In the late summer of 1990, I was driving through the mountains of northeast Tennessee when I saw it. Staple-gunned onto a telephone pole was a campaign flier featuring the most unlikely looking political candidate I had ever seen.
His name was Blaine Birchfield, and he was straight out of central casting for a 1940s detective film, the type of character who would have played one of Al Capone’s henchmen. I knew I had my cover image for the first edition of LEO.
OK, so I may have started LEO with a little petty theft (I prefer to think of it as environmental cleanup), but I carefully removed the poster from the pole and nursed it all the way home to Louisville.
Our artist then worked her magic, applying blotches to the image, along with the headline “Mudslinger,” and the first regular issue of LEO hit the streets during election week in November 1990.
There was nothing inside the issue related to mudslinging; back then we considered our covers self-contained messages, like editorial cartoons. As I wrote in this space at the time, “We thought Blaine’s poster might serve as a reminder that no matter how crummy our campaigns (in Kentucky) appear, there’s always one worse.”
And so it has come to pass that LEO is celebrating its 18th birthday. It’s tempting to write that LEO can now vote, even though it has been “voting” almost since its initial delivery date. Or I could expound on how it has now reached legal majority, but since most publications don’t make it to their first birthday, and less than 5 percent make it to their 10th, LEO effectively is well into middle age in newspaper years.
It is a source of considerable pride that my name is listed as LEO’s founder at the top of the staff box, and copies of the paper occupy a prime spot in our Louisville-themed Washington office. When I started the paper 18 years ago, my ambition was that some day I could brag that I had started it, and I frequently do. I never wanted to run it forever, and I didn’t do it to create a personal soapbox. I wanted a soapbox for many voices, and that’s what it has been. I am particularly proud that LEO still publishes lengthy letters to the editor. This was always meant to be the community’s paper, and it continues to play that role well.
Returning to politics, LEO has outlasted four governors and is working on five. It has covered two Bushes and a Clinton, and three U.S. Representatives before me. I hope it will outlast Jerry Abramson, who has served all but four of the 18 years as mayor, but that would make an interesting betting proposition.
If newspapers do their jobs correctly, they serve as compasses for their communities as political and cultural shifts occur. They also serve as a society’s institutional memory, helping to put today’s and tomorrow’s events into context. I think LEO has performed, and continues to perform, those functions well. But LEO’s special role, as a vibrant and vital part of our nation’s local media — aka the alternative press — is to report on developing trends in culture: music, art, theater, food and lifestyles. Ever since Rolling Stone magazine adopted politics, sex and rock ’n’ roll as a hybrid “beat,” its offspring, including LEO, have been the go-to sources for tomorrow’s norms.
Today’s media world is changing as fast if not faster than the world it covers. Daily newspapers are constantly reviewing their missions and their business models as the instantaneous, interconnected information universe threatens their existence. The major broadcast outlets are also increasingly at risk, as new media and rapidly expanding options fragment their formerly unassailable market dominance. Their audiences continue to shrink, and their survival as commercial operations is open to question.
LEO seems well positioned to reach old age. It finds people in a way that is the perfect junction of supply and demand — where they have the opportunity and willingness to read — and at the ideal price. Ultimately, of course, survival in the print media always is primarily a function of quality thinking and writing, and my pride in my baby’s performance could not be greater. Time will tell whether my political career or LEO will last longer, but so long as we both serve, LEO will always help visitors to my congressional office feel at home. Happy 18th.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd, can be reached by visiting his website: yarmuth.house.gov