Why do small-town Texas newspapers survive–– and thrive? Read all about it.
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 the dozen largest papers in Texas, only one—the Morning News—is owned in-state; meanwhile, papers in Abilene, Corpus Christi, Plano, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls were recently sold by San Antonio’s Harte-Hanks Communications to Cincinnati-based E. W. Scripps Company. Of course, being part of a chain, out-of-state or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily consign a newspaper to mediocrity or disconnection from the community, but it does increase the likelihood that the paper is at the mercy of stockholders who read annual reports, not daily news reports. “Companies trading and buying six and eight papers at a time often end up attempting to squeeze those papers for everything they can so they’ll look good on the market,” says Fred Blevens, the chair of the department of mass communication at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. Chains own small papers too—Westward Communications has 34 in Texas and Granite Publications has 16—but the best weeklies are either owned locally or their publishers operate under what newspaper broker Berger calls “a loose set of reins.”
Independence doesn’t guarantee quality. To sit at a table in the back room of the Texas Press Association in Austin and go through a four-foot-high stack of Texas weeklies is to see that many are little more than unimaginative ad sheets with a smattering of canned and local news. Quite a few, though, show a serious commitment to good journalism. Take The Canadian Record. The Panhandle weekly, which has a paid circulation of 1,639, earned its reputation under legendary publisher Ben Ezzell, who presided over the paper from 1948 until his death in 1993. Ben Ezzell’s widow, Nancy, is now the editor and the publisher; their daughter, Laurie Ezzell Brown is the co-editor and the photographer, in keeping with the all-in-the-family aesthetic at work in small-town journalism. Along with high school football coverage, livestock reports, and oil industry news, a recent issue of the 28-page Record included a thoughtful, gracefully written editorial by Brown comparing Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. On the same page was Brown’s column about a hotly disputed local issue: corporate hog farming [see Reporter: “Hog-tied,” page 26].
Or take the Zapata County News. A bit scruffy like its brush-country South Texas community, the News (“Viva Zapata”) may not be the state’s best small paper, but it’s a respectable read. Bob McVey and his wife, Kate—she’s the co-publisher and the managing editor—are aggressive, enterprising reporters, and with a staff of only two other full-time employees, they manage to fill a 18- to 30-page paper every week with local advertising and hard news. The paper is fatter in the winter months, when winter Texans migrate back to the RV parks along the shores of Falcon Reservoir.
Bob McVey, who bought the News for nothing down in 1985, remembers the first time he covered a Zapata County commissioner’s meeting, which was held in an anteroom of the county judge’s office. When he walked in and sat down, the commissioners were lounging in chairs around a table. They were congenial enough, but they grew puzzled when he didn’t leave after a moment’s casual conversation. “Something we can do for you, Bob?” the judge asked. A reporter covering the public’s business was a foreign concept in Zapata County—and occasionally still is.
Most days the McVeys and their one full-time reporter, Jon Sagester, a retired Navy photojournalist, are out scouting for news. Consistent with South Texas’ reputation, they’ve occasionally uncovered courthouse shenanigans; a few years ago three county officials were arrested on the same day on drug-related charges following a federal sting operation. Last year the McVeys used open-records laws to examine the county’s drug-seizure and forfeiture funds, which led to the county attorney’s resignation after he pleaded no contest to a felony. These days, they are looking into a proposed steady-level dam on the Rio Grande upstream at Laredo, a project that could cause serious water-quality problems for the drought-depleted reservoir. And, of course, they’re regularly covering how the bass are biting, the athletic exploits of the Zapata High School Hawks, and the weekly tidbits from volunteer correspondents in outlying communities and RV parks. In Zapata County it’s news that a local woman’s granddaughter was Miss Connecticut in this year’s Miss America contest.
The McVeys are proud of the fact that they print, on average, three thousand papers a week—even though there are only approximately 2,700 homes in Zapata County. “We mail some out of town,” Bob says, “but how many papers do you ever hear of that are getting more than ninety percent penetration?”
“I think the reason we have the penetration we do in this county is not just our isolation,” Kate adds, “but because of the fact that we do fill the paper with locally generated news. With CNN and the Internet, people can get their state and national news; that’s easy. What is difficult is finding out what’s actually going on in your own community.” But printing what’s actually going on doesn’t always sit well with local officials, as Bob’s run-in with the late sheriff illustrates. “We’re not supposed to worry about whether we violate people’s sensitivities,” he says. “We’re supposed to give them the news.”
McVey thought it was news in 1992 that a member of the water board had an unauthorized tap on a water pipeline that crossed his property. The water board member thought otherwise. He sued for more than $3 million in damages, claiming negligence because McVey, he said, relied on information from the local water plant manager instead of searching the records personally. Kate McVey told the water board member during a hearing that she didn’t carry libel insurance—“The best protection in the world,” Bob says, “is not carrying insurance”—and that the newspaper building and equipment were mortgaged to the bank, so the water board member wouldn’t get a penny if he won. “If you win,” Kate said, “and if you can run a newspaper, you might make a living, but you’ll never make a profit. And if you win—well, Bob and I will just have to move up to Austin, find comfortable jobs with the state, and never have to worry about payroll and printing costs and keeping a business afloat.”
The suit was dismissed, of course. And the news goes on.