Reflections after a decade in community journalism: It isn’t supposed to be easy

I am entering my second decade at the helm of the Whitesboro News-Record.

Granted, I’ve left a few brief times and come back, but all roads have led us back here.  This January will mark the 11th anniversary of my first being named the editor and a lot has changed for me in that time.

We have one more child than we did back then and the twin babies we had back then aren’t babies anymore.

I managed to earn a master’s degree along the way.

We were able to buy a house.

I am the only face in this office that was here when I first started more than 10 years ago.

Time marches on.

I thumb through the archives each week and see the faces of people we’ve lost over the past 10 years. I was blessed to have known them all.

I think ahead another 10 years and choke up at the number of beloved community members we hold dear today who won’t be there with us then.

The community newspaper does a few things: We report on births. We report on graduations. We report on marriages. We report on deaths. We report on all the highlights in a person’s life. We tell the stories of the people with whom we share our corner of the planet.

We do all these things together with you. We live, love, grieve and grow together, as a community.

It is these connections that keep me in this business.

It is these relationships I hold so dear. Life is short and we must cherish each other.

I was reminded of this last Wednesday when the police scanner reported a seven-car accident on Hwy. 377.

It was pouring rain and we hadn’t gone to print yet. I knew what I needed to do.

I’ve covered too many of these scenes, but never one quite like this. It was dark, and wet, and cold. There was wreckage everywhere and I couldn’t make sense of it.

Over the years I’ve developed a habit when walking onto an accident scene where I know someone has lost their life.

I find a first responder I know well— a familiar face— and I ask, “Is it anyone we know?”

Too often, it is.

This is where the lines of objectivity in responsible journalism can get skewed by emotion.

And this was the case last week. There was a man declared dead as a result of this massive pile-up. I found out later I knew him.

Albeit, years ago, but I knew him.

He was a high school boss. I hauled hay for him and fed his cows on occasion.

I even once sold him a piece of furniture I had built.

It’s times like these covering the news in your community hits home.

It’s certainly not the first time it’s happened either.

As community journalists, we sometimes must report events that are the absolute low points in someone’s life. And it is often people we know.

I hesitate to offer examples about each and every one of these experiences in the course of my career— in the spirit of not reliving them, but they are plentiful and they are hard to deal with.

This job can leave you feeling physically beaten at the end of a day.

The degree of tragedy in which you encountered with a given story can correlate to this beating.

I have been left feeling like I’ve literally been kicked in the gut more than once.

Maybe I internalize the pain of others too much. Maybe I feel guilty about having to make news of their sorrow.

Maybe I wish all news was good news.

Last Wednesday was one of these times.

After we put the paper to bed that night, I couldn’t rest my thoughts.

I took pen to notebook and jotted down a few words:

“And just like that, the emergency scanner goes off. Seven car pile-up on the highway. At least one deceased. Calling for the jaws of life. Not enough ambulances available. Bystanders pitching in. Performing CPR. And the community newspaper is there to document it all. The hard work of heroes and the sorrow of families. Seven lives changed forever and at least one life ended. I’ve been doing this a long time and it will never be easy.”

That last sentence got me.

“Will this ever be easy?” I asked myself.

Almost immediately I answered myself, “It can’t be easy. I can’t let it become easy.”

The day this becomes easy is the day I’ve lost empathy for people in times of sorrow. The day we lose empathy is the day we need to be doing something else. We can’t serve our communities properly without proper empathy.

No matter your line of work, no matter your passion — we all have an effect on the people we serve. Our community. Our tribe.

No matter your work, you serve. We were put here to serve others.

The day we lose our empathy is the day we cease to serve.

Don’t lose your empathy. Service is not supposed to be easy.

 

Is it time to remove your doorknob?

William Faulkner has often been cited as one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.

He was born Sept. 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi.

Wednesday was his 122nd birthday.

His publishing career began in 1919 but he was most prolific in the 1920s and 1930s,

Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1954 for his book A Fable and again in 1962 for his final novel The Reivers. His 1929 book The Sound and the Fury was named sixth on its list of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

He composed multiple other works that appear on similar lists.

