In June of 1983, just two weeks after graduating from Princeton, I packed up my car and drove to the Texas Panhandle to start my first job, as a reporter for The Perryton Herald.
I had taken the job because I wanted to postpone graduate school and had no desire to work for a bank in New York, which were beginning to seem like the only options open to a recent Princeton graduate. I wanted to see and do something different. Perryton satisfied my thirst for the exotic in every respect. My father knew the Herald’s publisher, Harold Hudson, and Harold was looking for a reporter.
With a population (then) of just under 8,000, Perryton sits at the very top of Texas, just 7 miles from the Oklahoma Panhandle. Everyone in town knew the distance exactly, because Ochiltree County, Texas, was dry at the time and there were three bars within a stone’s throw on the Oklahoma side of the state line. The West Texas sky, arching from one edge of the horizon to the other over the table-flat, treeless plains, evokes feelings of awe and isolation. As Joe Hataway, our sheriff, once remarked to me, “There’s nothing between us and the North Pole except barbed wire.”
Perryton was founded Aug. 22, 1919, when the towns of Ochiltree, Texas, and Gray, Okla., merged; houses, churches, stores, and the then-Ochiltree Herald were all hauled on wagons to the newly laid tracks of the Panhandle & Santa Fe Railway. Agriculture has always been central to the area’s identity — Perryton bills itself as the “Wheatheart of the Nation” — as is cattle ranching, but since the 1960s, oil and gas exploration has driven the county’s economy.
Harold Hudson was a legend in West Texas journalism. He had started at the Herald as a typesetter’s apprentice when he was 13, returned as a reporter after World War II, and bought the paper in 1959. Ron Filkins, the Herald’s editor, handled the day-to-day assignments in a friendly but brusque manner. On the night I arrived in town, Ron opened his front door, looked me up and down through the screen, and said, “I thought you were going to be taller.”
The Herald’s office was (and is) a squat, windowless building a block off Main Street, its interior dark with faux wood paneling and cigarette smoke. Our staff was lean, though robust by modern standards. Harold wrote the editorials, but Ron, society editor Kayla Parvin, and I wrote everything else. Pat, Jill, and Norma Jean sold ads. Joyce handled circulation. Patty was the receptionist and copy editor. In the back shop, Wanda set the type, Bill laid out the pages, and two pressmen, who tended to come and go, ran the presses, which printed not only the Herald every Thursday and Saturday, but newspapers from several surrounding towns.
Harold and Ron taught me that there are a hundred stories a day to write about in a small town, if only someone will look for them. We covered everything: city council and county commission meetings, politics, fires and accidents, goings-on in the local schools, and prospects for the wheat harvest. I wrote human-interest stories, such as interviewing the old woman who ran the fireworks stand just outside of town. This being Friday Night Lights country, high school sports also received a lot of ink. Local voices were plentiful. Harold and Ron both wrote columns, and after a few months I also got a column, where I could write about whatever interested me, usually at excessive length.
Most of that went in the front section. The second section of the paper contained a feature called Past Perryton, with photos and snippets of old stories in the archives. Each issue also contained engagement, wedding, anniversary, and birth announcements in meticulous detail, as well as reports from clubs and social organizations such as the Rotary and the Jaycees. We published the names of everyone who had been admitted to or discharged from the hospital (in those pre-HIPAA days), the school-lunch menus, and the oil and gas drilling report. Before each issue closed, one of my jobs was to call the local undertaker, Ivan Boxwell (known — I swear — as “Digger”), and find out if anyone had died, so we could write the obituary.
My favorite corner of the Herald, though, was a column called “Northwest of Perryton,” which was submitted faithfully — and without pay — by Mrs. Billie B. Sanders, who insisted on putting her marital status in her byline and relayed the social news from her part of the county. Typical entries ran along the lines of: “Mrs. Wayne Hill of Kermit, Texas, called on Mrs. Wilma Dieball and also Mrs. Terry Symons and children on Monday,” and “Mrs. Leroy Lemaster of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is here visiting relatives at this time.”
Last, and critically not least, were the advertisements sprinkled throughout the pages: display ads for the local stores, real-estate agencies, and banks, as well as classifieds listing job openings, apartment rentals, and things for sale. The first rule of newspaper economics was drummed into me: We printed only as many pages as there were ads to pay for them.
I look back on my time at the Herald with pride, but small-town journalism isn’t what it used to be. Newspapers are in crisis everywhere, perhaps nowhere so acutely as in small-town, rural America. According to a 2018 report, “The Expanding News Desert,” published by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media in the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, more than one in five newspapers around the country have closed since 2004. Half of the counties in the United States have only one paper, and almost 200 counties have none at all. These areas have come to be called “news deserts.”
