REVIEW - BENT PINS TO CHAINS
Atwood, Evangeline and Lew Williams, Jr. Bent PIns to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers. Xlibris Corporation. Softbound. 689 pages plus index. $28.95.
This is a very odd book indeed. Part of it is taken from the manuscript, A History of One Hundred Years of Newspapering in Alaska, 1885-1985, compiled by Evangeline Atwood, wife of prominent Alaskan newspaperman, Robert Atwood. She died in 1987 before it could be published. Lew Williams, Jr., son and parent of Southeastern Alaskan newspaper publishers, updated and completed it.
The result gives far more minutiae than seems necessary or even desirable. Do we really need to know the birthplace and educational background of everyone mentioned? Other papers worked for can be interesting, but otherwise it could have changed reading from plodding to at least walking through the book if all that information had been placed in an appendix. It contains numerous black-and-white photographs, many on the blurry side, but there is no listing of them. Even worse, it's full of repetition, various grammatical errors, and general confusion. Among other omissions, the definition of "bent pins" used to hold together various small newspapers is not given. "Chains" is clear; that refers to the national newspaper chains that have purchased nearly all the papers in Alaska.
However, out of the tussocks that wobble underfoot and make for incredibly slow going, some interesting themes emerge. One was the amazing movement of the editors and publishers. Set up a small paper in a gold rush boom town, then take the printing press and move on to the next temporary population center. Even the non-mining camps had dizzying turn-overs; all Alaska towns had a long series of publishers. Sometimes they were the same people who moved around, other times outsiders who came for a short or long time. It's also interesting to see how printers turned into editors. Years ago I worked for a medium-sized newspaper in Colorado. There it was an article of faith that the print side hated the editorial and vice versa.
The reporters simply knew the printers threw in typos and deleted words to sabotage their writing. The printers felt the editorial side thought they were better than the lowly printers.
Not in Alaska; apparently they were interchangeable.
There is also the unexpected bonus of a thorough discussion of early to mid-twentieth century national politics as they affected Alaska. If one paper opposed statehood and the Democrats, the other local paper endorsed joining the Union and the Republicans. This resulted from the ability of national political parties to appoint all the top public officials when in power, as Alaska was still a Territory. It is interesting to learn how powerful local newspapers were in those pre-radio and television days. Everyone perforce got their news from gossip or the newspaper (sometimes the same), which explains why a town with 1,000 inhabitants could have four newspapers, at least for a while. Robert Atwood was long the publisher of the largest paper in Alaska, which likely explains his dislike of the Associated Press stationing a correspondent in Anchorage and perhaps led to only one mention of Ward Sims and none of Virginia Sims, his wife and co-correspondent, both longtime AP journalists.
However, the best part of this rambling view of Old Alaska is that it is the first compilation of the history of newspapers in Alaska. That makes it a valuable reference tool. There are also some excellent
anecdotes buried here and there; bring a spade.