Faulkner lived and worked on his family’s country estate in Oxford, Mississippi.

His morning routine included rising early.

He enjoyed eggs and broiled steak for breakfast with a pot of coffee.

He then retired daily to his small writer’s study to labor over his work.

There, he wrote his novels by hand and later typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable typewriter.

He was diligent about his routine and hated distractions and interruptions.

So much so, Faulkner would remove the door handle when he entered his study.

He’d take it with him to his desk in order to prevent unwanted distraction.

This way, no one could interrupt him.

How often do you get distracted from your work?

I am the world’s worst.

A grad school professor of mine once mused, “it seems your apartment is the cleanest when we are counting down the hours to a big exam or a due date on a paper.”

He was right.

For many of us, the minute we sit down to work is the same minute we remember 1,000 other things that “need to be done.”

For me, it’s usually unreasonable excuses like the sudden urge to organize my filing drawer or check my email inbox— again.

Many are distracted by social media.

Defeating these excuses requires action.

Faulkner needed to remove the doorknob.

What is your doorknob?

What keeps you from doing your best work and being productive?

Proverbs 4:25 says, “Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions.”

Sometimes “keeping our eyes straight ahead” means removing the door knob completely.

By doing this, we leave ourselves with no excuses and no escape from our work.

What is your doorknob?

What do you need to remove or improve to be the most productive you?

One may look at William Faulkner and say, “How does one win a Nobel Prize, two Pulitzer Prizes and essentially define an entire genre of American literature?”

He removed the doorknob. That’s how.

Imagine what could happen if we all did the same.

The world isn’t as mean as the news might indicate

I know this may seem ironic coming from a newsman, but does the news make you feel good on a regular basis?

Television news broadcasts can be depressing. Your social media feed can be worse.

Admittedly, some news in your community newspaper can bring you down from time to time as well.

More and more often, people may feel more afraid, angry, cynical, and hopeless after watching the evening news.

Broadcast news has developed over the years to compete with entertainment for TV ratings.

Back in the days of Walter Cronkite, the evening news was a loss leader.

CBS made money on “I Love Lucy,” not the “Evening News.”

Not anymore. Network news is a cash cow these days.

As a result, they tend to sensationalize danger and wrongdoing, evoking fears of corruption and impending doom.

Media nerds like me learned in graduate school about the negative effects this has on society. But the implications for everyday people are worth discussing. A communications writer, George Gerbner, coined a phrase for this: “Mean World Syndrome.” It deals with the impact watching television has on how we see the world.

The Mean World Syndrome goes one step further, describing the perception that the world is more dangerous than it really is, based on what’s shown in mass media.

There are thousands of studies that suggest a strong connection between television watching and aggression.

Over the decades, much has been done to shield children from violence on television, but some say that is missing the point. Instead of focusing on ways to hide the violence, some question the ways in which the violence is portrayed.

Violence on television and video games can normalize aggressive behavior and make viewers become desensitized.

Gerbner said the mind then becomes “militarized.”

The more dangerous the news shows the world to be, the more we believe them. We become fearful and anxious, depend more on authority, and take other precautionary measures.

“Growing up in a violence-laden culture breeds aggressiveness in some and desensitization, insecurity, mistrust, and anger in most. Punitive and vindictive action against dark forces in a mean world is made to look appealing, especially when presented as quick, decisive, and enhancing our sense of control and security,“ Gerbner once said.

Sound familiar?

He wrote that back in the 1970s.

Where, then, have we come now?

Did you know that crime is at a 30-year low in this country?

We are safer than we’ve ever been.

In every category: murders, rapes, drug use… every category… crime is down.

You couldn’t tell it by watching the 10 o’clock news.

The average newscast is about 26 minutes. There are about six minutes for weather and five for sports.

That leaves the station 19 minutes to grab and keep your attention.

The advertising is more effective that way.

When 15 minutes of the newscast is doom and gloom, leaving only two minutes, after commercials, for something positive — what is the mind supposed to think?

I’ve been guilty of this too.

As a newsman, I know what sells newspapers. A terrible car wreck or controversy at the school board meeting wins every time.

