Thursday, March 17, 2022

Texas J-school chief: Journalists should consider buying rural weeklies; university programs can show you the ropes

In a still image from a documentary in production about her paper, editor/publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown shoots photos for The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas. Her award-winning paper is for sale.(Image courtesy of Heather Courtney)

Many journalists who consider striking out on their own think of a digital startup. But here's another idea: How about buying an rural weekly newspaper? More should consider it, and several university-based programs can teach you the ropes — possibly for free, Kathleen McElroy, professor and director of the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austinwrites for Poynter.

The benefits of owning an independent weekly are many, she writes: "Community engagement is a given," and the papers, some published for more than a century, come with high awareness in the community. And owners can make a good living. Jim Moser, president of Moser Community Media, estimates that a rural Texas weekly in a county of 15,000 can bring $450,000 a year in revenue, and "A publisher at a larger weekly can make $85,000 a year, plus bonuses," he told McElroy. "No one will get rich . . . but you can make a good living and be an important part of a community."

Plenty of papers are looking for new owners, too, such as The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle. Laurie Ezzell Brown's family has owned the paper since the 1940s, and she took over as editor/publisher in 1993. She wants to retire but her son doesn't want to follow in her footsteps, so she's looking for a buyer. The paper is in pretty good financial shape, and the new owner could look forward to other upsides. "Be your own boss, be a community leader," Brown told McElroy. "Own your own house and make a difference."

The Record's importance in the community spurred award-winning filmmaker Heather Courtney to make a documentary about the paper. Courtney grew up in a small town and was interested in the importance of rural papers even as many were shuttering. She approached Brown in 2017 about making the documentary. "After spending just a day at The Record, I knew I wanted to tell the story of Laurie’s tireless effort to keep the paper alive, and of a community that loves and depends on their paper even when they don’t always agree with its politics," Courtney told McElroy.

New rural-paper owners can get help, McElroy writes: "Two universities seek to identify and train the next generation of publishers. West Virginia’s NewStart initiative, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, launched in 2020. The University of Texas at Austin, where I teach, has just developed the Rural Journalism Pipeline Project, funded internally by the IC2 Institute." And she also mentions the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, as a resource.

If you're interested in buying The Record or another Texas paper, UT-Austin may fund your enrollment in NewStart. The program offers master's degrees and certificate programs, and will hold information sessions March 22, March 29 and April 5. To be considered, email the Rural Journalism Pipeline project at

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