A Newspaper Industry Casualty You May Have Missed

Out in the desolate southwestern corner of New Mexico, a small newspaper in a small desert town died today.

Out in the desolate southwestern corner of New Mexico, along I-10 halfway between El Paso and Tucson, a small newspaper in a small desert town died today.

The Lordsburg Liberal, the oldest weekly in New Mexico and the third-oldest paper in the state, delivers one final issue to its readers this morning, then goes out of business.

In today’s dog-eat-dog newspaper world, the Liberal never stood a chance. It is not available online. It has a staff of three, and normally runs 12 to 16 pages. But it has been around for 120 years, and now there is inevitable sadness about its fate, announced last week.

“It’s pretty heart-wrenching right now,” says Lorenzo Alba, the Liberal’s editor since October 2002 and publisher since last March. “I think a lot of people are treating it as the loss of a family member, as the loss of a friend.”

Alba, 39, grew up on the north side of town and occasionally sold the paper door to door, and says even now hawkers produce some sales that way. He covered high school baseball for the Liberal before leaving Lordsburg after graduation at 17, then returned in September 2002 and “kind of walked into this job.” Now his paper produces “awesome” coverage of local sports, with most news stories focused on Lordsburg, the county seat, with some from around Hidalgo County.

But if the Liberal is a community mainstay, it also competes against the weekly Hidalgo County Herald in a two-newspaper town, pop. 2500, that parent company MediaNews Group has decided does not have room for both. (The Liberal claims a circulation of 1,850, the Herald 1,800.)

Given Lordsburg’s small nature, it “just doesn’t have enough resources to put out a newspaper with the quality we expect,” says David McClain, vice president of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership, which MediaNews took over in January 2006.

“The potential for growth is limited, so we decided to own both papers, or not own any papers in Lordsburg,” McClain explains. “We weren’t able to buy the other newspaper, so we chose to close Lordsburg and use our people, who are very talented, in our other areas of our company where they would get a return for their efforts.”

As a relative newcomer to Lordsburg, McClain says he cannot speak to the Liberal’s financial condition except to say “this year we are not losing money.” Alba, the editor, says he understands the paper “was about breaking even,” adding, “The last six months we were doing pretty well.”

Mayor Clark Smith says he always thought “that sooner or later one of the two wasn’t going to make it,” but he presumed it would be the newest paper (the 6-year-old Herald) that would close down, leaving him surprised “that such a large company would close down something that had been around for such a long time.”

And so the Herald, started by Brenda Greene in 2001, has won out, though she is not too pleased by the Liberal’s demise, either, saying that it eventually “will be good for my business, but it’s kinda sad to see it go.”

This quirky story would seem to end there, with Alba headed off to do major account sales and new product development at the Newspapers Partnership-operated Silver City Sun-News, were it not for the determination of another local newspaperman to keep the Liberal’s name alive.

Jason Watkins, 28, is the Liberal’s former publisher and a proud “fourth-generation resident of Lordsburg and Hidalgo County.” His grandmother’s birth announcement ran in the Liberal, as did his mother’s and his own. And, he says, “I have no intention of letting MediaNews Group just pick up and leave with the name.

“It’s not just a little community newspaper. I think it’s part of American history, and it has a tremendous heritage, and it’s worth saving,” Watkins says, noting that the paper preceded the state by a quarter-century, and that Lordsburg was once New Mexico’s second-largest city.

As a high school freshman, Watkins was hired by the paper’s longtime editor, Jack Walz, as a sports stringer. He quickly started doing more news stories, photography, and design, and by graduation he was assistant editor. Watkins went to the University of Arizona in Tucson as a journalism major. But after Walz died in 1998, he says, the Liberal “sort of went downhill.”

“So I set out to buy the Liberal and negotiated with the publisher of it, and she wouldn’t sell it to me,” Watkins says. Naturally, he then started his own newspaper, the Independent, at age 19 in 1999.

Jeanne La Marca, now the Liberal’s part-time staff writer and proofreader, says the Independent was soon doing so well that Watkins was on his way to putting the Liberal out of business. Within nine months of starting the Independent, Watkins says, he got a call from the Liberal’s publisher, who was ready to sell. His mom mortgaged her house to help him buy it, and from 2000 to 2002 the Liberal was his.

“It was my baby. I came back home and put my life and my college plans on hold so I could build this newspaper again,” Watkins says.

But when MediaNews approached him in 2002, their offer was too good to pass up. By selling the Liberal he could finish college and further his journalism career — and, Watkins says, “They assured me that they would keep it in print and honor the traditions of the Liberal.” (According to Watkins, MediaNews was in charge of the Newspapers Partnership then, before it turned those papers over to Gannett, and before Gannett turned them back to MediaNews a year ago.)

So Watkins is appealing to MediaNews to allow the surviving paper, the Herald, to carry on the Liberal’s name. Dean Singleton has not returned his phone calls or e-mails, Watkins says, though he has spoken with David McClain, who says this: “The Lordsburg Liberal is our name, and we’re giving Jason’s suggestion consideration.”

The Herald’s Greene says she hopes something can be worked out, and Mayor Smith, a history buff, says he supports Watkins’ efforts “100 percent.”

“I think it sets a bad precedent for a big media conglomerate to come into a town and run the paper into the ground and leave,” Watkins says. “I’m not going to give up the fight. I’m going to appeal to anyone who will listen to me and really try to save this paper again.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.