It is what it is.

But we err on the side of positive whenever possible.

I don’t think the TV guys do that as much.

At the end of the day, you are responsible for the media you consume. If you take in violence, you will be in a violent mood and that is not good.

We need to keep up with the world around us, but take it with a grain a salt. For every story about a violent crime, there are thousands of stories about communities coming together.

Seek out those stories.

Seek out the good stuff. There is always more good than there is bad.

Engaging in disengagement: Publisher drops his social media accounts

I joined Facebook about three years ago.

I deleted my Facebook account earlier this week.

I decided I didn’t need it.

Even crazier, I deleted the News-Record’s Facebook page as well.

While these moves may seem counterintuitive for a community journalism professional, I thought I’d air my reasoning out here.

Until September 2016, I had resisted Facebook.

I assumed it was a waste of time and was nothing I was interested in.

I was forced into joining by a graduate school professor who decided he would host all of his online lectures that semester on Facebook Live.

The university offered a perfectly fine video conferencing tool— it was better, actually— but, this professor saw something media savvy in the newly offered Facebook Live application.

While I assumed this was the act of a young Mass Communication professor trying to build his tenure application by trying new things, the mandate required each class member to join Facebook in order to be a member of these sessions.

So I did.

I remember telling my wife then, “You hear about all these people complaining about time wasting on Facebook; I’ll probably become one of those people.”

I was right. I did.

While I think social media is a great tool, I’ve seen its terrible side too.

We witnessed obscene comments— via social media— earlier this year when a football coach wasn’t rehired.

They played out for days as comments on the News-Record’s original report of a school board meeting.

I eventually removed the original post. I figured we wouldn’t print such trash in the actual newspaper— why let it play out there?

Then I was criticized, by some, for trying to “control the narrative.”

I’ve seen seemingly grounded intelligent people share blatantly false news reports on Facebook as if they were the gospel and then not care about them being false when it was pointed out.

This is part of the problem with Facebook.

Facebook told the Washington Post last week, “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.”

From day one, Facebook has maintained that it is a platform and not a publisher.

But they want the protections of a publisher— first amendment rights and all— without the responsibilities of a publisher.

As a publisher, I am subject to libel laws and standards of ethical practice.

The paramount of which is that what he publish must be true.

Yes, satire is protected; but satire is another story.

Facebook just admitted they don’t care if what they dispense is the truth.

Thereby, they are part of the problem.

They have also admitted their business model revolves about harvesting our personal data.

To Facebook, we are not an audience. We are the product they sell.

All of this legal and ethical stuff aside, me leaving Facebook was a personal decision.

I was just wasting too much time on it. I’d sit down to check my feed and look up and it would be an hour later.

And I wouldn’t be any better for the time I had spent.

I am not the type who can look at it for a minute and put it down for a day.

I am too nosey.

So, it’s time for me to re-center the energy of being nosey to more productive means— enterprising community newspaper reporting.

I was able to do that before Facebook came along.

I was also able to meet my wife, have four wonderful kids, graduate college, build a successful career, grow a great circle of friends and maintain a passion for performing live music— all without Facebook.

While you may miss pictures of what I’m having for dinner, I am still available for cup of coffee and conversation whenever you can stop by the office.

Businesses nowadays are concerned with “engagement.”

The trend is trying to find new ways to achieve “engagement” via social media.

To me, “engagement” is what we used to do before we got so busy monitoring our social media feeds.

It is a place we need to get back to.

For community newspapers, getting it right outweighs getting it first

Randy Mankin is a friend of mine. He is the owner and publisher of the The Eldorado Success  and Big Lake Wildcat, both award-winning weekly newspapers in West Texas. Eldorado, you may remember, was the site of the YFZ ranch, a religious compound headed by a man named Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs is a self-appointed prophet in a very extreme group on the far fringe of Fundamental Mormonism. His compound in Eldorado housed hundreds of people who were members of polygamist families. Randy’s work at the Success was instrumental in aiding the FBI investigation that ended in a raid on the FFZ Ranch.

Randy was featured in the recent Showtime documentary “Prophet’s Prey,” which recounts the story of the experience in Eldorado.

When the raid initially occurred, the national media descended on Eldorado. At first, he said, he was inviting to the national correspondents. He opened the back of his office to them and offered internet connections. He felt like he had entered the big leagues of national journalism.

Soon, though, Randy became disenchanted. He said the visiting correspondents were stealing his sources and, even worse, getting the story wrong.

He said what they offered as news nowhere near reflected the true facts in the case. Randy said a reporter from CNN was sitting in his office — he won’t say what his name was, but he assured me it is a household name.

The correspondent told him: “Randy, you’ve got it good. You are a weekly newspaper. You have the luxury of getting the story right. We have to get it first.”

Sadly, the internet (and now social media) has turned the 24-hour news cycle into a 10-minute news cycle.

As a result, the race to get the story first has negated the need to get it correct. A senior editor and writing coach at the a major-market daily in Texas admitted to me that they are posting breaking news to their website written by rookie reporters – stories that have not been read by an editor beforehand.

“But the flip side,” he said, “is you can always correct the story in real time once it’s been posted online.”

This is where social media has taken journalism.

The news has become entertainment and the facts have suffered. I am amazed every time I hear someone complain about “fake news” — it exists because there is a market for it.

Social media has conditioned folks to require news immediately, but they then complain when it is not accurate.

It seems as if people don’t care to be informed. They want to be entertained. If folks really wanted to be informed, donations to public radio and daily newspaper subscriptions would both be increasing. Sadly, they are not — but I digress.

I had to make a judgment call concerning rushing a story to digital media once as the publisher of a county seat weekly in Northeast Texas.

Early one evening, in late summer, a boy was accidentally shot and killed near downtown. It was an accidental shooting where three high school boys were driving a local man’s truck, with permission. The man who owned the truck was well known and served on some local boards.

One of the boys discovered a pistol in the man’s console and started waving it around.

He fired it accidentally and killed his friend.

The young man who died was African-American. The two others were white. They were all three members of the high school football team who, according to all the polls, were destined for great success that upcoming fall.

The season was to open in two weeks and the dead boy was one of their stars.

Those are the facts of the case, but we didn’t know all of the facts when our editor called me that night. I did not live in the community, but he did and he was on the ground.

Out-of-town television trucks were arriving and gossip was swirling.

Our editor was out of breath on the phone. In about 30 seconds he explained a kid was dead and one of his teammates did it. The scene was roped off and the gun that killed him belonged to an upstanding citizen.

“I just wanted to let you know before I break it on the website,” he said. 

“Have you talked to the chief of police?” I asked. 

“No, he is busy right now with the investigation,” he said.

“Then how do you know what you just told me?”

“It’s just what folks are saying, you know? On the street.”

“So you have not verified any of what you just told me with credible sources?”

“No.” 

“Have you seen a dead body? Did you hear a gunshot? Have you seen the J.P. on the scene?”

“No.” 

“Then what are you going to post on the website?” 

“Everything I’ve heard.” 

“From whom?” 

“Around town.” 

“OK. Slow down,” I said. “What do we know? Really know? What do we know that we can verify with 100 percent accuracy?” 

“Well,” he said slowly, “we know the local police are investigating an incident in downtown. We know that traffic is being diverted around the area and emergency vehicles from multiple agencies have been dispatched to the incident to assist.”

“Then post that on Facebook and wait until we know more,” I said. 

“What? Just that?” he said. “There is more to it.”

“How do you know?” 

“I heard.”

“From whom?” 

“OK, I get your point. But there is a story here and it is in our town and the TV trucks are setting up and we need to beat them to the punch.”

“I know,” I responded. “It sounds like you do have a story there, and I am sure everything you’ve heard so far is close to accurate. If it is, we have a boy dead, right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“And we have a family in shambles, right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“And a community that is going to grieving for a long time, right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“And all we know is what you told me? What we have heard has not been verified?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Well,” I said, “after the TV trucks leave and the scene is cleaned up, we are still going to be here. The newspaper has been serving this town a whole lot longer than the out-of-state TV station. The TV station is not going to run this kid’s obituary. The TV station is not going to make its lead story next week the candlelight vigil in this kid’s memory. And the TV station is not going to brave the elements with the football team for the next 10 to 15 Friday nights as they dedicate game after game to this kid’s memory, are they?” 