There are many reasons why print journalism is in decline, but the loss of advertising revenue tops the list. Supermarkets that used to place full-page display ads increasingly post their weekly specials on proprietary store apps or in direct emails. People sell their old furniture on Craigslist, check movie listings on Fandango, and hunt for jobs on Monster.com. Those photos of the Halloween parade or the high school pep rally that once filled the Herald’s pages (and induced parents to buy extra copies) now go straight to Facebook.
Losing the local paper may leave a town poorer spiritually, but most were already poor in other respects. Studies show that areas without a local newspaper tend to be economically depressed and have lower education levels. Critically, many also lack access to affordable high-speed internet that would enable residents to take advantage of online alternatives.
Academic studies of the spreading news desert have almost become commonplace. For the relatively few Princeton alumni who own or work at small, local papers, the story is more personal. They are hanging on as best they can.
Tom McLaughlin ’84, the editor and publisher of the South Boston, Va., News & Record, is the easiest man in town to find. His desk in the newspaper’s office faces a large plate-glass window, where he is visible to anyone walking down Broad Street.
In 1973, after making money in the oil-shipping business, McLaughlin’s father, Tucker, bought two South Boston papers, The Record-Advertiser and the South Boston News, which he quickly merged. Three years later, he bought another paper, The Mecklenburg Sun, in the neighboring county. The family still owns both. McLaughlin’s mother became editor of the News & Record and continued to work there until her death last year.
South Boston (population 8,100), just north of the North Carolina border, has two newspapers, a rare occurrence in any town, large or small. The McLaughlins’ competitor, The Gazette-Virginian, has been owned by the Shelton family even longer than the McLaughlins have owned the News & Record. At times their rivalry has been cultural as well as economic; the Sheltons, McLaughlin says, were wealthy, conservative, and outspoken opponents of integration. The News & Record, in contrast, proudly supported integration and positioned itself as the people’s paper.
Nevertheless, the News & Record was in financial trouble almost from the beginning. Fixing that would be Tom McLaughlin’s responsibility. Though he had been editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian and interviewed for jobs with the Knight-Ridder chain, his career path seemed preordained. Returning to the family business as soon as he graduated in 1984, he says, his role “was pretty simple — to try to stabilize the papers and stop the bleeding.”
“This was an important endeavor to our family, and it was obviously going to die if I didn’t come home,” he says. “I was 21. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
In the decades since, McLaughlin has been proud that he has kept both papers afloat and always met payroll for his bare-bones staff. They publish every Monday and Thursday in South Boston (the Mecklenburg paper comes out weekly) and have dug deeply on important stories, such as investigating the environmental track record of a large corporate hog farm that moved into town. Recently, McLaughlin has editorialized against uranium mining in the neighboring county, which he believes threatens the local rivers and water supply. “We try to shed light where light needs to be shed,” he says simply.
Although he considers himself in tune with his community, McLaughlin cites three issues that cost him subscriptions and advertisers: his condemnation of the war in Iraq (“Some guy came in here and wanted to punch me out”), his support for gay marriage, and his 2016 endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. He professes to be unconcerned. “People know where we stand. We’ve been doing this for 40 years.”
It is a cliché to say that journalists write the first draft of history, but McLaughlin is sensitive to his civic responsibility. “We are the record of this community’s life,” he says. “History is important. So is seeing the faces of your community and hearing the stories of the people you know and live with and care about. No one else is going to tell those stories.”
The question is: Will anyone pay for them? Subscription numbers are flat in South Boston but higher in Mecklenburg, McLaughlin says, thanks (ironically) to the fact that the Sun is now the only paper in the county. Advertising revenue in both places hasn’t grown in a decade. “Thankfully, we haven’t fallen off a cliff like some newspapers,” he reasons, “but we certainly have struggled to grow.”
Though an older brother sells ads, the burden of running the business has fallen on McLaughlin’s shoulders. His two sisters moved to the West Coast, urging him to get out, as well. “There were times when they’d say, ‘I wish you hadn’t gone home,’ ” he recalls. One can’t help but think of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart ’32’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Oh, don’t say that!” McLaughlin hollers, holding his head in his hands. “God, I hate that damned movie!” He’s joking, but also not joking. “Yes, I’ve been told this before,” he admits, turning serious again. “It’s not something I dwell on.” Nevertheless, he and his wife do not anticipate passing the papers on to their two daughters. Newspapers are a rewarding but precarious way to make a living.
