Lebanon Advertiser keeps community roots

News-DemocratFebruary 27, 2014 

When you're dealing with a 75-year-old tradition, you need to approach change slowly.

So Harrison Leon Church was deliberate when he considered what to do with the Lebanon Advertiser, which had been in the family since 1939.

Meanwhile, David Porter, then the communications and marketing director for the Illinois Press Association, had been thinking about the 1,100-circulation weekly newspaper for about three years.

"I would drive through town on Illinois 4, going to see my parents in Sparta," Porter said. "I would look down St. Louis Street and tell myself I was going to buy that newspaper."

Now he is the new owner of an old family tradition, and it is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

"I like to say I'm on the high dive, about to jump off and I don't even know if there is any water in the pool," he said. "But actually things are going swimmingly."

He has an affection for such phrases that he uses in his weekly newspaper column, "Ramblin' Man," that he syndicates in Illinois and which now appears in his own newspaper.

Church, 72, said he and his wife, Harriet, had been considering the future of the newspaper for some time. They had entertained some offers but hadn't found what they thought was the right one. He was about ready to fold the paper, so to speak.

"I was to the point where I didn't think anybody was going to take it over," Church said.

The Advertiser was founded in 1911 and Harrison's father, Leon Church, bought it in 1939. Leon actually sold it in 1974 for a few months but Harrison came back and rescued it. He has been running it since.

A colorful character, with a degree in journalism and a law degree as well, he taught at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

The former newspaper building is packed with vintage printing equipment and other historical items. It didn't sell with the newspaper. Harrison said he is unsure what he will do with everything although he will still do some printing jobs.

He is wholeheartedly behind the change.

"I can't imagine anybody else better qualified to make it work," he said.

Porter, 49, said he felt like Harrison was looking for the person he thought was perfect for the newspaper and the community.

"It felt like more of a vetting process than a negotiation," said Porter, who bought the paper for an undisclosed price. "I needed to convince him he was leaving it in good hands."

Porter said he broke in on small newspapers, starting in Tuscola. He also worked for the press association for a few years before getting back into editing with the Mount Vernon regional edition of the Centralia Sentinel. He was back with the press association when he decided to go in a different direction.

He said he worked out of his backpack and his car for the first five issues of the new, color-added Advertiser.

The newspaper's new office, actually a desk, is inside Design 5 at 217 W. St. Louis St.

His staff?

"I don't have one," he said. "It's basically a one-man band."

But the folks at Design 5 help him by just being around, he said.

"It's important for a newspaper operation to have a public presence, someone there so people can talk to a human being," he said.

He said he has always been editor so the business side of newspapers will take a little learning.

He has been commuting but plans to move to Lebanon sometime soon. He said his reception has been wonderful.

"It's a community paper and this is a unique community," he said.

With its blend of Air Force people, college people and longtime residents, it is a nice place to settle in, he said.

"People view the newspaper as public property," he said. "I'm amazed at the number of people willing to help."

He has added a Facebook page for the paper which has drawn 450 likes in a month.

"People seem to be glad the paper didn't fold," he said.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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