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October 31, 2017

‘We’re too stubborn to quit’: How this New Mexican town sustains two local newspapers


This post originally appeared in Sara Catania’s JTrust newsletter and is republished with permission. The weekly newsletter collects work “around the theme of restoring trust in journalism,” and Catania hopes it “will inspire the conversation and collaboration that is imperative for the future health of journalism and our democracy.” Subscribe here.

Part 1: A visit to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico: a small town with two local newspapers


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A single town in “flyover country” that supports two local newspapers? In today’s hardscrabble media landscape, how is that even possible?

The short answer: Two deeply rooted local families. Both into their third generation of publishing. Each dead set on outlasting the other.

Last week I recounted my conversation with the Tooley family, owner-publishers of The Herald in the New Mexico outpost of Truth or Consequences, where they’ve committed themselves to this labor of love for nearly 70 years.

This week I caught up with the competition. Frances Luna is the publisher of The Sierra County Sentinel, launched by her grandparents a half-century ago. Both the Sentinel and the local KCHS radio station—which the family started up two years after founding the paper—were eventually taken over by Luna’s dad and then, a decade ago, by Luna and her husband Donnie. He’s a silent partner and “cowboy” who works as a ranch hand on a Ted Turner property outside of town, though, so Luna herself is the paper’s primary driving force.

The differences between the two papers are significant, and I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, the similarities. Both papers are now headed (or co-headed) by women, both of whom agree that their deep-seated rivalry dates back to those earliest days. Cindy Jo Tooley-Haro of The Herald describes it as a “Hatfields and McCoys type-thing.” Luna says:

“The dedication to our businesses and our families is the only reason we’re both still going. We’re too stubborn to quit.”

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All six of Luna’s staffers are full-time, and include two DJs, a reporter for the Sentinel, an intern, and an office administrator who answers two phone lines, one for the radio station and the other for the paper. Luna declined to provide an estimate of her annual budget, but like The Herald, she said the Sentinel’s margins are tight, and she does not cover health insurance for her employees.

Luna began working at the Sentinel as a 10th- grader at Hot Springs High School, when she opted to be home-schooled, spending the bulk of her time at the Sentinel offices. Once she had her high school degree, she went to work at the Sentinel full-time, and has been there ever since.

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The tone of the papers is markedly different. While The Herald prides itself on its watchdog approach, the Sentinel aims for an inspirational tone, publishing a prayer on the front page each week. “Times haven’t always been glorious and I am a very strong believer in the Lord,” Luna said. “He’s carried us through those times that haven’t been glorious. He’s good to us all the time.”

In addition, the radio station airs two hours of Christian music uninterrupted each weekday, plus religious-themed programming on Sunday mornings, which she said appeals to older residents who might have difficulty making it to services. “That’s who we are, that’s what the community wants,” she said.

 

Luna says that her staff represents the full spectrum of political ideology, and that the Sentinel aims to be a uniting force in the community. While New Mexico as a whole skews Democratic, Sierra County leans Republican—Hillary Clinton won the state, but Donald Trump won Sierra County, with 58.2 percent of the vote. The county’s electorate is highly engaged—its nearly 70 percent voter turnout ranked it fifth in the state and some 8 percentage points higher than the statewide total. “I try not to put the Democratic news and the Republican news on the same page every week,” she said. “I’m glad we provide a mix.”

Luna, who also serves as one of three members of the Sierra County Commission, the region’s governing body, said she sees no conflict between her roles as publisher and elected official. When she ran for office, she said she made a point of spending more of her campaign ad dollars at The Herald than at the Sentinel, to demonstrate her even-handedness. “The role of any newspaper in any community is to inform the public with no bias so they can make informed decisions for themselves,” Luna said. “That’s what we strive to do.”

Commission coverage is published in the Sentinel without her input, she said. “I don’t write the stories for those meetings,” she said. “I don’t even proofread them. I can’t imagine any of my employees would work for me if I went up to them and said, ‘Hey could you make this story this way?’ ”

The Sentinel supports a wide array of local events and services, including the junior livestock sale at the County Fair. “These are the future leaders of our community, our state and our country,” Luna said. “These kids learn at a very young age to budget, buy feed, and care for another living thing, and they come to the fair and hope like heck they make the sale so they can cover the cost.”

In recent years, Luna said, her own daughter, now almost 15, has participated in the sale, and every child who shows an animal at the fair receives a Sentinel-sponsored t-shirt.

This past year, Luna said, the Sentinel paid $1,100 for a “super-cute little rabbit” that won grand champion. But even as the bunny’s owner walked around the ring with his champion rabbit, he was crying, Luna said. “He thought someone would take it and kill it.” Instead, she said, “we gave it back to him to take it home and love it. For us it’s a warm and fuzzy thing with the community.”

For all of her commitment to the Sentinel, Luna is acutely aware of the challenges she faces in trying to run a profitable news operation.

“We are the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation,” she said. “But the community still supports two newspapers. I would be excited to partner any way I could. To continue to grow. Or put my competitor out of business.”

Luna has twice attempted to buy The Herald, in one instance using a third party to try to seal the deal. But once the Tooley family discovered she was behind the offer, she said, they emphatically rejected her bid. Now she’s open to partnering with other news outlets, she said, or even selling the Sentinel to an outside entity, if the price and the intentions were on the mark. “I’m not looking to sell tomorrow,” she said. “But I always say, anything’s for sale if the price is right.”

cataniaJTrust, a weekly update on efforts to restore trust in journalism is curated by Sara Catania. Catania is a longtime journalist whose experience spans newsrooms large and small, legacy and startup, print, broadcast and digital, for-profit and non-profit, and everything from hyper-local to international news. Subscribe to JTrust. Follow Catania on Twitter.