CANADIAN — Thursday arrived as usual in the Texas Panhandle. But a new edition of The Canadian Record, this gritty town’s definitive source of local news for more than 130 years, did not come with it.
The green flag that told the townspeople that there was a new edition of the newspaper, usually 28 pages long and full of the words and photos of their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids, did not fly outside the weekly’s Main Street office.
The Record, owned by Laurie Ezzell Brown’s family since 1948, suspended its print edition March 2. The final front-page photograph captured billowing smoke. The banner headline yelled, “WILDLAND FIRE BLAZES PATH INTO OKLAHOMA.” Brown wrote the accompanying news article. Next to it was a brief about another fire that killed a local woman. There was a feature about the upcoming beef expo and a notice about the upcoming school board election. The school page featured a one-act play at the high school. And the community page had a local woman’s blueberry scone recipe. Brown had requested the scones be featured after tasting them.
The only notice the paper provided its readers that the copy they held in their hands would be the last were a few paragraphs on the second page, where Brown often mused about the only town she has called home.
“It is harder to leave our posts here at The Record than you can imagine, but it also seems even more necessary,” Brown’s goodbye column started.
“We have decided to suspend publication with this issue,” it went on, “having felt we have done what could be done, and that there seems little more to say.”
The end of The Record’s print edition — even if temporary as Brown continues the search for a potential successor — offers a fresh reminder of how perilous the news business is for most local publishers and the communities they are part of. Rural newspapers like The Record face compounding threats. Not only do publishers face the same industry pressures of rising newsprint costs and an ever-expanding internet and social media landscape, but unlike their big-city peers, they also must navigate the challenges of serving a stagnant or declining population.
In their wake are yawning news deserts that often lead to lower civic engagement, higher taxes and misinformation, according to research from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Already, Canadian civic leaders are wondering how they will keep the town’s 2,300 residents updated on looming issues such as a highway redesign, the upcoming beef show and who made the honor roll at the high school.
“I am very sad for her. I’m very sad for the community,” said Wendie Cook, a Canadian City Council member. “As a collective, we don’t know what we have lost.”
The decision to sell The Record was not a market-driven decision, Brown said. The paper turns a small profit. It is debt-free. The family owns the building where they have worked to document Hemphill County’s history for seven decades.
Instead, it is intensely personal. Brown is tired. She has worked at the paper since she was a child — rarely taking more than a long weekend to recover from the frenetic pace that comes with covering city council meetings, ribbon cuttings and wildfires.
Now 70, Brown is determined to not die on the job as her father did in 1993 covering a football game.
“I have grandchildren I barely know,” she said behind her desk, for the first time in her life not facing a deadline.
Built with railroad steel and incorporated in 1887, Canadian has sat at the top of the Panhandle as the example of what rural Texas ought to be. At least that’s what folks here will tell you.
They’re tough but empathetic. Forward-looking yet conservative. There is an unrelenting demand for excellence from their children, who are in 4H and rodeo, play football and act in the school plays. The race for high school valedictorian starts in the fifth grade.
The city’s Main Street is anchored by the refurbished Palace Theatre. Across the street is the coffee shop owned by Brown’s son. The street is home to a few antique and consignment shops, doctor’s offices and banks. Despite the town’s best effort to keep the economic artery of the city alive, a collection of empty buildings have for sale or lease signs up — like the one in the corner soda fountain shop and ice cream parlor.
It’s the sort of place where you can still have disagreements among friends, said Andy Holloway, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agriculture and natural resources agent for Hemphill County.
“That’s the way it used to be in America,” he said. “That’s the way it is in Canadian.”
Like most rural Texas towns, this one has a sense of isolation.
It’s closer to Oklahoma City than Dallas. Austin is a world and eight-hour car ride away. So Canadians take care of themselves and pray state lawmakers don’t do anything to make it worse. Thanks to a few wealthy families, a local museum has hosted exhibits ranging from 20th-century Japanese woodblock prints to Pulitzer winner Rube Goldberg’s cartoons to early sketches by Rembrandt. The city, county and other governments have occasionally come together — often at the insistence of The Record’s editorial page — to spruce up downtown and keep up the football stadium and the middle school auditorium.
You wouldn’t know it on one of the last days of winter when the town is gray and the trees are just empty branches bound together by a trunk, but a fall foliage festival draws hundreds to the banks of the Canadian River each year.
Since 1890, The Record has chronicled it all. Take this 1933 headline, for example: “Mr. And Mrs. W.D. Roberts overcome by fumes from stove.”
Several years after the Roberts family made a full recovery, Brown’s father, Ben Ezzell, purchased The Record.
Ezzell had grown up in Texas’ cotton country. After returning from World War II, he refused to pick another piece of cotton. Instead, he would be a newspaperman. He found Canadian and The Record. After working alongside the owner as an apprentice and part owner, Ezzell bought the paper outright in 1948 with the help of a Missouri businessman.
