism courses, Percy Dale East found work editing two union newspapers in Hattiesburg. After a couple years he decided journalism was his calling. He wanted his own newspaper. Hattiesburg already had a daily paper, so he started The Petal Paper on the other side of the Leaf River, in the tiny town of Petal. P.D. East, as he became known professionally, was thirty-two years old when he published the first issue in 1953.

The weekly publication was successful from the beginning and attracted local advertisers. Within a year it reached what was to be its peak circulation of 2,300 and East was doing well financially.

Then came the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Contemplating what it would mean for Mississippi, East realized he agreed with the court’s ruling. Most of his advertisers did not, so he kept his opinions to himself. In The Petal Paper’s inaugural issue P.D. East had declared “We have no bones to pick with anyone. Therefore, there will be no crusades, except when it is to the public interest.”

Percy Dale East

But soon East’s beliefs came out, not directly, but through satire. He wrote a piece, opining that Mississippi should change its symbol from the magnolia to the crawfish. “Once you have seen a magnolia, you have seen all magnolias. As a 100 percent red-blooded Mississippian, we feel the magnolia should give way to the crawfish—and soon, too.” The crawfish moves only “backward, toward the mud from which he came,” and “progress in our state is made that way.” The editorial brought little response. Subsequent writings were less subtle.

East invented a character named Jefferson D. Dixiecrat and printed in the Petal Paper a speech Dixiecrat gave as president of the Mississippi chapter of the Professional Southerners Club.

“I want to apologize to each of you at this time for asking that your Professional Southerners Club cards be inspected at the door before you were allowed to enter, however, I’m sure you will understand the necessity of keeping out the amateur Southerners, the liberals and the lunkheads.” East continued with his printing the fictional speech: “Our enemies say that our state needs more industry, but I say to you we need no industry where the nigger can make good wages, buy good clothes, good food, good homes. I say to you we need to return to the days when cotton was a dollar a pound and nigger labor was a dollar a day.”

In 1955, the University of Mississippi invited a white Episcopal priest from Ohio to speak during “Religious Emphasis Week” and rescinded the invitation after the proposed speaker donated $32,000 he’d won on a TV quiz show to civil rights organizations.

“Let it be said that Rev. Kershaw made a wrong decision,” East wrote. “Had he decided to give some of his TV winnings to the Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi, then he would have been welcomed in our fair State.”

The anti-integration White Citizens’ Council formed a Hattiesburg chapter in 1956. The Petal Paper published a fake full-page ad featuring a singing jackass.

“Suh, here’s sweet MUSIC!” the animal sang. “Yes, YOU too, can be SUPERIOR. Interpret the Constitution of the United States to your own personal advantage. Join the CITIZENS CLAN and BE SAFE from SOCIAL WORRIES.”

Mr. East later printed a list of all the good things the council had accomplished for Mississippi. The page was blank.

The Petal Paper’s home was in Forrest County, named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Local citizens did not appreciate the finer points of satire. In spite of support from a few—very few—other publishers in the South, East became, in his words, an “ulcerated, pistol-packing editor.” He received regular abuse, by mail, by phone and from passers-by on the street.

Circulation dropped to less than a thousand, mostly from outside the county; local subscriptions numbered in the single digits. In debt, East closed the paper’s office and worked from home. He eventually moved to Alabama and tried to publish the paper as a monthly from there, but was not successful. He published a memoir in 1960. The Magnolia Jungle received positive reviews, but his attempts at promoting it brought death threats.

By the 1960s, East’s health was failing. He suffered from ulcers and headaches. He died on New Year’s Eve, 1971, of liver failure. His wife disagreed. “He died of Mississippi,” she said. A latter-day media critic called P.D. East “the Jon Stewart of his day.”

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