“There is no aspect of this work that I don’t like,” McLaughlin says. “The only thing I don’t like is having to do it all at once. I do production, I run the business, I do ad sales, I do editorial, I do reporting, I do editing.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m going to keep on doing it. But you have to ask yourself, why would anyone else do this?”
Many newspapers, from the News & Record to The New York Times, are still family-run. Robin Martin ’75 inherited both the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Taos News from her father, Robert McKinney. The New Mexican was already a century old when McKinney bought it, but the News came about almost by accident. According to Martin, her father was sitting around the pool with artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1959 when O’Keeffe mentioned that the Taos paper had gone out of business. McKinney jumped in, sent some of his staff up from Santa Fe, and published his first edition the same week.
Taos is a thriving tourist destination, and that is an important reason, Martin says, why the News is doing well. It has been named the best weekly newspaper in the United States eight times by the National Newspaper Association. Ad revenues are holding steady, and circulation has stabilized at about 10,000, which she credits to an energetic new editor and a redesign.
“My philosophy for newspapering is to have the best possible news report, advertising mix, print quality, and delivery. I often hear from readers that I have succeeded in that.” Martin published those words in the Raton (N.M.) Comet, a weekly paper she launched in 2013. But in that instance, she failed. Seven years earlier, she had purchased the nearby Sangre de Christo Chronicle. In 2015, however, Martin closed the Comet and sold the Chronicle, which now only exists online. Colfax County, where both towns are located, no longer has a daily or weekly newspaper.
Asked why the papers failed, Martin is blunt. “I shut them down as they were losing too much money for too long,” she writes in an email. “Raton is drying up and blowing away. Angel Fire, where the Chronicle was based, never recovered from the housing crash of 2008. I suppose both counties are news deserts now, not specifically due to the demise of journalism but because of the declining population in rural areas.”
As Martin has seen in Taos, local papers in thriving areas can still do well. That is also a lesson that J. Robert Hillier ’59 *61, an architect and the owner of Princeton’s weekly Town Topics, has learned. “I call Princeton the best little city in the world,” he says proudly. There are lots of small businesses to buy advertisements, and the paper, which is free locally, relies heavily on news and sports coverage. Hillier agrees, though, that his paper’s health is closely tied to Princeton’s. “The town is very involved in itself,” he says. “Everybody cares.”
People still care in areas that have become news deserts, of course, but in many respects they have lost their voice. Princeton sociology professor Robert Wuthnow has spent much of his career studying small towns, most recently in his book The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America. Local papers do more than chronicle a town’s history, he says; their editorials can give a town its own distinctive voice. “Local newspapers enable a place to say, ‘We are a community. We have ownership over something we call our own.’”
In October, I visited Perryton for the first time in nearly 15 years. Several friends in town had warned me of the Herald’s decline. I knew that already, as I have kept up my subscription. The story doesn’t take long to summarize.
Harold Hudson’s children took over the paper after his death in 1991. Within a few years, blaming the rising cost of newsprint, his son Jim got out of the printing business and sold the press to a company in South America. The Herald is now printed in Shamrock, Texas, two hours away, and someone has to drive there twice a week to pick the copies up. Jim Hudson died suddenly in 2014, and his sister, Mary Dudley, is now the publisher and editor.
The papers, which used to have 24 pages in each issue, now have only eight. There are no local columnists, and the editorials are lifted from larger daily papers in other parts of the country through a news service. Mary blames much of the paper’s decline on competition from the internet and a slump in the area’s economy. Several papers in the Panhandle have folded over the last decade, but others continue to provide strong local news coverage and an independent editorial voice.
In superficial ways, the Herald office has not changed. It still smells of cigarettes, and the newsroom wall is still lined with old awards. But the back shop is empty, Harold’s old office is dark, and Mary works alone in what used to be the advertising office. The Herald’s one reporter died last year at 78, though a new, younger reporter has since been hired.
My nostalgia turned to sadness and then to something darker. There are still stories to be told, if only someone will look. But they aren’t being told, and there is no one else to tell them. Mary says she has been approached by potential buyers but is not yet ready to sell. New energy, maybe as young and green as I was, might someday step in, but it had better hurry. It’s impossible to imagine Perryton without the Herald, but equally painful to see it reduced to a shadow.
Without thinking, I headed north, toward the Oklahoma line. A beer would have been nice, but those old roadhouses have closed, too.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.