In the decades that followed, Ezzell, a Republican, would enrage the town’s Dixiecrats by championing for civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War. As a teenager, Brown followed her father’s lead and protested the war, which led to a ban on her joining the National Honor Society at school.
Brown would be the only one of Ezzell’s six children who went to work at the paper. She wanted to be around her parents. She was proud of their newspaper.
As an adult, she started off in advertising. But day after day, she begged her father for more responsibility in the newsroom.
“I really wanted to write,” she told The Texas Tribune. “I always wanted to write.”
Ezzell was wary to relinquish control, Brown said. He was incensed with technology he didn’t know how to use like the computer his family bought to help manage the books.
And so when Ezzell died suddenly, Brown and her mother, Nancy, were unprepared.
They faced a steep learning curve.
Neither Brown nor her mother, who helped manage the office, had any formal training to put out a newspaper.
Brown’s top priority was consistency. The Record would not miss a beat, she pledged. It was late a few times, Brown conceded. But there was never a gap in publishing. Subscribers canceled their subscriptions; they didn’t think Brown could swing it.
Journalism has long been a male-dominated industry — especially in management. That alone makes Brown’s 30-year tenure as editor and publisher remarkable. What’s more: The Record’s staff — often referred to as “The Wrecking Crew” — has been nearly all women since the day Brown took over.
“We’ve allowed a few special men to join us,” Brown said. “But it has been a woman-powered newspaper.”
Acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with the editorial page she had inherited, Brown set down a rule: Report first. She would never write an editorial about an issue she hadn’t fully covered in the news pages first.
Throughout the decades, Brown would become a sentinel for Canadian — always demanding the best, as she saw it, for her town. Brown’s editorial page called on elected officials to strike a decades-old and forgotten kennel code that had prohibited residents to own more than three dogs. It would support a private youth correctional facility to create jobs in a town defined by booms and busts of the oil and gas industry. It would publicly support investments for the football stadium, but only after Brown met with the superintendent to ensure the middle school’s auditorium was also refurbished.
“I think you have to fight every day for the survival of a small rural town,” Brown said.
Not only did she inherit her father’s business, she also inherited his moniker as the liberal publisher. It’s not a label she entirely rejects.
“I was perfectly capable of making people mad,” she said.
During those early days on the beat, Brown attended every meeting of the city council and county commissioners and the school and hospital boards. She trailed the football team to every away game. Now, she holds the institutional knowledge of the town.
“I’ve learned a lot about the people I live with,” she said.
Though a slog, it’s not the meetings that stand out in Brown’s memory.
She remembers a high school student who joined the service after 9/11. Before the student shipped off, Brown spent time with him talking about sports photography. The young Canadian resident died in a helicopter crash overseas. His funeral was protested by the Westboro Baptist Church, a radical anti-LGBTQ Kansas congregation known for disrupting military funerals with anti-gay protests.
A much larger crowd, including many men on motorcycles waving American flags, blocked out the protesters. That day gave Brown — who had protested Vietnam — a new appreciation of service and valor.
“You see people in a different way when you see what they do and what they risk,” Brown said.
Hemphill County will join a growing list of Texas counties without a newspaper if The Record ultimately stops publishing.
At least 27 counties — all of them rural — have no paper, according to a national study on the state of local news from the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. What replaces them, research has found, is a mix of misinformation, higher taxes, greater political polarization and lower voter turnout.
And then there is the loss you can’t measure, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“There is something that is unquantifiable that you lose,” he said. “You lose the central beam of the civic infrastructure. It connects everything to everything else. It gives people a safe neutral space in which to operate.”
Brown’s history and the hunt for a potential buyer are the subject of a new documentary “For the Record,” which is currently being shown at film festivals across the country. It will be screened April 13 at the University of Texas’ AT&T Hotel and Conference Center amphitheater in Austin prior to the start of the 24th International Symposium on Online Journalism. The viewing is free for the public but registration is required.
Residents like Holloway, the AgriLife agent, are pushing officials to action. He’s called on the town’s economic development group to help find a potential buyer.
“Without a newspaper our community, will die on the vine,” he said.
Russ Jones, a local ranchhand since 1984, said The Record was a way for him to stay connected with the town’s schools.
“I just like keeping up with the kids,” he said.
He “hates” that the paper is stopping publication. But he’s lost a newspaper before. He used to get the Amarillo Globe delivered to his front porch daily. An avid reader, he’d sometimes meet his carrier at the door before the sun came up, he said.
He’ll go on listening to the local talk radio station out of Perryton and watching the Amarillo TV stations.
Glenda Nix, who moved back to Canadian about a decade ago after living out of state, remembers growing up with her twin sister and giggling over items in The Record’s police blotter. There was always something about a cow, she laughed, reflecting on The Record’s archives at a recent lunch.
While her family subscribed to the paper for years, she has read The Record “less and less.”
She’ll continue to get her news from friends, Facebook and church, she said.
