Editorial: Why community spirit is at the heart of small town newspapers
Despite the doom and gloom about the decline of the newspaper industry and the rumors of “fake news” permeating the internet, somehow small town newspapers are surviving.
What is it that keeps many small town newspapers going while their larger counterparts are shuttering doors?
Some say it’s the sense of community.
This past weekend, a thousand or more people descended upon Williams to share in the annual home town Christmas parade, which was just a small sample of what small towns can do when the community comes together.
Larger municipalities have all the amenities — the big box stores, the variety of grocers — but sometimes it takes a drive to the northern Arizona mountains to lay hold of the true holiday spirit of sharing and community.
Maybe those numerous visitors who set up their lawn chairs and blankets and lined Route 66 were imagining for a moment that they too knew who set the stamp on the sidewalk they were sitting on, or maybe they could believe it was their uncle who originally put the star up on the hill 80 years ago. Or they were comforted thinking maybe it was their grandparents who opened the Dairy Queen and their family who runs it today.
What can be found in Williams isn’t found anywhere else.
The history of the town — the heyday of ranching, the railroad and Route 66, the struggles of the Great Depression, droughts and the 1980s I-40 bypass — are all unique to Williams.
Families that live here today can trace their roots back generations. A recent walk through the cemetery reveals numerous meticulously maintained plots with headstones that have surnames still seen today in the community.
Start a conversation with pretty much any resident and you’ll find roots that go back generations — it’s rare to find someone who didn’t graduate from the local school.
The streets that we drive on, the sidewalks we walk on and the houses we live in have been built by hands that can be tied to the families who live here today.
Each saved photograph and oral history is precious to the rich tight-knit community, and many are preserved through the local historical society and the archives of the Williams News.
The Williams News has been writing down the story of Williams since 1889. It is one of the oldest newspapers in the state.
John F. Michael created the first newspaper in Williams and remained the editor and owner of the paper until 1892 when it was sold to George U. Young, the principal of the Williams Public Schools.
Young was quoted in a 1900 edition of the paper as saying, “Some fellow wanted us to buy the Williams News — it consisted of no written circulation, about $25 worth of old junk and a drunken editor, all huddled in a rat hole of a room…we borrowed $800 and bought it.”
The Williams News went through the hands of three more owners before the Wells family purchased the paper in 1913.
As a budding journalist, Frank Evarts Wells was hopeful about the opportunity to purchase the newspaper, so he and his wife Ruth left Lawrence, Kansas for Williams.
“Our chief assets were youth, ambition and hope,” he said in a letter. “We chose to match these with those of a pioneer town.”
Wells began publishing the paper at the Williams News office, which was then located in the Sultana Building, west of the theater.
Wells faced many challenges as the new owner, especially with the advent of World War I and the struggling economy.
The family eventually saved enough to purchase a small ranch near the current Williams Elementary-Middle School — it still stands today under the ownership of the First Baptist Church.
During the 1940s, Wells' daughter and son joined the newspaper business along with community members Gloria Negrette and Delia Hillard. In the 1950s, Wells' grandsons Ken, Brent, Dennis and Doug grew up amidst the world of weekly paper publishing.
Of the four, Doug was naturally drawn to the newspaper and gradually took over the publishing business after graduating from Northern Arizona University.
Doug assumed management of the paper after the death of his father, Evarts, in July 1978. Doug worked alongside his mother, Cecil, until her retirement in 1984.
In 1980, Wells expanded the Williams News by publishing the Grand Canyon News, the official paper of Grand Canyon Village and Tusayan.
In 1992, the Williams-Grand Canyon News was sold to Western Newspapers Inc. with Wells retained as the publisher.
“It made great economic sense to join a larger newspaper group,” Wells said at the time.
Wells retired in 2016, but said of his time at the newspaper, “I am very proud in what we have accomplished at the paper and the progress we see happening daily in the community of Williams.”
Although ownership of the newspaper has changed hands several times, the community and business support of the newspaper has been unwavering.
Much of what is found in the early newspapers cannot personally be verified anymore; the stories stand alone.
It doesn’t take long to see that what we often think is new today has already happened before in this town. Water woes? Every year since 1905. Crime? Since before the town’s incorporation. Tragedies and accolades are scattered throughout the paper. Prosperity and hardships are reported; births and deaths are recorded.
All it takes is a few minutes of going through the archives to realize that the newspaper is a reflection of the community.
In a time when the country has seen a number of major metropolitan newspaper organizations close their doors such as Arizona’s oldest newspaper, the Tucson Citizen in 2009, many small town newspapers are surviving.
The internet has delivered a huge blow to the newspaper industry with advertising revenue plunging along with it.
But small town newspapers have something some of their larger counterparts do not. The trust and loyalty of the community they serve.
The hopes of the journalists for any hometown newspaper is to be the gatekeeper of the local government and the bearer of good (and bad news) to the community.
As German philosopher Immanuel Kant so eloquently stated, “The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else always does.”