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All the editor's men
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In his off-hours from his job as an editor at the Savannah Morning News, Larry Peterson found the time to write a novel. But it’s a busman’s holiday of sorts, as City Editor is all about -- you guessed it -- working at a newspaper.

Jack Donahue, the eponymous newshound, gets wind of a conflict of interest involving his executive editor, who stands to make a tidy profit as long as his paper doesn’t report some skullduggery going on in the local government.

What follows is not only a rousing, old-school newspaper whodunit a la All the President’s Men, but a sardonic commentary on the often sad state of modern newspapers.

Loaded with crackling putdowns of trendy management theories like the “team system” and the drive to get 24-year-old college grads to write like Hemingway instead of telling the readers what actually happened, City Editor is an addictive pleasure for anyone making a living in the world of information.

I spoke to Peterson about his new book recently over lunch. As a former Morning News editor myself, I couldn’t resist dishing some dirt about the paper. While never shying away from criticism of today’s journalists, at no point did he unfairly disparage his employer -- though Lord knows I tried my best to get him to.

Connect Savannah: The setting for your book is at a paper in Beaufort, S.C. But a lot of the things about this paper sound a lot like the Morning News.

Larry Peterson: Well, all novels are by necessity in part autobiographical. But this is not intended as a polemic.

Connect Savannah: But the plot does come from real life.

Larry Peterson: The principal plotline comes out of a paper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was editorial page editor at the time. The governor, Tommy Thompson -- now in George Bush’s cabinet -- came to town for a press conference, and said, “By the way, we’re not going to build a state prison in your area.” But a memo leaks out that they will try and build a sex offenders confinement facility. The rest is pure fiction, but it does have that basis in fact. Some reporters get the memo, and the executive editor discourages them from acting on it. But the difference is my real life paper was very supportive of the reporters.

Connect Savannah: I find the title ironic. With the new-age management at today’s daily newspapers, there’s almost never a “city editor” anymore. There are just “teams” with a “team leader” and, in my opinion, very little accountability at the top.

Larry Peterson: The team-based system is a fad, like football formations. For example, you had the run and shoot, which was powerful in certain situations with the right personnel. Team-based systems are not necessarily a superior form of management. It’s used at some newspapers to break down some of the old walls between people and departments. But soon the old conflicts are replaced with new ones. The culture has to build. Sometimes executive editors assume the teams are self-regulating. But by and large, they aren’t. The culture you try to build is democratic, but it doesn’t work in practice. Sometimes it becomes a fig leaf for doing whatever you want to do anyway.

Connect Savannah: Dealing with journalistic ethics, your novel comes out at a good time, with the notoriety about Jayson Blair at the New York Times.

Larry Peterson: I have an incident like that in the book, though this was all written before the Blair incident. In the book, a guy goes to a rally for Hillary Rodham Clinton and writes that he brought a book for her to sign. He goes up to her in the parking lot and tries to get her to sign it. Actually, it was some other person that did that, but he writes it as if it was first person.

Connect Savannah: Tell me about your publisher, Publish America.

Larry Peterson: Well, it’s not a vanity press. I’m not paying to publish the book or anything like that. But the company doesn’t shoulder any of the costs of promoting it. That’s all up to me. They do send you an advance. I got a check for $1. I’m going to frame it.

Connect Savannah: Who would be most interested in reading your book?

Larry Peterson: Journalists, public affairs types, public officials, government staffers, people who like a good yarn.

City Editor is available at: The Book Lady, 17 W York St.; E. Shaver, 236 Bull St.; Irene Sullivan’s Gallery, 18 Tybrisa St., Tybee; and The Casual Reader, 1213 Highway 80, at the Shops at Tybee Oaks. Available soon at T.S. Chu & Co, 6 Tybrisa St., Tybee. Peterson will sign copies of City Editor 5-9 p.m. April 10 at Irene Sullivan’s Gallery, 18 Tybrisa St., Tybee Island, and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 27 at the Sentient Bean, 13 Park Ave. near Forsyth Park.