The Trapps know the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act and use it like a hammer. They school all of their reporters in the law, and won’t easily back down. Robert B. says that public officials in his county and state talk to each other, and once they know a reporter has backed down they’ll clamp down on public access.

In fact, the Trapps have gone to court in several cases to demonstrate resolve. The paper has successfully sued the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Los Alamos National Laboratories, and the City of Española (among others) in efforts to publish public records that custodians thought should be secret. Between the elder Trapp, who retired in 2001, and the younger Trapp, the pair have sued every public entity in Rio Arriba County at least once and some twice for access to information.

The film includes a moving tribute to the value of small-town newspapers and to the Sun’s style of journalism from the late Tony Hillerman, the journalist and mystery writer whose work focused on the Southwest. As Hillerman says in the film:

A community ought to have a guardian angel in a newspaper looking over it, tapping it on the shoulder when it’s screwing up, giving it some editorial advice now and then. At least letting the working-class people know what’s going on, if they’re getting screwed somehow or other, as most of them are usually, one way or another…. Have a newspaper that digs into things and tells them ‘that’s wrong,’ that lets them know.

Along with its investigative instinct, the Sun takes its role as the paper of record seriously. Its police blotter is one of its best-read features, and its crime reporting takes no hostages. Everyone, including the police officer who writes the police reports, gets their names in the paper.

The Sun is also popular for its obituaries. The younger Bob will run an obituary for free if the family lets him write it, telling something about the deceased’s life, and limiting the names listed to immediate family members. “I really like to the tell the person’s story for free, but not many have taken me up on it,” he says. Instead, it’s tradition in the area to run a long list of extended family members’ names in obituaries, but very little about the life of the deceased. He charges for those kinds of obits.

The Sun has an arts section, too, somewhat unusual for a weekly paper. It celebrates the performing and visual arts of a region close to the arts hub of Santa Fe.

Reporting in a small town is challenging at times, the Trapps say. During a Newseum question and answer session, Robert B. conceded that he doesn’t have many close friends in town.

Still, if the pond of family-owned community newspapers is ever to evaporate, Robert B. says he plans to be the last tadpole in it. He predicts at least another few good years in Rio Arriba County without strong digital distribution. Until then, newsies on the street, mail delivery, and a limited website suits him—and his growing readership—just fine. He believes big city journalism has something to learn from what he and his staff do in Rio Arriba County: Don’t stop doing journalism that matters.


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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell.