When Laurie Ezzell Brown became editor of her local newspaper, the Canadian Record, 29 years ago, she had little experience.
Her dad, the editor, had been stubborn in keeping his responsibilities until his passing, and Brown had not been prepared for the abrupt transition. The day her dad died, Brown drove back from the hospital, sat at her dad’s desk, looked around, and started putting together a paper scheduled to go out in two days.
Now, nearing 70, Brown is ready for another transition of ownership and is determined to make a plan for succession. But she never expected it to be so difficult to find someone to take her place.
The Canadian Record has served the community of Canadian, Texas, for 132 years, 75 of which have been in Brown’s family. Her parents, Ben and Nancy Ezzell, became co-editors and publishers in 1948.
The paper currently has a staff of four with a circulation of around 1,700 and publishes weekly printed papers and digital E-editions.
Over the years, the Record has built its reputation and won numerous awards including several from the Texas Press Association, plus the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity, and integrity in community journalism from the University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
In 1961, Brown’s father, Ben, wrote a revealing exposition about the John Birch Society, a secret society with intentions to undermine the U.S. government. The piece gained national attention and Ezzell gained both supporters and boxes of hate mail. Ezzell’s work led him to his induction in the Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2009.
“My dad was unafraid of speaking his mind and writing his mind,” Brown said. “He wasn’t afraid of making people angry or confronting them with opinions that they didn’t necessarily want to hear. I’d like to say he was respected because of it, but I think it took a little time for him to be respected because of it.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, Brown has not shied away from writing about controversial topics and has used her platform to draw attention to the local impact of national issues.
One of Brown’s first resolutions after taking over the paper was to attend every public meeting in Canadian, Texas — every school board, water board, and hospital board meeting. And to this day, she has — writing detailed reports on the actions of public officials and acting as a witness on the public’s behalf.
Brown said she has visibly seen a difference in how officials act after recognizing they would be held accountable for their decisions. A big victory for Brown and the Record occurred when corporate hog farms were moving into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle and many public officials were giving tax incentives for the farms to locate in their counties. After hearing of this, Brown and others at the Record wrote extensively about the issues, which led to a signed resolution by the Hemphill County commissioners saying they would never give tax incentives to corporate hog farms.
While Brown loves her job, she also said the work is not easy and she is ready to retire. She currently takes on the responsibilities of writing news stories and editorials, covering board meetings, taking photos, as well as editing and publishing.
The added pressure of finding someone to take over has resulted in a measure of disappointment for Brown. She has tried training younger journalists, working with a publishing group, and seeking out qualified individuals, but so far, she does not have a viable option.
“It’s a very difficult time. I feel like I’m in limbo. And I couldn’t tell you how much longer I can do this,” Brown said.
As tired as she is, Brown remains determined to keep the doors open, because she knows the importance of the work she does and is afraid of the future of Canadian without a community newspaper.
“We’ve reinvested everything in the newspaper with the idea that it would just get better and better and we’ll be in great shape someday when someone else wanted to own it,” Brown said. “It never occurred to me that there would come a time when nobody wanted to own a community newspaper that was in great shape.”
“We’re approaching the cliff right now. I’ve got to make some decisions. I’m not sure what to do.”
Keeping Canadian’s Story Alive
Past the news stories and reports, Brown shares Canadian’s everyday triumphs and shortcomings through profiles and features and occasionally revives stories from the archives to keep the history of Canadian present.
Remelle Farrar, Canadian resident, and member of the Economic Development Council, pointed out these stories, saying she sees the Record as an important asset to the town’s self-image and heritage.
“Canadian’s image is based on the fact that we are different from other small towns in the Texas Panhandle,” Farrar said. “The Canadian Record makes it possible for us to tell that story and to easily pull examples of that.”
Farrar also stressed the importance of tourism and visitors for Canadian’s economy and said the newspaper helps promote the community. She works with a small boutique motel in town where there is a copy of the Record in every room.
“Our hotel/motel tax is a portion of how we support our chambers and museums and our music festival and our Fourth of July celebration,” Farrar said. “All the things are paid for by people who don’t live in Canadian. And without the Canadian Record, we lose that portal to people who don’t live in Canadian.”
Through the Economic Development Council, Farrar has helped Brown with outreach. The council has added the Record to their recruitment initiatives and they have worked together to call friends and relatives to spread the word.
Wendie Cook, the executive director of the Citadelle Art Museum in Canadian, also fears for the image of Canadian without the Record.
In Cook’s experience, the Record has helped shine a light on cultural activities and events at the museum, bringing in more business. And although bigger papers in Texas have mentioned stepping in to cover Canadian as well, she knows the coverage will not be the same.
“Hearing all about the things that are happening across the state are certainly important, but there’s something to be said for all of us losing the collective voice with the things that are happening on a daily basis within our community,” Cook said. “When you’re in a tiny community of 2,300 people, you don’t get much airtime in a media market that is 300,000.”
Not only will the stories within Canadian go untold, but Brown worries those that are deemed newsworthy to the wider public will be told incorrectly or fall into the rumor mill.
She recalled one recent case of a Canadian teen who had gone missing almost six years ago. The story was picked up by social media, spreading false information about the case that hurt the community. She wondered what would have happened if the Record had not been there to combat the misinformation.
“Even the smallest thing can metastasize on social media and it did. It became nationally followed by people and you would not have known the truth from looking at what was written on social media,” Brown said. “I look at that and I think what if we had not been here making sure that we found the truth? I saw what would happen and it was ugly, and it was hurtful and it destroyed a lot of people’s lives.”
Barrel racer Tamara Reinhardt has spent time thinking about what the consequences of losing the Record would look like for Canadian.
As an avid newspaper reader, Reinhardt picked up a copy of the Record the first time she visited Canadian, and she said the quality of writing earned her respect and appreciation.
Without the stories and a written record, Reinhardt said she doesn’t know how or if Canadian would be remembered in history.
“Not having a local newspaper for Canadian will erase Canadian,” Reinhardt said. “It will erase it.”
Coverage Across the Country
Brown’s story is one of the hundreds being told across the country.
According to a project run by Medill’s Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, an average of more than two newspapers are disappearing each week. More than 360 newspapers closed between the pre-pandemic months of 2019 and the end of May 2022. And currently, around 7% of the nation’s counties have no local newspaper.
NewStart, a local news ownership initiative created by the University of West Virginia Reed College of Media with the West Virginia Press Association, is also aiming to call attention to the importance of local news outlets. NewStart provides one-year fellowships to train professionals to be community news publication owners and publishers.
Jim Iovino, the program director of NewStart, has heard from folks across the country in the same situation as Brown. He said one of the biggest problems is that potential owners are not aware that certain local newspapers exist.
“If you don’t even know they exist, you can’t buy it,” Iovino said.
Despite the consistent closures of community newspapers, Iovino foresees a future that relies on the work of local news and rural community news organizations.
“Especially as people become more and more overwhelmed with information, they are looking for someone to put it all into context for them, and tell them why that matters, and why they should care about it, and why it matters for their community,” Iovino said. “And I think that’s really where local news comes into play across the country moving forward.”
Brown said part of helping strengthen local community newspapers is changing the narrative.
The decline of local newspapers and the journalism industry has been vocalized extensively through headlines and articles. However, Brown believes the importance and the rewarding nature of journalism has not been expressed enough.
Getting to know people’s stories and having the honor of telling them is what Brown loves most about her job.
“To some extent, we oversold the message that newspapers are dying and we didn’t sell the right message, which is newspapers are dying because there’s nobody interested in taking them over,” Brown said. “And maybe we need to do a better job of telling [the public] what a great profession this is and what a great difference you can make.”