In nearly thirty years as a small-town Texas newspaperman—the last twelve as the owner and publisher of the Zapata County News—Bob McVey has survived a lawsuit, a bullet shot through his living room window, and a couple of attempted boycotts, but nothing compares with the time he was pummeled by an elderly sheriff. One morning in 1987 McVey dropped by the sheriff’s office to ask about a Mexican commercial fisherman who had been arrested the night before on the American side of the Rio Grande. It wasn’t the first time McVey had been to see the sheriff, a retired high school shop teacher with no law enforcement experience. His run-ins with McVey frequently landed him on the front page of the News, but he was a nice guy—so nice, in fact, that when he learned that the fisherman’s child was sick, he let him out of jail. McVey, notebook and camera in hand, wanted to get the official story. “Poor guy, it was just too much for him,” McVey recalls. “He got up, came around the desk, and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I thought he was taking me somewhere to show me something, but—bang!—he hits me and knocks me out the door and pushes me down the hall.” After a deputy intervened, McVey escaped, filed charges, and had the sheriff arrested. A few months later, when the sheriff lost his reelection bid and died of a sudden heart attack, his children blamed McVey.
Even if their lives aren’t quite as action-packed as McVey’s has been, these are heady days for small-town newspapermen. Despite long hours and relatively modest profits—between $10,000 and $100,000 annually, according to Austin newspaper broker Bill Berger—their papers are thriving. While big-city dailies try to figure out how to hold on to subscribers and advertisers and puzzle over the brave new world of multimedia, small-town weeklies are more than holding their own. According to the National Newspaper Association, weekly newspaper readership across the country was 81.6 million in 1996, up from 79.7 million the year before. Meanwhile, total morning and evening circulation for daily newspapers continues to head in the opposite direction: 59.3 million in 1994, 58.2 million in 1995, 57 million in 1996. The Texas Press Association says readership in the state is holding steady at 3.5 million for daily papers and 1.1 million for weeklies, although the number of daily papers has declined from 97 in 1994 to 92 today. The El Paso Herald-Post was the most recent to succumb, leaving Amarillo as the only city in Texas with two daily papers; a Herald-Post spokesman says circulation was 31,000 ten years ago but only 18,000 when the paper closed. Meanwhile, the number of community papers is increasing: 450 weeklies in 1994, 455 today.
Demographics may have something to do with the good times for weeklies, particularly if papers in booming suburbs are factored in, but a more likely reason is more basic: Small-town papers know their readers and give them what they want. And what they want is local news. In communities too small for their own TV stations and too far away to interest big-city papers, the local paper is the exclusive source of chat-and-chew stories and the gossip of the day. On a typical morning in Wise County recently, readers of the Wise County Messenger (“Read It—You’re Smarter”) learned that the University Interscholastic League had voted to impose a public reprimand on a Decatur High School assistant football coach for allegedly recruiting players from nearby Sanger. In the Monahans News (“Serving the Oasis of the West Texas Desert”), morning coffee drinkers at the Dairy Queen on Stockton Street read about “night-riding vandals” who had shot out main-street business windows with an air rifle, while the Breckenridge American (“The Newspaper Determined to Be as Good as the Area It Serves”) reported that a local man had been arrested in a kiddie- porn sting.
And that’s not all. Along with such local fare, the weeklies provide the small-town staples many big-city dailies just can’t duplicate: detailed wedding announcements and obituaries, energetic local high school sports coverage, columns from rural correspondents, lunch menus for the senior citizens center, the police blotter. Readers of such papers want to know, for instance, that Oscar Gauer of Zapata County “has recovered real good from gall bladder surgery,” and that “Jack and Marilyn Fatjo drove down last week to visit Jack’s mother, Thelma Fatjo.” They want to be told about people they know living and dying, marrying and having babies, working and playing and fighting. “The owner of a small-town paper has to be a leader in the community,” says Roy Eaton, who has owned the Wise County Messenger for 25 years .
For 59-year-old Eaton, a former news director at a Fort Worth AM radio station, it’s easier to find a community niche for himself and his paper than it is for, well, his counterpart forty miles down the road in Fort Worth. A Decatur native, Eaton doesn’t have to engage a focus group or conduct a market survey to know what interests his neighbors. By contrast, for publisher Wes Turner of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “community” is more amorphous. The Star-Telegram, purchased by the Knight-Ridder chain earlier this year from Disney/Capital Cities, must deal with the typical “doughnut” demographics of a big city: a dwindling close-in readership and advertising base surrounded by suburbs with their own identities and little loyalty to the paper. To deal with the problem, the Star-Telegram has created three distinct editions (downtown, fast-growing Arlington, and northeast). The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, has created a Morning News spin-off in Arlington. The Austin American-Statesman has opened a Round Rock bureau to get closer to upscale subscribers in Austin’s rapidly growing northern suburbs, and the Amarillo Globe-News now has a bureau sixteen miles south in Canyon. Other papers publish zoned editions or neighborhood sections, but none of these efforts has solved the big-city headache of how to connect the way small-town papers traditionally do.
Ownership is part of the problem. Of