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Aledo publisher among community journalists to talk at UT-Austin

Symposium focuses on rural journalism


Randy Keck, publisher of The Community News, will be one of three morning panelists at a symposium held at the University of Texas in Austin entitled “Courage, Tenacity, Integrity, and Innovation in Rural Journalism,” on Feb. 29.

The meeting will feature two winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism: 2023 winner Craig Garnett of the Uvalde Leader-News, and Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, who won the award with other family members in 2007.

Keck will appear with Garnett and Brown on a panel that will be moderated by Benjy Hamm, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, which will present the Gish Award to Garnett at the conference luncheon.

A second panel in the afternoon will be moderated by Austin Lewter, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Tarleton State University. It will focus on successful innovation in rural journalism and will feature Tara Huff of the Eagle Press in Hutchinson county; John Starkey of newly nonprofit Rambler Texas Media, which includes the Ozona Stockman in Crockett County; and Daniel Walker, who bought the Vernon Daily Record, Burkburnett Informer Star and Clay County Leader in May 2022 after editing the Vernon paper for 11 years.

The conference will be hosted at the Texas Union, 2308 Whitis Ave., by The Center for Ethical Leadership in Media of the UT School of Journalism and Media, directed by Drs. Kathleen McElroy and Mary Bock.

“When Craig Garnett said he would like to receive the Gish Award in Texas, we realized that would be a wonderful opportunity to share the sort of work and dedication that is often needed to do good journalism in rural areas,” said Al Cross, director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism. “Kathleen McElroy was very gracious to help us do that, and we are very glad to work again with the Texas Center for Community Journalism to help rural journalists in Texas.”

“Community journalism is alive and well in Texas and we are thrilled to help celebrate that,” Lewter said. “This event is of national significance and we expect a wonderful conversation among our panelists.” 

For more information about the symposium, visit https://tccjtsu.com/community-journalists-will-talk-courage-tenacity-innovation-and-integrity-at-ut-austin-feb-29/.

Laurie Ezzell Brown

Laurie Ezzell Brown has been nationally recognized for maintaining a gutsy newspaper in Canadian, population 2,248. Brown’s views often run counter to most of the 3,271 residents of Hemphill County, they have seen in the Record’s broad and deep news coverage an unmistakable commitment to the community, and paid $2 a copy for it – until she stopped printing in March after her second attempt to sell the paper to a suitable buyer fell through,

Brown’s investigative reporting of Roberts County Attorney Rick Roach’s drug abuse and legal problems led to his narrow defeat when he ran for district attorney in 1996, and her investigation of large-scale hog farms led the Hemphill County commissioners to oppose tax incentives sought by the companies, which went elsewhere.

Craig Garnett

Garnett won the Gish Award for his coverage and commentary of the Uvalde school shooting and its aftermath, and for his longtime willingness to tell hard truths about things that matter in Uvalde County. He editorialized against the Iraq War, opposed a pipeline that would send to San Antonio water needed for local agriculture, and opposed the idea of a separate school police force, which botched the response to the shooting.

After the shooting, Garnett spent hours “sitting with families who lost children, siblings, friends; interviewing survivors, teachers and students, about their experience,” Managing Editor Meghann Garcia wrote, saying he made a “dogged pursuit to learn how so many things went wrong that day, how every single fail-safe failed.”

In an editorial a month after the shooting, Garnett named names and was blunt: “No mass school shooting in the United States has ended with such glaring failures in both the law enforcement response and school district security . . . clearly a rudderless ship cast into a hurricane.”

Tara Huff

Tara Huff has owned the Eagle Press in Fritch, pop. 2,100, since 2010. She started there in 1995, selling ads and writing occasional stories, and left but came back a few times. She was working there in 2010 when “The people who had purchased the paper let it go back,” she recalled. “The previous owner asked me if I wanted it. I was going to have to find another job or buy the newspaper.”

Since then, the Eagle Press has been largely a one-woman shop with Huff involved in every aspect of the operation, with the essential help of community contributors. Until recently, the Press was officed in her house and she covered mainly the eastern half of the county. But now it is the county’s newspaper of record, circulation has increased 25%, and Huff is projecting more growth in 2024.

“We are covering news different than anyone else in the county,” she says. “We are community centered, and we are present. I am involved. I make an effort to cover meetings and events personally. And we are fair in our reporting.”