“Well, no.” 

“Then do our community the service of telling them what we know and follow up later. We will tell the story, in its entirety, just not right now. Not this minute. Go on Facebook and tell them what we know and tell them we are not going to speculate further until we know more.” 

He accepted my advice and posted something like the following on Facebook:

“Local police are currently working an emergency situation in the downtown area. Little has been confirmed about the nature of the incident at this moment, but traffic is slow in the area. Out of respect to those involved, and their families, we will refrain from any speculative reports about the incident until we can verify the entirety of the story. Please see next week’s edition for more information.”

We gained much respect in the community for handling the post in that manner. The accolades were many and the criticism was almost non-existent.

The boy was still dead and the community took time to grieve. We were there the entire way.

We could have aired out what we thought we knew. But we couldn’t verify any of it. And as it turns out, we would have had to issue some painful corrections if we had.

The point is this: Media is people serving people by telling stories about people and being funded to so do by a whole other group of people. Media is a business, and business is relational. Relationships involve people and people are humans.

People are served best, and relationships are nurtured, when they are told the truth and not lied to — no matter whether the lie was intentional or not. Fake news produced due to ignorance is still fake news.

Ethicist Mark Putnam said: “In many cases ignorance can land you in just as much trouble as if you intentionally did something wrong. Sure, you can’t know everything, but the fact that you can know something puts the ball in your court.”

Knowing when to hold a story is just as great a skill as knowing how to effectively get the scoop. Becoming familiar with each is at the core of the responsibilities we bear to our communities.

Fannin is lone Texas county excepted from public notice requirement

Question: On 7-13-16 Austin Lewter published a blog about public notices and the definition of general circulation newspapers, and stated that there was an exception for one Texas county.  I am wondering if that county is Fannin and how that exception was granted.

Answer: Thanks for talking the time with my blog about Newspapers of General Circulation. It is a term we throw around quite a bit, but it is important to break it down to truly understand all the implications.

The short answer is, “yes,” Fannin County is exempt from certain parts of the state mandates for public notices. And, yes, it is the only county in the state with such exemptions. The key is they are only exempt from certain requirements. The reasons are quite interesting.

Fannin County serves as the gateway to the Northeast Texas Piney Woods. Its northernmost border is the Red River and, as such, Oklahoma. It is dissected by U.S. Highways 82 and 69 as well as State Highways 121, 78 and 56, all of which make their ways to Interstates well beyond the county line.

Fannin County shares boundaries with six other counties in all directions. The county population was 38,915 in 2010. Of that, 10,127 people reside in the county seat of Bonham. The county saw its peak population of 51,793 in 1900. In addition to Bonham, Fannin County includes eight other cites, four towns and nine incorporated communities.

Like any other bustling frontier county, Fannin has a storied history of newspapers. According to the Texas Historical Commission, numerous newspapers were started during the early years of the county. The Bonham Sentinel, the first to be published, began in July 1846. The Northern Standard was published in Bonham from a month later until April 1847. Other early papers included the Western Argus (1847), the Bonham Advertiser (1849), the Western Star (1853), the Bonham Independent (1858) and the Bonham Era (1859).

After the Civil War, new newspapers included the Bonham News (1866), Honey Grove Independent (1873), Dodd City Spectator (1886), Bonham Review (1884) and Honey Grove Simoon (1884). The Weekly Fannin Favorite was established in Bonham in 1887. It expanded frequency in 1892 and became the Bonham Daily Favorite. The Daily Favorite is no longer publishing. After more than a century, the Favorite shuttered its doors some time ago.

The closing left a decent-sized town (Bonham) without a Newspaper of General Circulation. There are two weekly paid newspapers left in Fannin County. The Leonard Graphic serves the small town of Leonard in far southern Fannin County with a paid circulation of 710 and the Trenton Tribune serves the even smaller town of Trenton with a paid circulation of 772. Trenton, likewise, is in the extreme southern part of the county and has some property across the line in Grayson County.

