It's Black and White and in the Red Overall, but Their Paper Won a Pulitzer for the Scardinos
updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
For the scrappy, struggling weekly (its circulation hovers around 2,600 in a town that has two daily papers and a population of 143,000) the Pulitzer has meant a good deal in the way of congratulations but, unfortunately, little in the way of cash flow. "We haven't noticed much increase in circulation and we're not getting a lot more ads," says Marjorie. In fact, their debt-plagued newspaper still offers free ad space instead of cash to its accountants and suppliers. Marjorie works as a partner in an 11-member law firm so they can eat. And they scrimp wherever they can. When Albert balked at entering the Pulitzer competition because of the $20 entry fee, it was Marjorie who told him to write the check and promised, "I'll see if I can get somebody to pay their advertising bill a little early."
The Scardinos are not about to stop the presses over a little red ink. They started the paper in 1978 on $50,000 raised among family and friends, and collected an additional $200,000 two years later to keep it going. In the beginning, they were co-publishers. Then Marjorie became publisher, overseeing the paper's long-range direction while Albert handled both business and editorial matters. That lasted a year. Reports Albert: "Finally I said to Marjorie, 'I can't do it, I'm not doing a good job of either thing. You're just going to have to take over the business operation.' She agreed that, one, I was doing a poor job and, two, she could do better. Both of which were true." Besides, he is a bit of a pushover. "I can't say no," he admits. "A reporter would come in and say, 'I don't like these 25-cent pens, I'd like to get one of those dollar ones instead'—and I'd say, 'Sure.' " Marjorie was not as understanding. To save money, she cut the number of pages and laid off a dozen people. (They now have a staff of 22, including two reporters.) The tactics paid off. In the last quarter of 1983 the Gazette finally showed a $2,000 profit.
Meanwhile, the paper has not flinched from printing tough articles that no one else would—stories guaranteed to lose friends and irritate people. In 1980, when the scion of a socially prominent family was reported as "missing" by other papers, the Gazette correctly printed that George Mercer IV had been kidnapped and that the FBI was investigating. The Scardinos have publicized local banks in trouble. From the start they put pictures of black newsmakers on the front page, and they didn't hesitate to analyze divisions in the black community. In 1982 the Gazette broke the story that the state's then labor commissioner, Sam Caldwell, was using state employees for his own private projects. (Caldwell later was convicted of fraud conspiracy and is appealing.) Several of Albert's prizewinning editorials evolved from this series.
Then there were the two visitors to Albert's office the first week the paper began publishing. "One was a woman who said she expected me to stop putting the pictures of so many niggers on the front page, and the other was one of the 'niggers' who told me if I ever put his picture in again without his permission, he would sue me."
To be sure, owning a newspaper is not like one of those fun-and-games Tracy-Hepburn movies, although the Scardinos' relationship nearly started that way. They were seasoned journalists when they met—or is it collided?—in 1971. Albert had just turned down an Associated Press offer to work in its Honolulu bureau. "That's where they have the junior reporters take visitors on a tour of the island," he says. "That wasn't what I had in mind." He asked what else they had, and they said 'Charleston, W.Va.' I said, 'I will take it.' They said, 'Why?' I said, 'Oh, coal mine disasters, dams breaking, planes crashing, cars running off the sides of mountains.' For a reporter, there couldn't be a better place to work."
The other thing they had in Charleston was an editor named Marjorie Morris. She assigned the new "hotshot" a story on John Henry, the mythical strongman whom the AP bureau reported on every five years or so. Then Marjorie ignored the story. "Whoever told you that you could write?" were her exact words. Albert persuaded another editor to send the article over the wire, and "it ran all over the country," he remembers with pride. Retorts Marjorie: "I still say it was a terrible story." But the barb throwing soon gave way to wooing. "The attraction was pretty instantaneous," Marjorie says. However, they worked different shifts and saw little of each other. On dates their anemic salaries allowed for little beyond television watching.
Their backgrounds were certainly compatible—they are from upper-middle-class families and both were activists in the '60s. Albert, the son of a Savannah urologist and a civic do-gooder, is a product of private schools. He learned early the price of having a social conscience. When he helped in a voter registration drive in 10th grade, he found nasty notes in his locker. At age 15, he was one of six whites marching with 1,500 blacks in Savannah on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was marching in Selma. A white Confederate flag-waver said, "Look me in the eye, white boy. I'm never going to forget your face." He went on to Columbia University, and during summer breaks worked for the Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Constitution and the two Savannah dailies—with a brief stint as a New York taxi driver. By the time he graduated in 1970 with a degree in American history, he had grown so disgusted with racial attitudes and overall conservatism of the New South that he swore he would never return. "They were taking people with long hair and putting them in jail," he says.
Marjorie grew up in Texarkana, Texas, the daughter of an engineer and a real estate saleswoman. A devoted bookworm ("grades were the be-all and end-all to me"), she graduated from Baylor University and entered George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C. While there she worked in the office of Democratic Congressman Wright Patman and took a liking to politics. In 1970 the law school shut down during the campus demonstrations over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Marjorie decided to use the unexpected break "to find out how people made political statements" and took the job with AP in Charleston.
In 1972 both Albert and Marjorie left Charleston, but not together. She moved to Boston and worked as a radio newscaster while he tried his hand at free-lancing. They continued their courtship by telephone, and in 1973 he talked Marjorie into joining him on a shrimp boat he had bought to ply the Georgia coast. "We went where shrimpers weren't, thinking that was the smart thing to do," she says. It wasn't. "We never caught more than 40 shrimp," he confirms.
Later that year they sold out and went back to school, Albert for a master's in journalism at Berkeley and Marjorie to finish her law degree at the University of San Francisco. (They were wed in April 1974.) In 1976 they returned for good to Georgia, partly because Savannah is so beautiful and partly, says Marjorie, because "we thought we could make a difference here."
Their first project—a $75,000 film about the beauty of the state's coastal islands—ran on public television and garnered high praise, but the movie made little money and Marjorie decided to start practicing law. (She specializes in business and First Amendment cases.) Her partners convinced the pair that the town needed a new, aggressive paper.
These days Marjorie drops in at the Gazette's offices several times daily. The editor and publisher obviously remain devoted to each other. "Our friends laugh at us," she says. "It's, 'There go Marjorie and Albert, holding hands on the campus of life.' " They rarely go out. "We have dinner and spend time with the children," says Marjorie of Adelaide, 6, and Will, 4, "and sit around talking about the paper. Then we go to bed and talk about the paper some more."
The Scardinos are expecting their third child—a boy—in December. They are expectant about the Gazette's future, too, though somewhat uneasily. While the Pulitzer did little to make them solvent, "it has boosted morale and given us a sense of personal achievement," says Marjorie. Whether that alone is good enough to keep them afloat remains to be seen. "Albert is the more optimistic of the two of us," she admits. "Lawyers pick at things. Albert just thinks things will turn out all right."