Randy Keck

Randy Keck bought The Community News 28 years ago, when the Aledo Independent School District had one elementary school. Now it has six, with the seventh under sconstruction, and the paper has a stable print circulation and a growing online audience.

When the school district proposed a bond issue recently, it was opposed by a group that didn’t file its campaign-finance report on time, wouldn’t respond to inquiries from the paper and turned out to have the same address as a group running campaigns against the local state representative. Keck wrote news stories and columns about that, and the bond issue passed.

Earlier, in the 2022 primary, the group mounted radio and direct-mail attacks against Rep. Glenn Rogers, who won in a runoff with a recount. Keck published charts showing where Rogers and his main opponent got most of their money. They are running again in the March 5 primary, and Keck is planning fact-checks of campaign mailers. He said his approach to campaign coverage may have cost him a couple of advertisers, but says he’s “doing what has to be done.”

John Starkey

John Starkey publishes The Rambler in Irving as well as the Ozona Stockman, which he took into a non-profit structure on Jan. 1, 2023.

“There are simply more possible revenue streams available by going non-profit,” such as sponsorships, memberships, and events, he says. “For-profit papers can host events too, but the community seems more willing to get behind an event hosted by a non-profit. . . . The Rambler is now owned by the community. We exist to promote the good of the community.”

That means it can no longer endorse political candidates or take a side on political issues. 

“We don’t even accept political advertising,” Starkey said. “We can’t advocate for a candidate and the community has responded to this. They seem excited about us being required to be objective.” 

Starkey bought the Irving Rambler in 2003 after a 13-year stint at the Dallas Morning News.

The company expanded in June when the non-profit structure afforded Starkey the chance to save the 130-year-old Ozona Stockman. “We are learning about rural journalism,” he says, “and the community has been receptive.”

Daniel Walker

Daniel Walker is finding success in  his new role as an owner — so much so that a neighboring town is offering incentives for him to expand coverage.

Walker had been editor of the Vernon Daily Record since 2011. In May 2022, he bought it and the Burkburnett and Henrietta papers. “The community has responded,” he says. “They see that we are putting down roots and that we will be here for the long term.” 

His group has purchased a building in Henrietta, is investing in their Burkburnett property, and has added three full-time news positions and expanded its sales force. 

“More than anything, we are not afraid to experiment,” Walker says. “No idea is off the table. We don’t say ‘no’ and that is a value we instill in our staff.”

In late 2022, he got a call from the city manager of neighboring Iowa Park, where the only paper had closed in July 2022, asking “what it would take to get a newspaper back in his town.” The city is kicking in some economic-development money and a brand-new newspaper is set to launch in February. 

The Center for Ethical Leadership in Media

Founded in 2017 and now housed in the School of Journalism and Media and the Moody College of Communication at University of Texas at Austin, the Center equips today’s and tomorrow’s news leaders with the tools needed to respond to the rapid changes in the industry and to run newsrooms where all can succeed. The center is dedicated to fostering safe, fair and sustainable news media through its research, multi-disciplined curriculum and leadership training.

Directing the center are Drs. Kathleen McElroy and Mary Bock, each with extensive journalism experience, and Carolyn McGourty Supple, a co-founder and tech executive who is now senior advisor and board chair.

Institute for Rural Journalism

Part of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, the Institute has worked for 20 years to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through The Rural Blog and other efforts. It focuses on the sustainability of rural journalism and has sponsored the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America.

Benjy Hamm became director of the Institute in August, following founding director Al Cross, who remains a professor and director emeritus. Hamm was an editor for The Associated Press and The New York Times Co., editorial director of Landmark Community Newspapers and a journalism instructor at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.

Texas Center for Community Journalism 

Housed at Tarleton State University, the Texas Center for Community Journalism is committed to the providing world class training to mid-level professionals at community newsrooms across the state.

The Center was founded in 2007 at Texas Christian University by director emeritus Tommy Thomason. It moved to Tarleton in 2019. 

Austin Lewter was named director of the TCCJ in 2021. He is an instructor of journalism and broadcasting at Tarleton and faculty adviser for the student-led Texan News Service. Lewter and his wife Jennifer own and operate the Whitesboro News-Record, a 150-year-old weekly in Grayson County.


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