The absence of the Favorite led to opportunity for a TMC product already in existence in Bonham called the Fannin County Leader. It is a 32-page tabloid mailed with a circulation of 15,500. It offices in Bonham and has been established for more than 40 years. Unlike, other shoppers, it does contain some news and editorial copy; but (like all shoppers) it is mailed free to readers with a Third Class Mailing Permit. Therefore it has no paid circulation. But it is a 32 page product full of ads and some news that is, by all accounts, heavily read in Fannin County… especially without a paid circulation newspaper in the county seat.

You’ll remember, to be a Newspaper of General Circulation, a paper must:

  1. 1. devote not less than 25 percent of its total column lineage to general interest items;
  2. 2. publish once each week;
  3. 3. enter as second-class postal matter in the county where published; and
  4. 4. have been published regularly and continuously much longer than 12 months.

The 25 percent requirement for general interest items is the difference between a newspaper and not an ad circular. To receive a 2nd Class Postage Permit, you must have at least 25 percent news in your product. Otherwise, you file a 3rd Class Permit and are therefore, by most definitions, a shopper. Third class postage is direct mail sent for free to zoned zip codes as ordered by the publisher. As long as you are covering at least 75 percent of the addresses in a ZIP code, you are considered a “Total Market Coverage” (TMC) product. The Fannin County Leader is a free TMC product, not a paid newspaper. But TMC products are audited as well and one that honestly has a circulation of near 50 percent of the total population of the county is doing something right. On the flip side, though, free TMC products don’t have to play by the same rules as paid newspapers. They can print all ads and no news, if they wish. They are not required to print any news or general interest stories.

After the closing of the Favorite, it became evident that more people in Fannin County were reading the Leader than the Leonard Graphic or the Trenton Tribune. This seems evident, as well, based upon the latter two’s self-reported circulation numbers. In 2003, a young lawyer named Larry Phillips won a special election to represent Fannin County in the Legislature. His predecessor, Ron Clark, had been appointed to a federal judgeship by President George W. Bush.

I know Larry Phillips and once discussed the Fannin County matter with him on a sidewalk bench outside of my office in Whitesboro. He is my state representative as well. Phillips said a group of citizens came to him from Fannin County asking if there was any way they could publish their public notices in the Leader as opposed to either one of the weeklies. “To me, it made sense,” Phillips said. “More people read the Leader so the seemed to reason that public notices should be published there… but, I admit, I was a rookie representative and, beyond that [even though he is an attorney], I had no idea what the legal requirements of a Newspaper of General Circulation really were.”

He soon found out, though. After protests from the Texas Press Association and the two weekly newspapers in Fannin County, the Texas House passed Phillips’ bill reverting public notices in Fannin County back to the Fannin County Leader. To be specific though, the law does not mention any publication by name. It simply exempts Fannin County from the requirement to post notices in a publication with a Second Class Mailing Permit. In another words, Fannin County still must publish all of the same notices as everyone else in the state; the county is just allowed to publish those notices in a free publication as opposed to a paid newspaper. The exemption only applies to Fannin County. Right or wrong, the whole narrative has great implications for the public’s right to know and the government’s requirement to publish. What happens when a county seat does not have a newspaper? I hope it’s not a question other counties have to answer in the future.

What is a ‘newspaper of general circulation’?

Folks in the newspaper business, as well as the public sector, may often come across the term “Newspaper of General Circulation.” It sounds official enough, but what does it really mean?

By law, certain legal notices are required to be published in a “Newspaper of General Circulation.” These may include (but are certainly not limited to)  a probated will, a bad audit at the school district or a public tax sale.

By publishing these notices, the affected party has made an effort to inform the public as to the legal action taking place. Publishers charge for these postings. By charging to run them, they have to run. If they were not paid ads, posting them would be at the discretion of the editor.

And we all know how editors can be.

So, this takes us back to the term “Newspaper of General Circulation.” Though publishing styles and formats for these required ads are as varied as the office that require their postings, the one constant is they must be published in a “Newspaper of General Circulation.”

