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.
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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 Only two fire extinguishers were out-of-date.”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. That left only Wednesday to finish the paper’s content—a handful of articles from local contributors, a few Opinions columns by the publisher, a number of birth and death announcements, and the still-undecided cover story. Sandy didn’t seem concerned. “We may have to go out and beat the bushes a little bit here this morning,” she said, “but first let’s sit down and see what we have.”
She rifled through some faxes that had been sent to her that week. “I got this one from the Texas Animal Health Commission. It’s about stomatitis. This one’s a legal notice. Here’s the sheriff’s blotter. This one’s an obituary for Esther Fay Ferguson, who used to run that cafe next door.”
Sandy started the Ferguson obit on her desktop computer, then paused. “I hate writing these. One day I had seven obituaries in the same paper.” Soon, another death announcement was faxed in. She picked up the page from her machine and said, “This one’s the old school secretary. She could play piano, that was the truth.”
“All right,” she said after typing her second obit of the day. “So we can run the list of school supplies and write up the Monday meeting. What else is going on? This time of year is so boring. There’s nothing in July.” She looked around her desk for a moment, then stood up and dusted herself off. “Let’s go find the yard of the week. And while we’re at it, let’s look at those potholes everybody’s talking about.”
SANDY BLACK WASN’T a born newspaperwoman. In fact, the thought of owning a newspaper didn’t present itself until she was 42. Before that she’d been a nurse and a stay-at-home mother to her three kids. But in 1998 her then-husband Jim Black, an accountant who had been a contributing columnist to the Chief, suggested they buy the paper. Sandy remembers her enthusiastic reply as, “Well, sure, I suppose.” Her first editorial, published on July 16 of the same year, contained the kind of honesty her readers have come to expect: “The newspaper business is not even related to our backgrounds or degrees . . . I find myself both anxious and excited about taking on a new career and wonder if we have lost our minds.”
The paper’s previous owner, Valda Traughber, cast a long shadow after her nine-year reign as publisher. Traughber wasn’t afraid of controversy, and she didn’t hesitate to stab at local hot-button water and safety issues or voice her opinion on topics such as Medicare reform. In 1997 the Chief’s front page boasted the headline “Top Editorial Award 68th for Chief.” The story read: “Of the public endangerment editorial, contest judges said, ‘Nice job of driving home the risks vs. the obscure benefits of high-speed chases.’ ‘You get to the point and stick to it,’ commented the judges on the curfew piece.” Inside, on page two, Traughber elaborated: “I am not immortal,” she wrote. “I simply occupy the odd position of having thoroughly convinced a lot of people that I am, in my six decades on this planet. I do my thing, finding enjoyment in being an editor and a publisher of a little weekly newspaper, and satisfaction in being reminded occasionally of having done it well. So, yes, I needed to go to Amarillo to receive our awards. I had to go, and we do what we must in this life.”
All told, Traughber won 73 area, state, and national newspaper awards while publisher of the Chief. She also earned a lot of detractors for her contentious coverage. Kathy Thompson, the city secretary, remembers, “When Valda owned the paper, she believed in something like the end of the world was coming.” Former Miami mayor Gene Hodges said tactfully, “She said she had a vision.”
Sandy decided to leave the heated issues to the city officials (in 2003 she and Jim divorced, and Sandy bought the paper outright). This angered some readers. Much to Sandy’s dismay, the disgruntled faction included Traughber herself. Sandy began receiving anonymous letters about every change in the paper, from the reportage to the size of the white space bordering the photographs. Sandy fired back by making a reference to the anonymous letters in her Opinions column, knowing everyone in town would be able to identify the perpetrator. Traughber later moved out of town. Sandy is reluctant to talk much about the dustup out of respect for her predecessor. “Valda and I exchanged words from time to time,” she said. “She did a good job, and someone judging a newspaper would be impressed. But I don’t know that the town was as thrilled.”
Sandy says staying out of the mud is smart business. The margin for survival for a paper the size of the Chief is razor-thin. The weekly has only one thousand subscribers, all of whom pay less than $30 a year for local delivery. Sandy makes the rest of her money through ad sales, charging $2.50 per column inch, and 30-cents-a-word classifieds. After printer fees and postal charges, the revenue is enough to keep the paper afloat, though Sandy works weekend shifts at an Amarillo hospital to help pay for her kids’ college tuition. Any loss of advertising or readership over a heated political issue could quickly kill the paper.
