State of the Media: Small-Town News
Yes, the outsized glory of a sprawling Buc-ee’s and its sparkling restrooms is a wonder to behold for those of us who love a road trip, but for me, the singular joy of a Texas journey is made sweeter by pulling off of the interstate and meandering down two-lane highways and farm-to-market roads with impossible-to-recall numbers.
I like to find a gas station with an aging pump, one that sells more auto parts than overpriced jarred chow-chow. I like to pick up a fountain coke (What kind of coke? Dr Pepper, naturally) and rifle through the selection of community newspapers.
Following this little tradition, I’ve occasionally picked up a Jefferson Jimplecute on rambles through my piney-wooded ancestral homeland and appreciated the particular charm of the state’s fifth-oldest paper, founded in 1848. The name alone is enough to grab the attention of a wandering city girl, but anyone could find herself immersed in the unique yet universal dramas of close-knit community life: a tense school board meeting, a hard-fought softball win, an editorial about the sacrifice of a young local soldier.
In June, the small-town drama played out in the storied newspaper’s offices rather than in its pages. Citing months of financial disputes with the Jimp’s owner, the paper’s entire staff walked out just as soon as they’d filed the year’s graduation issue honoring local high schoolers.
“We went from two days, three days, seven days, two weeks, to two months at a time having to wait to cash a check,” former Jimp General Manager Hugh Lewis told me. “That really just became incredibly unsustainable.”
But when he and four other staffers — two full time, two part time — walked out of the Jimp offices, they didn’t stop to wash the ink from their hands. They started right back up again the next week with a new publication: the Marion County Herald.
“The staff here has a very vested interest in this community,” said Lewis. When the Jimp was struggling last year, he said, he’d even offered to buy it himself a couple of times. Those deals didn’t pan out, but Lewis had the benefit of having run the numbers on what it would take to keep a small-town paper going, and he and editor Sara Whitaker opened up shop.
The new paper already has its own Wikipedia entry and, according to Lewis, attracted more than 100 paying subscribers and thousands of page views in its first two weeks of publication both online and in print.
The Herald didn’t miss the Miss Jefferson pageant or a July Fourth pie-and-cake auction, and it was on hand at the county courthouse when the Supreme Court handed down its historic ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the country.
“To me, there’s no better sound than the sound of a printing press running, and I just love it,” said Lewis, who used connections from a previous job at the Texarkana Gazette to connect the Herald with a press.
While big-city papers tighten belts and lay off staff, Lewis said he believes community papers can, and will, continue to thrive.
“Community-focused newspapers are where it’s at,” he said. “Those are the groups that are going to long outlive some of our major metropolitan newspapers.”
Lewis told me that the Herald has already garnered plenty of community support—even as the transplanted staff received some jeers for leaving the Jimp (well, a “duster” in the “gushers & dusters” section of the Longview News-Journal). And there’s no shortage of small-town news to support a little friendly competition.
“If I had the funding, I could probably keep two or three full-time reporters busy,” said Lewis.
Indeed, the presses are still running at the Jimp, too, whose owner, Bob Palmer, told the Longview paper that he has a different view of the walk-out. Palmer said the Jimp staffers were responsible for the kerfuffle: “It’s difficult to pay someone when they don’t send out the bills and the money doesn’t come in.”
That doesn’t figure to Lewis, who is nevertheless politely tight-lipped when it comes to the details of his staff’s departure. Lewis said he had some suspicions about why the Jimp was having such trouble issuing checks over the last year, but he declined to elaborate.
“It’s not my place,” he said. “We wish them well.”
It’s not quite a “bless their hearts,” but it’s close.