This became an issue in our office a few months back when a local school district posted some legals with us instead of the competitor down the road in which they had a history of running legal ads.

The posting had to do with some real estate and construction deals. Soon a petition was circulated to host a referendum on the actions the district had in the works.

A lawyer wrote a letter to the district, on behalf of the petitioners, demanding the district cease their already planned project.

There were three arguments upon which the litigator based his demands. The first two reasons were to argued by people not in my line of work, but the third directly affected our standing as a newspaper.

Their lawyer said we weren’t a “Newspaper of General Circulation” in the community.

Granted, the district had only, in the past two years, started sending us their legals instead of the competitor down the road. But that was not my concern. Their business was very appreciated, but even more so unsolicited.

All of this leads the original question: What is a “Newspaper of General Circulation?”

While Texas has no statute defining a “Newspaper of General Circulation,”many states do. As such, the consensus among other state statutes and virtually every state press association in America is that:

A “newspaper of general circulation” is a newspaper that is:

  • issued at least once a week (daily newspapers are included in this description);
  • intended for general distribution and circulation; and
  • sold at fixed prices per copy per week, per month or per year, to subscribers and readers without regard to business, trade, profession or class.
  • Basically, any daily or weekly newspaper that is sold to the public in general is a “newspaper of general circulation.”

A “Newspaper” is defined as:

  • a printed paper or publication;
  • bearing a title or name;
  • reporting local or general news;
  • printing editorial comment, announcements, miscellaneous reading matter, commercial advertising, classified advertising, legal advertising, and other notices;
  • must be at least four or more pages long per publication;
  • published continuously during a period of at least six (6) months, or as the successor of such a printed paper or publication issued during an immediate prior period of at least six (6) months;
  • is circulated and distributed from an established place of business to subscribers or readers;
  • is sold for a definite price;
  • either entered or entitled to be entered under the Postal Rules and Regulations as periodical matter (formerly second class mail); and
  • subscribed for by readers at a fixed price for each copy, or at a price fixed per year.

Free newspapers are not considered “newspapers of general circulation.” Legal advertising cannot be done in free newspapers even if they meet all of the above requirements. So, if a newspaper just shows up in your mailbox at no charge, it does not satisfy the legal requirements for public notices. (except in one very vague stipulation for one county in Texas, but that should be the subject for a separate blog).

Texas has gone as far as issuing an Attorney General’s opinion about Newspapers of General Circulation in 2005, issued by (now) Governor Greg Abbott. The case involved the Harrison County Commissioners Court when a second newspaper popped up in Marshall. The Commissioners wanted to have the discretion to determine in which newspaper to publish.

Attorney General Abbott, in the opinion, defined a newspaper in much simpler terms than those outlined above. The opinion states:

“Texas statutes do not define ‘newspaper of general circulation.’ In Attorney General Opinion JC-0223*, this office said that a ‘newspaper of general circulation’ is a newspaper as defined by section 2051.044, Government Code,  that has ‘more than a de minimis number of subscribers among a particular geographic region, [and] a diverse subscribership.’ Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. JC-0223 (2000) at 2, 10. In that opinion, this office recognized that the factors constituting a newspaper under the Government Code could be determined on an objective basis, see id. at 6, but that the ‘general circulation’ criteria involving subscribership were subjective and involved factual considerations to be resolved by the body that is to arrange for publication of the notice.”

The footnotes of the opinion further explain JC-0223 (noted by the asterisks above) by saying:

*”Attorney General Opinion JC-0223 also said that a newspaper of general circulation is one that publishes ‘some items of general interest to the community.’ Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. JC-0223 (2000) at 2. This criteria is duplicative of item (1) in the definition of ‘newspaper.’”

The summary states that the Harrison County Commissioners had the discretion to choose in which newspaper to publish as long as it met the requirements outlined above.

Based upon this, industry practice and common sense; it became apparent the Whitesboro News-Record is certainly a newspaper of general circulation in the community in question.

