While newspaper monopolies dominate our big cities, in a few small towns the competition is still fast and furious.
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“WE KNOW EACH OTHER; WE TALK TO EACH other,” says Caneel Cardwell, the senior reporter for the Alpine Observer, of Betse Brooks, her rival at the Alpine Avalanche. “At council meetings we’ll check with each other about spellings.” There are even times when they discuss complex financial issues. “We exchange glances,” she says, “like, ‘Did you hear what I just heard?'” Cardwell, 24, and Brooks, 25, work for competing weekly newspapers in a West Texas town that is small enough that they are constantly crossing each other’s paths. They are fierce, if polite, competitors. “Sometimes, we’ll have almost exactly the same lead,” says Cardwell. “There are other times when we get a story completely different.”
During the past fifteen years, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso all ceased being two-newspaper cities. This has been good for a number of media conglomerates, who now hold outright monopolies, but generally bad for readers: With this shrinkage has come a decline in the quality and the urgency of the reporting. The trend is not unique to Texas. With the exception of a few holdouts like New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco, two-newspaper cities are a thing of the past. But in at least fourteen small towns in Texas, including Alpine, Angleton, Bandera, Canton, Kilgore, Lewisville, McKinney, and Palestine, readers still have a choice of newspapers. This is partly a product of the economics of small-town newspapers: People who don’t like the local paper can express their displeasure by spending as little as $10,000 for a desktop publishing system, hiring a couple of reporters, and starting a new one.
Alpine (population: 5,786) is hardly a typical small Texas town. It is gaining population rather than losing it. It is too far from cities with television stations to merit much coverage. And it is so remote that very little Alpine news makes its way into the daily newspapers from San Angelo, Odessa, and El Paso. As a result, local newspapers are an extremely important source of information. So vital are newspapers here that it’s not uncommon for folks to read one or both Alpine papers plus the weeklies from the nearby towns of Fort Davis, Marfa, and Presidio and the monthly from Marathon too. With two competing newspapers, Alpine readers are being offered more than the perfunctory coverage of school events, obituaries, births, and anniversaries—the common fare of most small-town weeklies in Texas today. And no one in Alpine is complaining.
“When there was only one newspaper, I’d sometimes get calls from the reporter from the newspaper, who had missed the commissioners’ court meeting and wanted me to fill him in,” says Brewster County judge Val Beard, rolling her eyes. “It’s nice having meetings covered by two newspapers because most people can’t or don’t attend but still want to know what’s being done with their tax money.”
Alpine owes this happy situation to a difference of opinion between Jim Chionsini, of Roosevelt, whose Granite Publications bought the Avalanche in 1996, and Seattle businessman Phil Buckner, whose Buckner News Alliance owns the Observer. In 1995 Buckner told Chionsini that he would sell him the daily Pecos Enterprise but quashed the deal when he found out that Chionsini wanted to cut its publication to once a week. When Chionsini bought the Avalanche, he stopped using the Enterprise‘s printing press to publish both it and the Fort Stockton Pioneer, which he also owns. (“I’ll put it this way. Folks don’t change banks unless there’s a reason,” says Chionsini, who owns ten weeklies, three biweeklies, and one daily in Texas.) That led Buckner to start up the Alpine Observer in September 1999, distributing free copies (the Avalanche costs 50 cents).
Alpine may have been ripe for a choice. Chionsini, whose laissez-faire policy had worked well in other towns where the group had papers, made a couple of missteps at the Avalanche. The editor-publisher he installed in 1998 was not the right fit. He was not from the area and didn’t understand the community, several residents told me. He also chose to live in Fort Stockton, which did not go unnoticed by Alpine readers. Three editors came and went in the following two years before Chionsini, who splits his time between Alpine, Burnet, and Roosevelt, finally settled on Betse Brooks as the managing editor.
Brooks is the daughter of Bill Brooks, the co-owner and co-editor of the newspaper through most of the eighties. She writes many of the stories and wears most of the hats at the 3,700-circulation weekly. “I see everything that goes in the paper,” she says, taking a rare breather an hour after the paper has been put to bed. “I edit it. I make assignments. I take pictures. I go to commissioners’ court and city council meetings. I’ve been known to sell an ad.”
She acknowledges that it helps to be local. Her mother, Margie, is a court coordinator for a district judge. A good friend growing up was the daughter of the county judge. But there’s a downside too. “People tell me they remember me when I had pigtails,” she says. “They may not take me seriously.” To attract new readers, the Avalanche recently rehired Burnis Lawrence to revive his old opinion column, “Dear Boss,” and to cover news in south Brewster County, eighty miles from Alpine. It also scored a coup when the City of Alpine chose it to publish its public notices, a dependable income stream for any local paper.
The Observer‘s edge—other than its five thousand free copies—lies in its aggressive reporting. Though at first few residents paid attention to it, Cardwell, a former editor of the Sul Ross State University student paper in Alpine, quickly changed that, writing as many as fifteen stories a week during the Observer‘s first year. Later, the paper hired former Odessa American reporter Greg Harmon, who had done excellent work on the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump story as editor-publisher. At the Observer, the 31-year-old Harmon has tackled previously uncovered stories about the city and the county, written a three-part series on Alpine’s fading grassland empires, and engaged in extensive and pointed coverage of expansion plans at the Lajitas resort, the biggest development in the history of Brewster County.
Reporters for both papers can’t help but get an earful from readers. Alpine is, after all, a small town. I experienced this firsthand accompanying Cardwell while she delivered copies to the county courthouse and the library one morning. The sheriff said he’d already gotten a phone call complaining about an Avalanche headline on the front page, “County Judge: Post Is Needle Park,” which paraphrased Judge Beard’s reference to drug use at a county park called the Post near Marathon. Cardwell had taken a more sedate view of the commissioners’ meeting in a story that discussed vandalism at the park and a proposed locked gate at the entrance. The article’s headline read “Opposition to Post Park Gate Heard by Commissioners: County Says Move Would Cut Down on Drug Abuse, Vandalism.”
If you take into account the news-to- advertising ratio, the free personals, and the free distribution, it’s unlikely that the Observer is making much money. And this suggests that Buckner might be inclined to give in first and fold his paper for a price. But while the competition lasts, residents in Alpine are indulging in a luxury known to precious few of the reading public in big cities, who can only hope for an aggressive metro weekly to balance what’s being delivered in the daily fish wrap, lest they develop a newfound appreciation for television news. In Alpine readers have a choice. They know better than anyone that there really are two sides to every story.