Sandy doesn’t ignore the town’s problems completely. Locals have been battling the Texas Department of Transportation, for example, which threatened to cut down the cottonwood trees along the fall foliage tour on account of their being too close to the highway. The school, which hands over much of its property-tax revenue to the state government to comply with Robin Hood, is in danger of closing because of a lack of students (a death sentence for a town). And in 2005 Rick Roach, the former district attorney for the five counties west of Amarillo, was arrested for shooting up methamphetamines. Roach had been a local legend because of his tough stance against drug offenders, and his downfall was widely reported in newspapers, including the nearby Canadian Record and the New York Times.
All of these events have been reported in the Chief, but the Roach scandal highlights Sandy’s approach to the news. Rather than dwell on the irony of Roach’s personal struggle with drugs, Sandy’s article simply laid out the charges against the DA and left it at that. “In a town this size, you worry about stepping on people from time to time,” Sandy explained. “The sucker needed to burn, but I love his kids and would never do anything to hurt them. So I didn’t rip him like some others did.”
DRIVING ON THE OUTSKIRTS of town, Sandy swerved around a gigantic pothole shaped like Italy. “Ooo, this is bad!” she said, pulling over. “Oil field trucks pound the crap out of these roads.” She took out her digital camera and crouched down in the middle of the road, hunting for the best angle. “I see why everybody is griping about this,” Sandy said. “This one is gnarly!”
By the time we returned to the Chief’s office, she had made up her mind about the cover story. “Why don’t you call TxDot,” she said, turning to me, “and find out what they know about those potholes? Write it up. I’m going to smoke a cigarette outside. Just let me know when you’re done.” Her black Lab, Jake, ran after her, leaving me alone with the cover assignment.
I had time for one phone call, reaching the pothole point man, Scott Brewster, at the local TxDot in Canadian. Brewster was busy and did not sound thrilled to talk to me. “We patch those roads a lot,” he said. “But there’s heavy traffic from those trucks.” I searched my brain for more questions—What kind of materials will you use this time? From where?—eventually getting Brewster to nail down a timeline for repairs. Then I set to writing, armed with my scant new understanding of concrete and asphalt.
“Last Monday, at the commissioners’ meeting, several folks began complaining about the potholes up on 748 and 1268. ‘Somebody’s gonna kill somebody,’ one member said. Another commented that he drove down the road and felt like he was going to bounce into the ditch. The complaints were directed at the sheriff, who could only shrug. . .”
I felt like a punter under pressure as I cranked out four more paragraphs. When Sandy walked in eager to read what I had written, I winced as I gave up my seat at the computer.
She read for a few moments in silence. “Great!” she said, finally. She inserted a few more pictures of potholes in between paragraphs to make up for the brevity of the text. “Let’s add a catchy little saying, just enough to get under TxDot’s skin.” She thought about it a little while, then giggled as she typed, “More Woes for TxDot as Many Roads Are in Need of Repair.”
“That’s not ugly, is it?” she asked.
It was 5:08. After filing a few more stories, including a piece about a local couple’s weekend getaway cottage, Sandy clapped her hands together: “We’re done.” She opened her e-mail and sent it on to the Chief’s printer in Shamrock, about seventy miles away. Then she announced that she was going to take a nap.
SOME TIME THAT NIGHT, 1,070 copies of the Chief appeared at the newspaper’s headquarters like money from the tooth fairy. When I walked into the office the next morning, Sandy was already at her desk with a cup of coffee, wearing an aqua-blue T-shirt and taking stock of the finished product. “The photos of the potholes turned out pretty good,” she said. “Ferguson’s picture turned out nicely too.” We stuck the address labels on the papers going to the post office and then delivered the rest to the Market Square Thriftway and the KNT Cafe, the restaurant once run by Ferguson. The waitress handed Sandy some coins from a Styrofoam cup—proceeds from the preceding week’s Chiefs.
“So what’s in the paper this week?” a customer asked Sandy.
“Potholes,” Sandy replied.
“The ones up on 748?” the man asked.
“Yeah, you know those? And on 1268.”
The man looked surprised that there were more. “I’ll have to take a look at those,” he said.
Before leaving town, I stopped at the sheriff’s office. I was still wondering what had become of Theo, the recurrent escapee I had read about in the blotter. “Theo?” Sheriff Miller responded from behind his desk. “Theo was a donkey that lived across the street from the city pool. He liked to escape from his pen and wander over by the pool to watch the kids swim. Well, one day a week or so ago he got in the neighbor’s garden and that neighbor didn’t like that too much. He came down here to the station and asked me if he could shoot Theo. I told him that I couldn’t very well arrest Theo but that shooting him would be a felony in the state of Texas.” Miller shook his head and smiled. “Good old Theo.”