We have rack sales and subscribers there. We cover local news and general interest stories there. We:

  1. devote not less than 25 percent of its total column lineage to general interest items;
  2. publish once each week;
  3. enter as second-class postal matter in the county where published; and
  4. have been published regularly and continuously much longer than 12 months.

Out-of-town marketers not as effective as local newspapers

While we uphold a tradition of excellence in news coverage as Grayson County’s oldest newspaper, we are also vested in offering effective marketing and advertising expertise.

As the Internet and social media grow, a new advertising opportunity seems to pop up every day.

Small businesses, on limited budgets, can easily be overwhelmed with a rush of information and (in some cases) get taken by out-of-town companies who don’t have their best interest at heart.

Through it all, community newspapers remain the local marketing experts. We are here to help and are passionate about the services we provide.

One example of an out-of-town outfit over-promising and under-delivering is an outfit called Team Sportz Advertising that made calls on local businesses about this time last year.

They promised a full color Whitesboro Bearcat football schedule poster to be littered on walls all over town.

They convinced five local advertisers to subsidize their efforts at the tune of several hundred dollars per ad.

In return, each advertiser was delivered a crude wall hanger that included their five ads and the 2014 football schedule… no local pictures, nothing personalized about it.

Beyond that, the graphic design work could have been done by any fifth grader and the worst part was the advertisers didn’t get their shipment of posters until four weeks into the football season.

So, more than $1,000 left the community in exchange for 25 posters that no one ever saw because they were too ugly and out-of-date to hang in a store front.

Whitesboro athletic director and then-high school principal Rendell Cole both assured me the school was not contacted beforehand and did not have a hand in the process.

I have seen this before, and it is sad. There are countless companies who all operate on the same model. Some are better than others, but I have seen none as bad as the group mentioned above.

Posters are fun and different. I have done plenty of them in my career and would love to do some here.

In 2013, I entered into a partnership with the New Boston (Texas) Athletic Booster Club that yielded three different posters over the course of a school year and resulted in a $2,500 donation to the Booster Club.

We then implemented the same model at Atlanta, Queen City, Linden and Pittsburg (all Texas).

We were able to give local businesses an attractive new marketing option, keep the revenue local and offer the community a collectible piece of art they could be proud of.

I have made similar offers to each of our local booster clubs with limited interest that has yet to materialize.

The point is, once again, the local newspaper is able to be inventive when it comes to local marketing needs.

An even sadder story occurred this winter when a few downtown businesses were taken by a con artist supposedly selling ads on restaurant menus.

At least in the poster case the company delivered a product. The menu crook did not.

Local business owners said a salesman blew in from the metroplex selling ads for a menu at a local eatery.

He needed to be paid up front. A few folks bought it and never heard from him again.

The restaurant in question had never heard of him either.

Things like this are sad but are more common than you may think.

I am not saying all menu ads are scams. In fact, I will be around talking to some of you soon about a legitimate offer we are partnering with a local restaurant on.
All I am saying is, do your homework. If nothing else, pull out your phone and Google the salesman you are dealing with.

Even easier than that, call me. I don’t care if I’ve ever sold you an ad or ever will. Advice is free and I will give it honestly.

I will never tell you 100 percent of your advertising budget should go in my (or anyone else’s newspaper).

I believe in a balanced approach and will help anyone find that approach.
But the one thing I will not stand for is folks getting scammed; either by a poor product or no product at all.

We are your local marketing experts and we will be honest with you. We are here to serve you and, in turn, help you better serve the community we all call home.
It also seems every Chamber of Commerce has and ad to sell as well. Most of which bypass their local newspapers (which are usually their longest-standing members) and consult out-of-town firms. So once again, money leaves town –doesn’t that contradict the very mission of a Chamber of Commerce?

There are advertising opportunities everywhere and (nowadays) it seems everyone is a marketing expert.

We here at the News-Record really are. It is what we do and we want to help you. We can offer advice with print, radio, TV, mobile, online, whatever advertising you are interested in. Just because we don’t produce it, doesn’t mean we can’t help with your campaign.

The Whitesboro News-Record has been answering local marketing questions since 1877. It is what we do. We keep it local.