October 31, 2017
A visit to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico: a small town with 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.
The tiny town of Truth or Consequences in southwestern New Mexico is named after a TV game show, but when it comes to news, T or C doesn’t play games.
I’m in Truth or Consequences for a wedding, and, per my usual, my first stop was the market, in search of a local paper. These days, often as not that’s a fool’s errand. But near the Bullocks Shur-Sav checkout in this hamlet of 6,000, I found not one but two local papers, proudly displayed in all their tangible glory.
Baffled and amazed, and with bounty in hand, I headed directly to the offices of The Herald, where I met Cindy Jo Tooley-Haro, associate publisher, and her dad, Mike Tooley, the publisher. Cindy Jo’s grandfather, Paul O. Tooley, bought the then 20-year-old paper after moving from Texas to New Mexico in 1948, when Truth or Consequences was still called Hot Springs, and its broadsheet was The Hot Springs Herald. Two years later the town changed its name, as did the paper. But The Herald’s ownership remained the same, and it’s been a Tooley family business ever since.
The paper’s motto, which appears alongside the masthead, is
“There is NOTHING more powerful than the TRUTH.”
Tooley-Haro said she takes that mandate to heart—top stories in the most recent edition reported on the resignation of a county judge facing a fraud investigation and on the ongoing saga surrounding the hefty $2.7 million cost of renovating an old National Guard armory for city use, a cost getting a far greater degree of scrutiny because of Herald coverage, Tooley-Haro said. “We fill in the details that otherwise would be left out,” she said.
For the Tooleys, The Herald’s government reporting is essential, especially given that the publisher of the rival Sierra County Sentinel is also one of three elected county commissioners. A top story on the front page of the most recent edition of the Sentinel was a flattering piece on a vote by the commission. The bottom left corner of the front page featured a prayer.
The Herald is committed to on-the-ground reporting reinforced with documentation, Tooley-Haro said. The paper “will never print anything that’s not fully accounted for and verified,” she said. “We make sure we have the documents to back it up before we print it.”
If anything is amiss in The Herald’s coverage, Tooley-Haro is likely to hear about it. She coaches track at the high school, where she also fills in as a substitute teacher, and she’s been a firefighter with the Las Palmas fire department for 16 years. “You wear a lot of hats in this community,” she said.
The Herald’s circulation of 4,000 has held steady for years, in large part because of Truth or Consequences’ sizable retirement community, Mike Tooley said. That, along with the 150-mile distance to Albuquerque and the absence of a local television station, may at least partially explain how this tiny town supports two local papers.
There’s not much of a Herald to be found online–just a PDF of the front page of each section of the current edition. But its Facebook page boasts upwards of 6,500 followers. The Sentinel, which shares ownership and a Facebook page with a local radio station, has 4,500 circulation and 400+ “e subscribers,” according to the staff box in its printed paper. Its Facebook page has about 1,900 followers. In a county with a total population of 11,000, that’s impressive saturation.
Which paper locals prefer “depends on who you’re talking to,” Mike Tooley said. Fans of The Herald “will tell you the real story is in our paper and the glorified story is in their paper,” he said. But the size of the regional population relative to the size of each paper’s circulation suggests overlap—many residents, it seems, are willing to pony up for both. “We’re lucky that this is a community where people still want the paper in their hands,” Tooley-Haro said.
Alas, subscriptions are not The Herald’s primary source of income, and as with every other news outlet on the planet, ad revenues have dramatically declined and continue to drop. “It’s pretty tough,” Tooley-Haro said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to keep things going.” She’s not certain what will happen when her dad retires, and when, eventually, she’s ready to slow down herself. Both of her children are grown, and neither interested in inheriting the family business.
The paper gets by on an annual budget of about $200,000 by keeping the workweeks of The Herald’s two reporters and two office staffers below 30 hours, and by not providing health insurance, which Tooley-Haro said “would put us under” financially. “I really wish my grandfather would have been an oil man instead,” she joked. “I don’t know why he chose journalism.”
The Tooleys’ commitment to keeping costs down and the lights on extends to paper delivery. Every Wednesday, Mike Tooley, who is 77, rises at 1:30 a.m. to make the 150-mile round trip to Las Cruces to pick up the papers, transported from a Gannett printer in El Paso, Texas. By 3:30 a.m. he’s back at The Herald offices, located in a cavernous, freestanding building he and his brother built in the 1970s. Back then The Herald ran its own press on site, where it also printed seven other papers from neighboring towns. The presses are long gone, and the lone survivor among those papers is The Herald.
When Tooley arrives with the fresh batch of Heralds, his wife, who also serves as the paper’s proofreader, is waiting, along with his brother and Tooley-Haro. They assemble and divvy up the papers and head out before dawn to deliver them around town.
Despite the challenges, Tooley-Haro is proud of the paper she and her family and the small staff put out each week, and the role it plays in the community. “When our reporters leave us they often wind up in very good papers elsewhere because people know they’re getting quality work,” she said. Her latest hire, Samantha Gonzalez, is a recent high school grad with dreams of making it as a fiction writer. Tooley-Haro put her to work in the office and created Samantha Chronicles, a regular feature in The Herald showcasing Gonzalez’s short stories.
Talking with the Tooleys made it clear to me that The Herald is just the kind of local news outlet the larger media community sees as crucial to the future of all journalism. The kind of local outlet to be nourished and supported. The kind for which there is, at this moment, a generous flow of grant funding and other resources.
When I mentioned this to the Tooleys, both bristled. “We wouldn’t want to be beholden to anyone for anything that might affect the way we cover the community, or even give that appearance,” Tooley-Haro said. “We are independent and always have been.” Her dad concurred.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Tooleys aren’t worth persuading. New Mexico is routinely overlooked by the national press, and thus the Herald is not a part of the conversation about how to “fix” journalism. But all I had to do was walk in the door and there they were, ready and willing to talk about their passion for their work and the struggles they face. Local papers like the nearly 90-year-old, deep-digging, community-anchored Herald are very much a part of the solution.
JTrust, 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.