Brown tried to sell The Record and was close to a deal until it fell through during the final days of contract negotiations earlier this year, she said.
The day after she called off the sale, a local family sued Brown for defamation over her coverage of their son’s death.
Thomas Brown — no relation to Laurie Ezzell Brown — was the 18-year-old class president of Canadian High School who went missing the day before Thanksgiving 2016 and was later found dead. For years, the inconclusive nature of his death has hung over the town fueling suspicion and rumors. Numerous theories have been floated and investigated, including by the Texas attorney general’s office. No charges have ever been filed.
Most recently, The Record’s editorial page has called for the removal of giant signs placed around downtown that remind the town of the teenager’s death. “There is a killer among us,” the signs read, asking anyone with information about the death to call a tip line.
The signs, Brown said, now only serve to punish the town and its reputation. Who would want to stop for a burger or to fill up their gas tank in a town with a killer on the loose, let alone move there, Brown reasons.
“As a community — and I believe I speak for many, if not all — we’ve had enough,” she wrote in an editorial last fall.
Brown calls the lawsuit frivolous. The family, she says, has never asked for a correction or clarification for the dozens of articles and editorials she has written over the years.
The family’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
If there is any hope to sell the newspaper, the lawsuit will need to be settled first, Brown said.
The story of The Record’s demise may be less about the economics of the news business as it is the economics of rural America.
Texas’ rural population is declining. Many people are leaving for urban centers. The lucky counties like Hemphill aren’t losing people too quickly — its population has for the last few decades held at about 3,000.
The county has seen influxes of transient oil and gas workers. As much as the city is defined by the Canadian River and the train tracks, it has been punctuated by boom and bust cycles. The only vestige of the last boom is the deserted and calcified trailer homes to one side of 2nd Street, which bisects the city.
“I don’t know if we’ve reached bottom yet,” Joe Jarosek, the city manager, said.
Brown promises that the rural way of life is worth it. If there is blight in Canadian, there is also a tight-knit community and access to nature that can’t be found in big cities.
Not all hope is lost for Panhandle publications. Sixty miles northwest of Canadian in Spearman, another rural town of nearly 3,000 people, a weekly newspaper has been given new life.
Suzanne Bellsnyder purchased the Reporter-Statesman, founded in 1907, last fall. Bellsynder, 50, bought the paper after spending two decades in Austin working at the Capitol. She returned to her hometown in the Panhandle in 2014 to help her aging parents.
She said she bought the newspaper — with only months of journalism experience working alongside the previous owner — to hold the government accountable, maintain a historical record and help build the community.
The Reporter-Statesman is a family affair. Bellsynder’s daughter, who is away at college, helps her build ads, just as Brown helped her dad so many decades ago.
Bellsnyder calls herself a “staunch” Republican. And she admits it has been hard to check her opinions. She knows how much she has to learn about reporting and writing. “It takes a lot of confidence to write a news article,” she said. She hopes to grow the paper, which costs about $1,000 a week to produce and has not yet turned a profit, into a rural success story.
“Entrepreneurialism is what’s going to save rural Texas,” she said. “It’s what created it. And it’s what will save it.”
The Record’s office smells like a newsroom should. The scent of old paper and musk hits you as you walk in from off the street. The air is full of adrenaline and irreverence.
What little silence the newsroom has is cut with the crackle of a police scanner. Among the countless newspaper prizes hung on the walls is a portrait of Brown’s mother. Her ashes sit on a bookshelf behind the desk she occupied throughout her life.
“Mom always said she felt useless if she wasn’t at work,” Brown said.
Even without a print edition to put out, Brown and her two colleagues — Mary Smithee, the office manager and “comic relief,” and Cathy Ricketts, a reporter — work away at their desks.
For an unspecified amount of time, Brown has promised to continue to keep The Record’s website and Facebook page active. She’ll post weather and wildfire reports, obituaries and other “stuff people really need to know about.”
“We’re exhausted,” Brown said, a draft of a Facebook post lingering on her screen. “I can’t do everything anymore.”
For so many years, she tried to produce a newspaper her parents would be proud of and that was worthy of her hometown. She daydreamed about what this moment would be like, handing off the paper to a new owner who cared as much about preserving the intertwined legacy of Canadian and The Record as she did.
“Without a town there is no newspaper,” she said. “I would say without a newspaper, there is no town. But that’s my own skewed view of things.”
Instead there is guilt. Guilt that she let down her family, her town and her fellow rural newspapers publishers.
And she worries what will fill the void. Maybe nothing? Maybe something worse: gossip and hearsay and conspiracy theories.
Maybe when the lawsuit is settled, she’ll find a buyer. Or she’ll put out one final keepsake edition.
Or maybe she’ll start a blog. She’s unchained to a relentless deadline. Anything is possible.
“If it is to go on, it needs to be simpler,” she said. “There is news we need to convey.”
Disclosure: Facebook, Northwestern University – Medill School of Journalism, Texas A&M AgriLife and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.