Page 8


e nei9 414% PM By Buck Ramsey From Zeus to Nixon, from Olympus to Corporate America, we are handed examples teaching us that the big and the petty are by no means mutually exclusive. So this story is no shocker. Just another example. The story is of how a little country newspaper began reporting on a giant utility company’s business with the public beyond what was contained in company press releases and of how the giant company, in the manner of the spoiled, went about getting back at the little newspaper and the little guy responsible for its reporting. The giant utility is Southwestern Public Service Company, the public electric utility for much of the High Plains; the little country newspaper is the semiweekly Canyon News, circulation 3,500; and the little guy responsible is Carroll Wilson, editor and associate publisher of the paper \(though it must be noted that, while he makes the assignments and writes the editorials on SPS, the bulk of the reporting on the company is done by Laurie Telfair, the other half of the paAs a result of the News’s policy of giving inforination to the public beyond the normal fare of company requests and justifications for rate-hikes one after the other, SPS, in a fit of pique, slashed its advertising in the paper in an overt attempt to bring its reporting in line with what the company likes to read and with what the remainder of regional media generally reports. It also reacted against Wilson personally. He is a prolific writer who, in addition to cranking out hundreds of inches of copy twice weekly for his paper, keeps a healthy flow of freelance materials circulating. His main market is Accent West magazine, a regional slick published in Amarillo which has heretofore depended on Wilson for many of its stories. Under normal circumstances, SPS would be one of its more likely and lucrative sources of advertising revenue, but the company made it plain to the magazine that it will not advertise in its pages so long as Wilson is allowed to write for it. The Canyon News first caused the SPS lower lip to protrude when, in 1976, the News looked askance at the utility’s proposal to better serve the Plains public by building a nuclear-powered generating plant in the Panhandle. “I’ll admit that we were inclined toward a more thorough investigation of the issue because of a personal prejudice against nuclear power plants,” Wilson said, “but that didn’t keep us from printing their full side of the story. We just went a little further than that. I took about two months to get a fairly decent layman’s education on nuclear plants and used the information I acquired to straighten up SPS’s slanted statements about what it was up to and point out some outright fibs they were making to the public.” This was something new for SPS. The Amarillo Daily News and Globe-Times generally set the tone for reporting in the region, and SPS had long basked complacent in its “noble public servant” image fostered and maintained by the corporate Amarillo house organ attitude of those daily a.m. and p.m. newspapers The News’s novel two-sided reporting of its handling of the public clearly shocked SPS and enlivened the public to voice opposition to the nuclear plant. The company found itself with a public relations problem to which it was unaccustomed and for which it was unprepared, and the nuclear plant project is, as they ‘say, now on the back burner. Wilson gained from that experience with SPS a healthy suspicion of company claimsa suspicion that would serve the public well and keep SPS in something of a dither during the time of rate-hike request after rate-hike request to come. SPS had long been accustomed to getting quick, rubber-stamp approval of ratehike requests from city officials of the 60-plus cities for which it has the electric monopoly by lulling them into a false sense of mutual public concern, by convincing them that the utility, like the elected officials, had only the good of the public in mind. But the Canyon News began blowing that cover. Since July 13, 1978, the News has printed more than 80 stories and editorials concerning the utility company, and though the company has cried foul in every other way, it has not been able to point out any falsehood in the paper’s reports. Among other matters, it reported that: city rate consultants hired in Austin found that the company had stuffed into its coffers many millions of dollars in overcharges through ‘the automatic fuel adjustment clause; the utility had “sweetheart” contracts with its wholly owned fuel purchasing company, TUCO, that had earned the company millions of dollars it tried to deny were utility company profits when making its repeated pitches to city governments for rate-hikes; SPS was claiming dire financial straits in asking for a rate increase while at the same time reporting to its stockholders that the company was enjoying a “banner year”; SPS proposed through its new rates to hike costs to farmers far in excess of its raises to other customers; the SPS chairman of the board was one of the incorporators of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, the industry organization that lobbied hard and heavy in the last legislative session to take original rate-making jurisdiction out of the hands of city governments and put it in the hands of the friendly, distant Public Utility Commission in Austin; the company put into effect a rate schedule that brought in more revenue than the PUC had finally allowed; SPS directors, in defiance of PUC orders, upped the company equity in TUCO by renaming a loan as equity to earn even more. After all that, SPS informed the Canyon News that, as an economy move, it was cutting back on newspaper advertising throughout the area and that its advertising purchases in the newspaper would be drastically curtailed. But a quick check revealed that the company 18 SEPTEMBER 21, 1979 44.*4.41.111816116116.641111=10111111.11.-,,,..,,,,,,t