Hail to the Chief

In an era of dwindling circulations and shrinking profits, the weekly newspaper in the Panhandle town of Miami has a different problem: choosing a cover story in a place where nothing really happens.

IN THE WORLD OF PRINT MEDIA, few decisions are as racked by second-guessing and hand-wringing as the choice of a cover story. Still, probably no one in the business has it as bad as Sandy Black, the 51-year-old sole publisher, editor, staff writer, ad saleswoman, accountant, photographer, and paperboy for the weekly Miami Chief, the only local news source in the small Panhandle town of Miami. All 588 residents of Miami (pronounced “My-am-uh”) fit on just three pages of the phone directory—and every one of them knows Sandy. That means she has to be particularly careful not to ruffle feathers with her news coverage. Worse, there isn’t a whole lot of news to report. During slow weeks, such as the dog days of July, when the annual cow-calling contest has come and gone and the start of high school football practice is still a few weeks away, finding something coverworthy for the Chief is enough to make Sandy consider retirement.

 One Monday this past summer, during those July doldrums, Sandy stood on the steps of the yellow-brick 1913 Roberts County courthouse and began the week’s search for a lead at the commissioners’ court meeting. The six-foot media mogul was wearing a gauzy brown blouse and black polyester pants. “My hair is frizzin’, I can feel it,” she said, brushing her fingers through her blond locks with a few quick strokes as she walked inside. Then she grabbed a copy of the agenda, took a chair along the wall, and pulled out her big blue pen, ready to document the news.

The first order of business was the report from Sheriff Dana Miller, a man with sand-colored hair that poked out from underneath his beige cap. “We had to tend to a deputy down from heat exhaustion,” Miller said, addressing the room. “Also, our jail inspection passed with flying colors. Only two fire extinguishers were out-of-date.”

Any questions?” asked Judge Vernon Cook, who was presiding over the meeting. There were none.

A rancher and court member with a wide smile spoke up. “Some of those roads on the south side of town are looking pretty bad,” he said, referring to large potholes blighting Farm-to-Market Roads 748 and 1268. “I mean, somebody’s gonna kill somebody.” Silence from the room prompted him to continue. “I think we ought to send the repairman a letter or something.” The rancher looked at Miller, and the sheriff shrugged. Sandy jotted down a few notes.

Anything else?” asked Cook. A former courthouse custodian piped up from the corner of the room and related his granddaughter’s enjoyment of the city swimming pool. The members of the board nodded politely.

All of this gave Sandy the following lead-story material heading into the week’s production cycle: out-of-date fire extinguishers, fun at the city pool, and deadly potholes.

I’VE BEEN RECEIVING the Miami Chief for about five years, though I don’t recall ever subscribing. The eight-page, odd-sized newspaper simply arrives in my mailbox at work once a week, and during times of stress, I’ve picked up the issue and read about the Miami locals, watching the drama unfold in the Chief’s pages like in an episode of Days of Our Lives. Some weeks, I’ve known more about the remote town than I have about my own neighborhood, in Austin. I’ve learned from the Out and About section who had whom over for dinner, what they discussed, and what they ate for dessert. I’ve figured out from the Yard of the Week feature who was keeping up with his gardening. And in the Sheriff’s Blotter, I’ve read about a horse found swimming in the city pool, citizens’ needing their doors unlocked, a man’s mail blowing out of his car, and a man’s parading along Texas Highway 60 wearing leopard-print lingerie (a routine occurrence).

It’s not the kind of news you’ll find in a big-city newspaper, but then, the Chief is not a big-city newspaper. In an era when those publications are struggling with their own viability issues—dwindling circulations, reduced reporting staffs, and the ever-expanding media sources on the Web—the Chief seems uniquely vital, the one outlet left to chronicle the lives of the ranchers, oil field workers, schoolteachers, and government employees who make up the only town in Roberts County. Readership is holding steady. Profits seem healthy. But like the other 121 small-town newspapers left in Texas with a circulation under 1,200, the Chief faces a tougher problem: The kind of small-town life it covers is rapidly becoming extinct.

This past summer, while browsing the Sheriff’s Blotter, I felt something in the paper speak to me. “Theo put up,” the report read. It was followed the next day by: “Theo put up again.” There was no accompanying explanation, but it was clear that Theo, whoever or whatever he was, felt an urgent need to get out and see Miami, and I could sympathize. I called the Chief, and Sandy answered the phone. “Sure,” she said, when I asked her if I could come up and watch her run the paper. “Monday is the big news day, so if you want, we can go to the county commissioners’ court meeting. Wednesday we’ll put the paper together, and Thursday you’ll see the result.”

I arrived in Miami on a Sunday night. In view from one side of Highway 60, the town’s main drag, stood a mercantile store, the sheriff’s office, a post office, a municipal pool, a museum, the courthouse, a cemetery, and a host of closed-down businesses; on the other side, a grocery store, a video rental hut, and an old cafe. Next to the cafe sat Sandy’s little robin’s-egg—blue house with a wooden sign out in the front yard that read “Miami Chief.”

AT NINE O’ CLOCK the following Wednesday morning, Sandy sat at the computer in the Chief’s office, a small, dimly lit red room in a space that had once been her garage. It had been two days since the commissioners’ meeting. Sandy spent part of Tuesday making billing calls to her regular advertisers.

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